Late Autumn, Late Ozu

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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.)

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Family Affair: The End of Summer (1961)

Kohayagawa Family

“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.

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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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Setsuko Hara: Smiles and Subtleties

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Although Yasujirô Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn (1960) were based on different novels — by different authors, no less (Kazuo Hirotsu and Ton Satomi, respectively) — they tell strikingly similar stories. Each film revolves around a young woman living with a widowed parent; in the first, it’s a father, and in the second, a mother. Various acquaintances urge the girl to marry, even proffering potential husbands, but she turns them down because she’s happy as she is. However, when she comes to the conclusion that her parent intends to remarry, she feels betrayed, which may make the separation easier.

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