The Precepts of My Father: Equinox Flower (1958)

Near the end of Yasujirô Ozu’s 1958 film Equinox Flower, Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) attends a middle school reunion, where one of his former classmates, Mikami (Chishû Ryû), recites a poem — a long, long poem. I’m always tempted to fast forward through it, though I never do. It wasn’t until a recent viewing of the movie — probably my third — that I considered its relevance to the story.

The first thing that caught my attention was the way Mikami prefaces his performance. His friends ask him to recite something, but he’s a bit reluctant, and when he does agree, he adds that the poem “doesn’t quite fit this age.” He explains that it’s “based on a farewell poem by the patriot Masatsura Kusunoki,” a fourteenth-century samurai. This is how it begins:

The precepts of my father
Remain deep in memory
The edict of the emperor
I’ll follow faithfully
Ten years of patience
Now the great day is here
Strike a mighty blow
Fill the foe with fear
For the emperor’s cause
We fight once again
Vowing that we will battle
And die as men

On the surface, it’s an odd choice for this group of upper-middle-class businessmen, who spend their days in offices and whose battles are on the golf course. (Some of them look downright bored, although I may be projecting my own feelings there.) However, Kusunoki’s father, Masashige Kusunoki, was an iconic samurai who fought and died for his emperor, and members of their generation would have been well aware of him:

After the Meji Restoration, when a new government was searching for a way to reconcile Japan’s samurai past with her Imperial present, Kusunoki Masashige came to the fore. A samurai loyal to the emperor, even to his certain death, was a valuable symbol, and much exploited during the era of Japanese Imperialism. This ended up with ugly connotations, with young men hurling themselves futilely into American ships in World War II by aircraft or fast boat, inspired by the exploits of Masashige.

The war isn’t mentioned explicitly during the reunion, but the subject arises in an earlier scene of the movie, in which Hirayama joins his wife and two daughters for a family outing. Lamenting the fact that their older daughter will soon marry and leave them, his wife, Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka), expresses nostalgia for the period when the four of them would huddle together in bomb shelters. “Remember how we thought if we had died at least we’d be together?” she asks. “I didn’t like the war, but I reminisce about those times.” Her husband doesn’t share this sentiment: “I hated those times. We had nothing. There were a lot of stupid people strutting around.”

It’s not surprising that Hirayama doesn’t look back fondly on the days of Japanese imperialism. On the whole, he seems to be a man who accepts the present and rejects elements of the past that have become outmoded. This is established at the very beginning of the film, when he gives a speech at a friend’s daughter’s wedding. In contrast to the young couple’s affectionate relationship, he notes that his marriage “was a much more pragmatic and routine one. My wife would agree as well that our marriage was not one based on infatuation. We just followed the path that our parents arranged for us. In that respect, the newlyweds are truly fortunate to have this opportunity, and I can’t help but envy them.”

Later, he interacts with two other friends’ daughters and further displays his sympathy toward the younger generation. One is tired of her mother’s incessant matchmaking schemes — the mother even has herself admitted to a hospital in order to introduce the girl to a doctor — and she talks to Hirayama about the issue. He asks if she’s in love with anyone, and when she says no, he tells her not to rush into marriage, which isn’t as great as she might think. “Someone as beautiful as you shouldn’t go to some strange man. It’d be such a waste.”

The other girl has left home to live with her boyfriend, and at her father’s request, Hirayama goes to see her at the bar where she works. (Her father, incidentally, is the aforementioned Mikami.) Although she complains that her father doesn’t understand and thinks he’s always right, she assures Hirayama that she’s happy. It may not be the response he was looking for, but he accepts it, and he even offers her money to make things a little easier for her. (She refuses to take it.) As he tells his wife afterwards, “She seems to be doing fine. But it can be hard.”

When it comes to his own daughter, however, Hirayama’s attitude is radically different. Early on in the movie, he and Kiyoko are trying to arrange a marriage for their older girl, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), with a man whom none of them have ever met. Their younger daughter, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), advises them against it: “I wouldn’t want to have an arranged marriage with a stranger.” Hirayama tells her that “that’s too bad,” but he says it in a playful way, and he’s amused when she declares that she’s going to pick out her own husband. “Find a nice man for yourself, Hisako,” her mother says.

And then Setsuko does just that. One day, a young man from her company shows up at Hirayama’s office and asks for permission to marry her, much to her father’s surprise. If one of Hirayama’s friends were in this situation, he would probably offer sound advice in a cool, levelheaded manner; when it happens to him, he becomes as petulant as a child, stubbornly refusing to let Setsuko circumvent his authority. He goes so far as to insist that she stay home from work for several days until she’s changed her mind. “Can’t I find my own happiness?” she asks.

Mikami stops by Hirayama’s office the next day to ask him about visiting his daughter at the bar, and when Hirayama notes that they both have problems with their children, Mikami says, “Maybe we pampered them too much. How ironic.” Suddenly, Hirayama’s earlier remark about having nothing during the war is thrown into sharp relief. To make up for that period in their lives, he’s tried to give his children everything they could want or need, and judging by Mikami’s comment, he’s not the only member of his generation to do so. As a result, their children are less inclined to obey their elders and blindly follow tradition if it means sacrificing their happiness for no good reason. It’s exactly what Hirayama encourages in everyone but Setsuko.

The fact that Hirayama has worked hard to provide for his family has other repercussions. Kiyoko’s fond recollection of huddling together in bomb shelters is telling, and Hirayama senses what’s behind it.

Hirayama: Is it because I’ve been coming home late?
Kiyoko: It’s not that. But it’s rare now that we have dinner as a family.
Hirayama: That’s because I’ve gotten busy at work. But life has become easier, hasn’t it?
Kiyoko: But…
Hirayama: But what?
Kiyoko: No, it’s nothing.

Unlike Setsuko, Kiyoko appears to have difficulty standing up for what she wants throughout most of the movie. She denies what she’s obviously thinking, or she says things in an oblique fashion, like when she remarks that a friend should have gone home instead of going out after his daughter’s wedding. “His wife must have been lonely, all alone.” Fortunately for her, she does have her daughters to keep her company, and she seems to be much closer to them than Hirayama is, more in tune with their feelings. His work helps his family in many ways, but it also alienates him from them, however slightly. The fact that he insists on having his own way, even though there’s little logic behind it, may be a way of asserting his position in the household, or it may just show that he doesn’t spend enough time with Setsuko to understand her.

Setsuko is well aware of the importance her father places on material comforts, and she makes it clear that love is more important to her. While she admits that the man she’s chosen isn’t as wealthy or from as distinguished a family as her parents might have liked, she says that she doesn’t care. “We may not be able to enjoy the kind of life Father has in mind, but it doesn’t matter to us. That won’t make us unhappy.” These arguments have no effect on Hirayama and his stubborn opposition to the match, just as his arguments can’t dissuade her.

From the way he portrays Hirayama, poking fun at his hypocrisy (which proves to be his undoing), it’s evident that Ozu sides with Setsuko, yet he’s sympathetic to Hirayama as well. The man isn’t a villain or a buffoon; he’s just a complex and inconsistent human being who finds himself unable to practice what he preaches, mostly because of his personal blind spots. He lives in an age where the precepts of one’s father no longer hold sway as they once did, and for the most part, he doesn’t mind — unless he happens to be the father in question.

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