“The Kohayagawa family is complicated indeed,” remarks Yamaguchi (Kyû Sazanka), a longtime employee of the sake brewery run by the Kohayagawas, around whom Yasujirô Ozu’s 1961 film The End of Summer revolves. Facing falling profits and heavy competition from larger rivals, their small company seems destined for a merger if it wishes to stay in business at all, but Manbei (Ganjirô Nakamura), the family’s patriarch, is opposed to the idea. He wants the company to remain independent — and it’s clear that he desires similar freedom in his personal life. Of late, he’s been disappearing frequently with little or no explanation. Curiosity eventually gets the better of his employees, so one of them, Roku (Yû Fujiki), follows him and — despite Manbei’s best efforts to deter him — discovers his secret: He’s been visiting Tsune Sasaki (Chieko Naniwa), a woman who used to be his mistress.
Manbei and Tsune only reconnected recently, having run into each other by chance after nineteen years apart. Now that Manbei is a widower, and has been for some time, these visits might seem harmless in and of themselves, yet his secretiveness about them suggests that he knows his family would disapprove. While his younger daughter, Noriko (Yôko Tsukasa), may not be old enough to recall his past involvement with Tsune, the memories of those days remain painful for her sister, Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama). “I was still young back then,” Fumiko tells her husband, Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi), “but I remember her bringing Father home late at night and Mother crying because of it.” Besides seeing Manbei’s renewed relationship with Tsune as an insult to her late mother, she also regards it as an irksome sign of his immaturity. “I wish Father would act appropriately for his age,” she says.
Whatever Manbei might have felt for his wife, the affection between him and Tsune is palpable — either in spite of their long separation or because of it. Naturally enough, they find themselves waxing nostalgic about the old days: the trips they took, the cafe they frequented. Tsune notes how much the world has changed since then, to which Manbei replies, “It’s not much of a world anymore.” The implication, then, is that spending time with a love from his past allows Manbei — beyond the sheer pleasure he gets from her company — to revisit a happier era in his life, if not in the lives of his family members. (According to the gossipy Yamaguchi, “even his parents had to deal with that woman.”)
One might conclude that the aging man is attempting to recapture his lost youth. In Manbei’s particular case, however, that raises a question: Has he ever really grown up? Although Yamaguchi says that Manbei “used to be a carefree man,” as if that’s no longer true, his relatives talk about how he’s always been undependable, always acted selfishly and immaturely. “He did as he pleased his whole life, sold the family heirlooms, spent all of his money and angered me with his irresponsibility,” his sister (Haruko Sugimura) reflects, then concedes that his lifestyle also made him “quite happy. It’s a rarity these days.” He’s shown gambling (and losing) at a bicycle race and, more childishly still, he’s twice associated with hide and seek; the most obvious example occurs later on in the film, when he plays the game with his young grandson (Masahiko Shimazu) and seizes the opportunity to run off to Tsune’s house, but that scene echoes his earlier, comical attempt to evade Roku. Even if his renewed involvement with Tsune is a kind of regression for him, it’s hardly surprising. As Akiko (Setsuko Hara), his widowed daughter-in-law, says, “You can alter behavior, but you can’t alter character.”
Akiko presents an interesting contrast to Manbei: Even though she’s probably about forty, at least two decades younger than he is, she often refers to herself as “old” — so often, in fact, that Noriko playfully demands one hundred yen whenever she describes herself that way. Noriko, meanwhile, appears to be in her twenties. (Setsuko Hara and Yôko Tsukasa actually played mother and daughter in Ozu’s previous film, Late Autumn.) At one point, she and a number of co-workers have a farewell party for a colleague (Akira Takarada) who’s being transferred, and there’s a sense that these young people, enjoying themselves as befits their age, have practically their whole lives ahead of them — very different from Manbei’s situation.
Various family members are trying to arrange marriages for both the widowed Akiko and the single Noriko, and they’ve already picked out prospective husbands for them. If they were to marry these men, it would please their relatives and might ease the Kohayagawas’ financial troubles — but it wouldn’t please either of the women themselves. Akiko, who’s busy working at an art gallery and raising her son, prefers to stay as she is; Noriko, though she likes her suitor well enough, is in love with her recently transferred co-worker, a secret she’s concealed even from him. Here, again, is the conflict between pursuing personal happiness and taking the feelings and interests of other people into consideration. Manbei’s selfish, insensitive actions hurt his wife and children, certainly, but Akiko and Noriko’s examples suggest that some degree of self-interest is necessary in life. (Extending this theme, Akiko’s late husband was uninterested in the family business and became a professor instead; son-in-law Hisao, conversely, is deeply involved and appears more burdened by its problems than Manbei does.)
For some of Ozu’s films, the English titles — whether translated literally from the Japanese or not — seem vague, abstruse, even irrelevant; The End of Summer isn’t one of these. It takes place in a sweltering atmosphere, with the characters constantly fanning themselves and insects forever humming in the background. On one hand, summer is a casual time, a relaxed time, a time for pleasure, and Manbei embraces this spirit. (It’s also, as he explains to Tsune, the slowest period of the year for a sake brewery because the rice hasn’t been harvested yet, which gives him extra freedom.) On the other hand, the heat is oppressive — like the failing company’s monetary problems, like the unhealed emotional wounds of the past, like familial obligations.
In addition to all of the Kohayagawas’ aforementioned issues, there’s another wrinkle to this story: Tsune has a twenty-one-year-old daughter, Yukiko (Reiko Dan). Per Yamaguchi, Manbei is “the only one who believes she is his daughter,” though Tsune makes no attempt to correct his apparent misapprehension. Yukiko is slightly puzzled by her mother’s new visitor. “I was just thinking: When I was small, wasn’t it somebody else?” she asks Tsune. “I feel like I called him ‘Father’ as well.” Her mother replies with an evasive “Is that so? Perhaps.” When Yukiko presses her for an answer, Tsune says, “Why does it matter? It’s up to you.” Although the girl says, “You don’t know?” she’s not especially troubled by the question: “I mean, I guess I don’t mind either one. I was born and here I am. That’s all that matters.” To the frivolous Yukiko, Manbei is little more than the potential source of a coveted mink stole, father or not; to the family members who have known him and lived with him and put up with him for years, for better or for worse, things aren’t so simple.
“The summer refuses to end,” Manbei says during a conversation with Roku. For the record, the Japanese title, Kohayagawa-ke no aki, references autumn rather than summer, as if — like Manbei’s immaturity — the hot weather has persisted an unnaturally long time. But the end must come, for summer and for everything else in this world.
This post is part of the Summer Movie Blogathon, hosted by Blog of the Darned. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.