Late Autumn, Late Ozu

Photograph

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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Brief Encounters: The Masseurs and a Woman (1938)

carriage

A few minutes into Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1938 film The Masseurs and a Woman, the titular characters cross paths for the first time, in rather less than auspicious circumstances: while walking along a mountain road with fellow masseur Fuku (Shin’ichi Himori) — both of them blind, a tradition in Japan — a man named Toku (Shin Tokudaiji) stumbles on a rock and falls to the ground just as a horse-drawn carriage rounds the corner. Fortunately, he manages to get to his feet in time to move out of its way, and when he resumes his conversation with Fuku, he doesn’t even comment on his narrow escape. Something much more agreeable has captured his attention. “There was a nice woman aboard,” he says. “A lady from Tokyo. She had the scent of Tokyo.” Meanwhile, the driver of the carriage tells his passengers, including the woman in question (Mieko Takamine), about the two masseurs, whom he describes as “famous in these parts” due to their fondness for overtaking sighted people on the road during their annual visits: “Like swallows, they come north every spring, then return to the spas in the south every winter.”

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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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