Throughout Yasujirô Ozu’s body of work, familiarity and change are ever-present. On one hand, there’s a certain comfortable sameness about them, especially on a superficial level. An Ozu movie — save, perhaps, something from the earliest years of his career — always looks unmistakably like an Ozu movie, so consistent and distinctive is his style: the low camera placement, the static shots, the way the actors face the viewer directly as they speak. The sense of familiarity goes beyond the purely visual as well. Again and again, one finds repeated themes and situations, taking place in similar milieus, involving similar characters played by many of the same performers. Still, for all of this familiarity, the world in which these characters live is fundamentally unstable. Things change, inevitably, in ways both dramatic and mundane: people die, children grow up and leave their parents, workers are transferred to faraway cities, friends drift apart. It’s sad, but that’s just the way things are. (“Isn’t life disappointing?” as a young woman in 1953’s Tokyo Story famously puts it.)
Often, too, events in the world at large impact Ozu’s characters. While many of their experiences have universal relevance, they’re also tied closely to the tumultuous time and place in which these films were made and set — namely, Japan between 1927 and 1962. (His now-lost directorial debut, The Sword of Penitence, was his sole period piece.) Unemployment features in such early efforts as I Graduated, But… (1929) and Tokyo Chorus (1931); World War II casts a long shadow, most distinctly in Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) but also later on (the families in Tokyo Story and 1951’s Early Summer both lost sons to it, for example); and his final period depicts the country in a new era, accentuated by his move from black and white to color for his last six movies.
By the time Ozu made his first color film, 1958’s Equinox Flower, he was three decades into his career and well into middle age, having been born in 1903. Significantly, even as he took this technical step forward, he and regular co-writer Kôgo Noda seemed to turn increasingly to his earlier work for inspiration. Good Morning (1959), the second of the color films, bears a noteworthy resemblance to the 1932 silent I Was Born, But…, dealing as it does with two young brothers staging a kind of strike against the injustices and hypocrisies they perceive in the world around them; the next, Floating Weeds (also released in 1959) goes a step further by being a full-fledged remake of the 1934 silent A Story of Floating Weeds. Perhaps they were attracted to these old stories by nostalgia, or by a desire to reinvent them for the modern age, and not merely by adding color and sound. While Floating Weeds is largely faithful to its source, a character who attended agricultural college in the original now wants to study electronics; Good Morning revolves around television.
Whatever their reasons, Ozu and Noda reworked yet another film — one they had written together, and much more recently — for their 1960 collaboration Late Autumn: 1949’s Late Spring. In broad outline, the stories are the same. A young woman lives contentedly with her widowed parent. Although other people urge her to get married, she insists that she’s happy as she is, in part because she’s reluctant to leave her parent alone. When she comes to the mistaken impression that her parent intends to wed again, she’s initially hurt and upset but eventually comes to terms with the idea and agrees to get married herself. The parent ends the film sitting alone in the once-shared home after the wedding, clearly feeling sad and lonely without the daughter, despite having encouraged her to move on with her life.
Still, for all of Late Autumn‘s similarities to Late Spring, Ozu and Noda included enough variations and unique elements to set it apart from its predecessor — familiarity and change embodied in a film about familiarity and change. The most obvious difference is probably the fact that the parent is now a mother instead of a father; what’s more, this mother character, Akiko, is played by Setsuko Hara, who had played the daughter, Noriko, in Late Spring just eleven years earlier. Granted, Hara made six films with Ozu and was hardly a suprising choice, but her casting here does help to underline the passing of time, wholly fitting for this late period work. (Another interesting bit of casting along these lines is Mariko Okada as Yuriko, the daughter’s friend. Her father, Tokihiko Okada, had starred in a number of Ozu’s silents before his premature death in 1934, just after Mariko’s first birthday.) Noriko flies along on a bicycle and wears Western clothing; Akiko is rather demure and wears nothing but kimonos. She does, however, come across as more self-sufficient than the father in Late Spring, less reliant on her daughter. Whereas the stay-at-home Noriko acts as a sort of devoted housewife to her dependent yet perfectly capable father, both Akiko and her daughter, Ayako (Yôko Tsukasa), have outside jobs. They seem like equals, essentially, like friends.
No doubt the gender swap of the parent plays a major part in this particular alteration. When Ozu and Noda reworked the Late Spring template yet again (albeit more loosely) for 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon, the widowed parent became a father once more, and the daughter had to hold down an office job and do the housework for an unhelpful father and brother. Besides that, the male characters in Late Autumn are a rather silly bunch, on the whole. In Late Spring, an aunt is the person most intent on marrying off Noriko, even picking out a potential husband for her; in Late Autumn, that role falls to a trio of men, friends of Ayako’s deceased father, Miwa: Mamiya (Shin Saburi), Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura) and Hirayama (Ryûji Kita). A similar trio had appeared in Equinox Flower, played by the same actors, and would appear again in An Autumn Afternoon, with Ozu staple Chishû Ryû replacing Saburi. Middle-aged though they are, with families and responsible, respectable white-collar jobs, they sometimes resemble overgrown boys — fitting, as they’ve known one another since their school days. It’s not difficult to imagine them back then. One need only look to Ozu’s films of thirty years earlier such as Days of Youth (1929) and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932), with their college students and recent graduates. It’s as if the characters have grown up with the director — or grown older, at any rate.
For these men, finding a husband for Ayako becomes a competition, even a game, and it’s closely tied to their fondly remembered, oft-discussed youth. In fact, it’s not really about Ayako at all — it’s about her mother, whom Mamiya and Taguchi have pined after since their college days, before she married Miwa. “She’s grown even more attractive recently,” Mamiya says to the others. “You noticed too?” Taguchi replies. She’s an idealized, unattainable figure. Mamiya and Taguchi are both married, and although the latter tells his wife (Kuniko Miyake) that he would marry Akiko if he were a widower, one doesn’t get the sense that either he or Mamiya would ever act on his feelings as things currently stand. (“Our husbands are cads,” Mamiya’s wife, played by Sadako Sawamura, says with a smile.) The closest they can get to her is through the widowed Hirayama: when they learn that Ayako won’t wed because she doesn’t want to abandon her mother, Mamiya and Taguchi decide that they can solve the problem by having Hirayama marry Akiko. It’s almost as if they hope to live vicariously through him.
Enjoyable though this all may be to them — “We blundered our way to this day, but it was fun,” Mamiya says near the end of the film, as the three men celebrate after Ayako’s wedding — it’s much less so for Akiko and Ayako themselves, who get into a bitter fight over Akiko’s alleged engagement. (The meddling men do, at least, get dressed down by an outraged Yuriko.) Late Autumn tends to be lighter and more comedic than Late Spring, in spite of its elegiac title, but the pain inherent in the parent-child relationship is still very much at its heart. Notably, unlike his unseen counterpart in the 1949 film, Ayako’s eventual husband, Goto (Keiji Sada), has a significant amount of screen time. He and Ayako go on dates together, get to know each other, grow to love each other; she marries him because she wants to marry him, not because she feels obligated to marry anyone reasonably acceptable whom an acquaintance picks out for her (though he is Mamiya’s candidate, to be fair). Even so, there’s an overall ambivalence toward marriage, typical of Ozu’s films. “For me, love and marriage don’t necessarily go hand in hand,” Ayako tells Mamiya when she still feels unable to leave her mother, despite being interested in Goto. Yuriko, lamenting the fact that a newlywed friend has grown distant from her and Ayako, is more blunt: “Marriage is the worst.” Older characters with decades of matrimony behind them aren’t so enthusiastic about it either. “Marriage is really tedious when you think about it,” remarks Taguchi’s wife. “You can’t ask for too much. There’ll be no end to it,” he replies. (One wonders how he would feel now if he, rather than Miwa, had married Akiko all those years ago.)
The Taguchis’ daughter, Yoko (Yuriko Tashiro), married for love but frequently comes to stay with them after fighting with her husband, in part because they have to live with his mother. “Young people should have a place of their own,” Taguchi’s wife says. Children are burdens to their parents, parents are burdens to their children — and yet they love each other, which is why going their separate ways can be so very difficult, if necessary. “You know, it’s people who complicate life. Life itself is surprisingly simple,” Mamiya philosophizes after the wedding, rather detached from deep emotions tied up in this situation. An epigraph from the start of Ozu’s The Only Son (1936) seems even more apt: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Many things change, but some never do — especially in Ozu’s films.
On the day of their marriage, Ayako and Goto pose for a photo in their wedding finery, a moment preserved on film while time marches on. What adds particular poignancy to this scene is something that won’t be visible on the printed photograph: the friends and family members looking on, each one with his or her own thoughts and feelings. It adds a kind of context, extra layers of meaning, and in some oblique way it’s akin to watching these last Ozu movies. His films are all so interconnected that there’s always more to them than what’s actually onscreen, and the knowledge that he would die in 1963, on his sixtieth birthday, makes both the lighthearted comments on death and aging and the quietly tragic moments — like Akiko folding a kimono in her now-silent house — that much more profound. “School trips were such fun, but I always hated the very last night,” Ayako says to her mother during their final vacation together before her wedding. “It was a letdown knowing we’d come to the end. Did you ever feel that way?”
This post is part of The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon, hosted by Shadowplay.