A particular amount of money — twenty thousand yen, to be precise — shows up twice in Yasujirô Ozu’s 1962 film An Autumn Afternoon. In one instance, it’s a gift collected to help a struggling old man; in the other, it’s the price of a set of golf clubs coveted by a young man. Coincidence, or something more deliberate? The two episodes are connected only tenuously, through a third character — former student of the older man, father of the younger and benefactor to both. Taken together, however, these sums and the circumstances surrounding them encapsulate the issues, the uncertainties, the fears and the sorrows at the heart of Ozu’s swan song.
Reduced to a simple plot summary, An Autumn Afternoon is yet another take on that oft-revisited Ozu subject: the potential marriage of a daughter. The specifics this time around: Shuhei Hirayama (Chishû Ryû) is a fifty-something upper-middle-class widower with three adult children. Koichi (Keiji Sada), the eldest, lives in an apartment with his wife, Akiko (Mariko Okada), while daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) and younger son Kazuo (Shin’ichirô Mikami) continue to reside with their father. When one of Shuhei’s friends suggests that it’s time for the twenty-four-year-old Michiko to get married, even offering up a possible husband, both father and daughter reject the idea at first. “She’s not ready yet. She’s just a child, quite naive about such things,” Shuhei says, and Michiko herself insists that her father and younger brother would be helpless without her. Gradually, however, circumstances compel them to reconsider, though it will mean radically altering their way of life.
If this story sounds familiar, that may be because it’s essentially that of Ozu’s 1949 film Late Spring, albeit with a few differences even in this broad outline — the most obvious being the existence of the two sons. Still, the similarities run deep: Ryû, that fixture in the director’s work, plays the father in both films and delivers dialogue about the “uselessness” of having a daughter in order to hide his pain at losing her; a remarried widower is (at least somewhat) jokingly described as seeming “filthy” or “unclean”; the father considers setting his daughter up with an acquaintance whom she appears to like, only to discover that this man is already engaged; the daughter’s eventual husband is never shown; and the scene just before the (also unseen) wedding in the later film, with Michiko in her bridal costume, is nearly identical to its counterpart in the earlier one, right down to the staging.
Ozu and frequent co-writer Kôgo Noda had, in fact, already recycled Late Spring‘s plot for 1960’s Late Autumn, in which the widowed parent is a mother instead of a father, and the theme of daughters reaching marriageable age can be found throughout the director’s oeuvre, most prominently in Early Summer (1951) and Equinox Flower (1958). As if acknowledging the well-trodden nature of its subject matter, An Autumn Afternoon wastes no time in introducing it: Shuhei’s friend, Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), shows up at his office to talk about the husband he’s found for Michiko in the very first scene (right after Shuhei happens to discuss marriage with his secretary), some nine or ten minutes before Michiko herself actually appears on-screen. There’s something apt in this. Unlike Late Spring, where much of the focus is on the daughter, An Autumn Afternoon is primarily concerned with the father and his evolving attitude toward his friend’s proposition.
The main catalyst for his change of heart is a series of encounters with a teacher (Eijirô Tôno) from his middle school days, a man nicknamed “The Gourd” and still referred to as such by his former students, one of whom invites him to their class reunion after running into him (“a strange old man reading a discarded newspaper”) on a train. In the forty years since Shuhei last saw him, the Gourd seems to have come down in the world quite a bit, as the discarded newspaper suggests. No longer in education, he now runs a noodle shop, and a mediocre one at that. “Pops, cancel my order. The food here isn’t that good. Right?” a would-be customer (Daisuke Katô) says to him before leaving to go to a bar instead; the Gourd just chuckles and bows uncomfortably. In essence, he’s an older, even sadder version of the character played by Ryû in Ozu’s 1936 film The Only Son, a provincial schoolteacher who goes to Tokyo to continue his studies but ends up at an unsuccessful pork cutlet restaurant. “I never thought I’d have to do this in Tokyo. But things turn out the way they will,” he says. Ryû as Shuhei expresses similar surprise about the Gourd’s situation. “I never would’ve thought he lived in a place like that,” he reflects after he and Kawai take the drunken older man home on the night of the class reunion. Their friend Horie (Ryûji Kita) replies, “That’s fate for you.”
It’s this discovery that prompts the Gourd’s former students to put together a financial gift for him, each man contributing the same amount. “At two thousand yen per head, that’ll make twenty thousand,” says Kawai. Although the Gourd politely turns down the money when Shuhei offers it to him, Shuhei manages to leave it behind in the noodle shop, and the Gourd thanks the men individually after finding it there. “I don’t deserve such generosity,” he says.
Poverty isn’t the Gourd’s sole problem, however, and an awareness — albeit a limited one — of his other circumstances may also be behind his former students’ attempt to try to make his life a little easier. The ex-teacher from The Only Son at least has a wife and young children to keep him company (though, to be sure, that means he has to provide for them); the long-widowed Gourd, on the other hand, lives with his middle-aged, unmarried daughter (Haruko Sugimura), and their coexistence in the noodle shop is not particularly pleasant for either of them. Shuhei and Kawai meet the daughter, Tamako, upon dropping off her highly intoxicated father after the reunion. Naturally, she’s less than thrilled, and although she maintains a civil if slightly tense demeanor while the two visitors are present, she breaks down in tears once she’s left alone with the Gourd — tears that suggest a sort of existential despair rather than mere frustration with the situation at hand.
Kawai subsequently proves himself oblivious to her pain and misery, commenting to Shuhei, “His daughter’s kind of strange. She’s so cold and unfriendly. No wonder he’s lonely.” The Gourd is more aware of how things really stand, as he admits during another bout of heavy drinking. Describing himself as “lonely and sad,” he ruefully explains, “I made a big mistake. My selfishness ruined her life … I mean my daughter. My daughter. I kept her by my side. She had her chances to marry, but I was a widower. That was my mistake. I let the opportunities slip by.” His words resonate with Shuhei, who previously brushed off Kawai’s warnings that he might end up like the Gourd if he keeps turning down opportunities for Michiko to wed. With his comfortable white collar job, he doesn’t appear to be in much danger of finding himself in similar financial straits, but he may well end up with the same regrets.
To some degree, Michiko’s life is already starting to resemble Tamako’s. In addition to working in an office all day and taking care of the housework (the family’s maid left recently, and Shuhei and Kazuo are no help), she has to look after her father when he stumbles in drunk, as he seems to do on an almost nightly basis. “You stink of booze again,” she tells him, practically her first line of dialogue. Maybe that’s part of the reason why this household isn’t quite as happy and harmonious as the father-daughter household in Late Spring, or maybe it’s down to differences of personality. Michiko and Shuhei clearly love each other, but she’s not as cheerful and accommodating as Setuko Hara’s Noriko in the earlier film. When she suggests that she, her father and her brother should all get up early to clean, the men reject the idea because Kazuo has the day off and Shuhei isn’t going to work until noon. “Then you two can clean up after I leave,” she replies, annoyed. Even Noriko might be less cheery if she had to put up with a lazy younger brother and an alcoholic father.
Intoxication is not uncommon in Ozu’s films — Ryû’s character in Tokyo Story (1953), for example, shows up drunk at the home of his daughter, who happen to be played by Haruko Sugimura — and the director himself was, by all accounts, fond of the bottle, but in An Autumn Afternoon the drinking is constant. Except at the end, when Shuhei uses alcohol to cope with his sense of loss after Michiko’s wedding, most of his drinking takes place in a social context — often with Kawai and Horie, sometimes with various other people; even so, the fact that he imbibes to excess on a regular basis is troubling.
Significantly, many of Shuhei’s drinking outings are tied to his past, which keeps impinging on his present throughout the film. There are the class reunion and his other encounters with the Gourd, of course, as well as his frequent meetings with Kawai and Horie, whom he’s known since his school days. Despite being well into middle age, they’re not so very far removed from the college students and recent graduates of Ozu’s early works (some of whom were played by Ryû), still joking around and playing pranks — even if their pranks now occasionally revolve around death. Shuhei gets the chance to recall a different period of his life when he runs into Sakamoto, a man who served on the destroyer that Shuhei captained during World War II. (He’s also the would-be customer who disparages the Gourd’s food.) Moreover, not only does the bar they visit together play “Gunkan mâchi,” or the “Warship March,” but the madam (Kyôko Kishida) reminds Shuhei of his deceased wife — though when he brings his son Koichi there later on, the young man disagrees. “She looks like Mom? I don’t think so,” he says. “Not if you look closely, but there’s a resemblance,” his father insists. Koichi remains unconvinced.
Perhaps this is an indication that, vivid though the past may be to Shuhei, he actually lives in a new and altered world. Kazuo, the baby of the family, doesn’t even remember his mother, at least not with any clarity; the rousing, patriotic “Warship March” has become a joke to the patrons of the bar. (Two men imitate a news report while the song plays: “At 05:30 hours, Imperial Navy units engaged the enemy…” “And lost!”) Japan’s defeat in World War II has brought about major social changes, especially for the younger generation, as Sakamoto asserts: “Because we lost, our kids dance around and shake their rumps to American records. But if we had won, the blue-eyed ones would have chignon hairdos and chew gum while plunking tunes on the shamisen.”
Koichi and wife Akiko may be a bit too old to shake their rumps to American records, but American-style consumerism plays a major role in their lives. After borrowing fifty thousand yen from his father so that they can buy a refrigerator (although a neighbor advises them against acting hastily, because “new models come out all the time”), Koichi admits that he asked for more than the appliance really costs. He wants to spend the extra money on golf clubs — a plan that sparks a domestic battle, not unlike the war between the television-hungry boys and their parents in Ozu’s Good Morning (1959). “You’re always buying things. I want to buy things too, but I control myself,” Akiko says, and points out the impracticality of this purchase in particular: “Where do you get off, playing golf on your salary? The rare days you come home early, you’re exhausted. You go straight to bed. So why buy golf clubs? Give it up!” Eventually, a suitably materialistic solution is found: Akiko hands over the money, but she gets to buy an expensive leather handbag for herself. (In a scene near the end of the film, Koichi tells his father that the couple can’t afford to have a baby at this point; whether their spending habits are at all to blame isn’t clear.) They can, at least, pay for the clubs in installments — two thousand yen a month for ten months, or twenty thousand yen total.
To be fair, this consumerism isn’t exclusive to the younger generation; for instance, when Shuhei visits Kawai, golf clubs, a handbag and a television can all be seen in his house. Everything shiny, everything new, everything modern — manifest in both these smaller personal possessions and the commercial buildings topped with rotating signs or colorful flashing lights. The film (which is a rather colorful affair itself, even forgoing Ozu’s usual burlap opening credits background in favor of multihued plantlike designs) begins with shots of the smokestacks outside Shuhei’s office window, constructed from gleaming metal and painted with red and white stripes. In spite of their up-to-date appearance, they just might evoke a memorable image repeated numerous times at the end of Ozu’s previous film, 1961’s The End of Summer: a brick crematorium chimney. The advent of the new can mean the death of the old, literally or figuratively, and that’s the dilemma facing Shuhei.
Those two twenty-thousand-yen sums, then, could represent the two paths open before him: the past and the future. If he clings to the familiar and compels Michiko to stay with him, the two of them could end up like the Gourd and Tamako, living together yet lonely, discontented and full of regrets, a pitiable pair. (Fittingly, the Gourd and Tamako’s neighborhood is dingy and run-down.) On the other hand, if he urges her to move on with her life and leave him behind, he’ll also be lonely. For him, it’s a no-win situation.
There’s a certain admirable pragmatism, acceptance — resignation, even — to Shuhei throughout the film. In talking to Sakamoto, he acknowledges the fact that the country’s defeat in World War II made life difficult for him until his friends found him his current job, but he’s wise enough to add, “I think it’s good we lost.” He turns down the idea of Koichi and Akiko moving in with him after Michiko’s wedding, declaring that “young couples should have their own lives,” and he laughs off the suggestion that he should find a much younger second wife for himself, as Horie has done. Most obviously, there’s his realization that he should let Michiko go if she wishes to do so; unlike Ryû’s character in Late Spring (who allows his daughter to think that he’s about to bring home a new bride, upsetting their happy household), he accomplishes this without resorting to trickery. “Look, I’m not insisting on this other man,” he says of Kawai’s candidate after they discover that Miura (Teruo Yoshida), the man Michiko seems interested in, is engaged. “If you don’t like him, you can say so. But at least meet him once, okay?”
Does she like him? She marries him, but that’s the only thing the audience knows for sure. Her private tears after learning about Miura’s betrothal add a note of bitterness and disappointment absent from Late Spring, in which Noriko is highly amused by the suggestion that she might marry an already-engaged male friend. Shuhei, too, for all of his noble unselfishness, can’t ward off painful feelings — hence his drinking binge on the day of the wedding, excessive even by his standards. (When the madam at the bar asks if he’s come from a funeral, he replies, “Something like that.”) In truth, things aren’t really as dire as they seem to him then: he has his friends, Akiko promises to stop by now and then (and takes Michiko’s place on the night of the wedding by greeting Shuhei at the door and asking if he’s been drinking), and he’ll continue to reside with Kazuo, who even offers to make breakfast the next morning. Still, his life will never be the same. In the midst of singing the “Warship March” to himself, he remarks on his solitude, echoing an earlier (and also drunken) statement by the Gourd: “In the end we spend our lives alone. All alone.”
An Autumn Afternoon was released in November of 1962. Just over a year later, on December 12, 1963 — his sixtieth birthday — Ozu died of cancer, making this his final directorial effort. In his penultimate film, The End of Summer, yet another Ryû character waxes philosophical about death while gazing at the aforementioned crematorium chimney: “No matter how many die, new lives will be born to take their place.” Perhaps, perhaps — but can anyone replace Yasujirô Ozu?
Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton, 1988.
Richie, Donald. Ozu. University of California, 1974.