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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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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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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Hidden Depths: Haruko Sugimura

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Haruko Sugimura (Source)

If a viewer watches enough of Yasujirô Ozu’s work, many of the actors become as familiar as old friends. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of his films, in their largely low-key, down-to-earth, everyday quality, or perhaps it’s because the actors who appear in multiple Ozu movies often play similar characters. At any rate, there’s a definite pleasure in seeing certain faces pop up again and again. Along with the iconic Setsuko Hara and the ubiquitous Chishû Ryû, one of the most memorable of these performers is Haruko Sugimura — even if her characters aren’t always particularly pleasant people.

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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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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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Five Classic Movies for a Desert Island

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To any film lover, the thought of being limited to a mere five movies for an indefinite period is nightmarish. Even when given a choice of titles, countless favorites have to be left out, not to mention the seemingly infinite number of films that remain unseen. After much debate, here are the five classic movies (i.e., from the 1970s or earlier) that I would want to compose my desert island library.

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Director Series: Yasujirô Ozu’s I Graduated, But… (1929)

Nomoto

I Graduated, But… was the fourth of six Yasujirô Ozu-directed films released in 1929, and like two others — namely Fighting Friends — Japanese Style and A Straightforward Boy — it only exists in abridged form. Even with an explanatory note at the beginning, it clocks in at under twelve minutes, about a single reel’s worth of film; according to David Bordwell in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, it originally ran seven. It’s not much of a movie as it stands, but it still has several points of interest.

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