Twenty Thousand Yen: An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Money

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.

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For Love or Money: Spring Dreams (1960)

Foyer

When ragged, elderly sweet potato peddler Shinichirô Atsumi (Chishû Ryû) gets the opportunity to enter the Okudaira family’s lavish mansion, he can’t hide his awe. “It’s like a western castle in a movie,” he says. It’s an apt remark, considering how Keisuke Kinoshita’s offbeat 1960 film Spring Dreams evokes such American comedies as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Merrily We Live (1938) in its focus on a household full of wealthy eccentrics and their dealings with an ostensibly impoverished outsider. Although Spring Dreams has a decidedly strange atmosphere all its own — most apparent, perhaps, in its harpsichord score and its oddly colored lighting scheme — it shares major themes with those American predecessors: class, love and, above all, money.

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Life’s Tragedy: The Only Son (1936)

Otsune Ryosuke

The opening credits of Yasujirô Ozu’s 1936 film The Only Son end with a line that seems to promise high melodrama: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Although the story that follows has its melodramatic moments, Ozu — in this, his first movie with sound (save for the previous year’s documentary short Kagamijishi) — seems equally interested in more mundane, universal sorrows.

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The Quintessential Ozu: Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring Noh Play

“I always tell people that I don’t make anything besides tofu, and that is because I am strictly a tofu-dealer,” Yasujirô Ozu said of his work while promoting An Autumn Afternoon, the 1962 film that would turn out to be his swan song. (He died of cancer the following year, on his sixtieth birthday.) By that point, he had been directing for thirty-five years. Although his resume includes college comedies, crime dramas, a period piece (his now-lost debut, Sword of Penitence) and a documentary short on a kabuki dancer, the bulk of his impressive output — fifty-four films in total, despite the fact that his career was interrupted in the late 1930s and again in the early to mid-1940s when he was called up for military service — deals with family relationships in contemporary Japan. Tokyo Story, released in 1953, is probably the best-known example, a tale about an elderly couple traveling to the titular city to visit their children and grandchildren. However, the most representative entry in Ozu’s filmography — his tofu in its purest form, as it were — may be 1949’s Late Spring.

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Between Parent and Child: Tokyo Twilight (1957)

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Single parents are as typical of Yasujirô Ozu’s oeuvre as static camerawork, young women being urged to marry and the ubiquitous presence of Chishû Ryû — often playing a single father himself. By and large, these are widows and widowers, as seen in such films as The Only Son (1936), There Was a Father (1942), Late Spring (1949), Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), among others. Less common is a parent raising a child or children alone while the absent parent lives on elsewhere. It happens in A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and its remake, Floating Weeds (1959), and also in The End of Summer (1961); in all of those cases, the mother is the responsible one and the father is her former lover rather than her former husband. Rarer still — unique, even, for Ozu — is the situation found in his 1957 film Tokyo Twilight.

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Marriage Ozu Style: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

Mokichi Taeko

Jane Austen once described her writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Although she was overly hard on herself (not, one suspects, without irony), it’s true that she rarely strayed far from certain themes and a certain milieu. The same might be said of Yasujirô Ozu’s films. There’s more diversity and experimentation in his silent work — the college comedies, several crime dramas and even a period piece, his now-lost directorial debut The Sword of Penitence — but the vast majority of his sound films revolve around middle-class families and their domestic concerns. Starting with 1949’s Late Spring, one particular issue becomes a sort of idée fixe: marrying off single daughters. (Shades of Mrs. Bennet, or any number of characters in Austen’s oeuvre.) Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) all concern the events leading up to young women’s weddings, but once the weddings have taken place, inevitably off-camera, the remaining minutes of the films are spent observing their parents. The brides’ futures are left to the imagination of the viewer.

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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.

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