Starring Setsuko Hara, Yoko Tsukasa, Mariko Okada, Shin Saburi, Ryuji Kita, Nobuo Nakamura, and Mariko Okada
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Three traditional Japanese men try to marry off the modern daughter of their late colleague.
Late Autumn (1960), by the great director Yasujiro Ozu, represents the best of the Japanese cinema of domestic drama.
When most Americans think of Japanese films they think either of Akira Kurasawa’s Samurai period films or of crude monster films for the drive-in theater trade. The huge role of contemporary domestic dramas in the industry is virtually unknown, skewing American understanding of Japanese film. The great film critic, Roger Ebert, would opine now and then about how Japanese film acting was mannered and exaggerated. True enough, if all one saw was Toshirô Mifune in Samurai costume grunting and snorting out his lines. But in Japanese domestic dramas, which were the bulk of Ozu’s output, the acting is natural and conversational.
Ozu was a highly idiosyncratic master of precise film making, with a unique approach to how a film should look, a look he fully developed in the last decade of his life. (His life span was as precise as his films, dying exactly 60 years after the day of his birth (12 Dec 1903 to 12 Dec 1963).) For example, he did not believe in the use of a moving camera, so, on rare occasions when he actually filmed a scene with a moving camera, it can be unsettling. He invented the “tatami shot,” in which he would shoot from the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat, regularly even in scenes where no one is kneeling, such as a hallway. He did not separate scenes with dissolves or other standard Hollywood techniques, but with what have been called “pillow shots,” which two scenes are separated with a static shot of a building or a street scene. Like the French director, Eric Rohmer, who was afflicted with similar eccentricities, Ozu used non-diagetic music (music played over a scene, not coming from a source in the scene itself) sparingly, usually during his pillow shots. A particular Ozu eccentricity was his love of trains. If one watches a Japanese film and does not see a train, then it is not an Ozu film.
The theme of Late Autumn is one that Ozu revisited time and time again in his domestic dramas, the intergenerational conflict between the older, traditional Japanese and the modern youth influenced by Western styles and ideas. The men and the young people wear western dress, while the older women tend to wear kimonos.
The homes are still Japanese style where there is much sitting on tatamis. Japanese men still see themselves as the patriarchs of their households and would never imagine that their children would not obey their dictates. Hence, we have the main element of conflict in Late Autumn.
Late Autumn opens with a funeral of a friend of three older gentlemen, Soichi Mamiya (Shin Saburi), Shuzo Taguchi (Nabuo Nakamura), and Seiichiro Hirayama (Ryuji Kita). Ozu generally used the same actors in film after film like a repertoire company, so these faces will be seen over and over again in other Ozu films. Their colleague left a widow, Akiko Miwa (the famed actress Setsuko Hara), and a 24-year old daughter, Ayako Miwa (Yoko Tsukasa). In postwar Japanese society, a 24-year old unmarried woman is fast closing in on old maidenhood, and friends, neighbors, and relatives all feel it is their obligation to get the young lady married. While arranged marriages are no longer the norm, the adults work to arrange introductions, usually by passing along to the young lady a photo and resume of a young man they know about.
Late Autumn is a reimagination of the 1949 Ozu masterpiece Late Spring, in which the same actress who plays the mother here, Setsuko Hara, then played a daughter who feels an obligation to stay with her recently-widowed father while withstanding pressure to from friends and relatives to marry.
Throughout Late Autumn, Ozu introduces elements of generational differences, as when two kimono-dressed wives of two of the older gentlemen are given a bit of commentary. One of their western-dressed daughters tells them she is going out on a date to a baseball game with a young man they never met. One says, “We were better at that age. Girls’ opera was as crazy as we got. Now it is all rockabilly and Elvis Presley.”
The principal conflict begins when Ayako gets a resume of a marriage prospect from one of the three meddlesome friends of her father. One of them, Mamiya, meets with Ayako, who stuns him when she asserts she is not ready to get married and is not interested in the resume she received from him. She states that if she is interested in finding a mate she will do it on her own. She also says her marriage will leave her widowed mother alone, and she cannot do that. The three friends then decide that, to get Ayako married they need to get the mother married, which creates a whole mess of hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
Ayako’s modern friend from work, Yuriko Sasaki (played with zest by Mariko Okada, stealing every scene she’s in), a perky little firebrand who wears blue jeans and probably listens to Elvis, takes matters into her own hands to deal with the three meddlesome older gentlemen. Yuriko meets with Mamiya, Taguchi, and Hirayama. They sit down and ask her to sit down, but she remains standing over them and proceeds to dress down the men like schoolboys for the mess they created, all seen from a tatami angle.
In this film, the young women take control, despite the patriarchal gloss that pervades the film. The climatic meeting between Yuriko and the three older gentlemen may be seen as a metaphor for the transition of Japan into the modern world.
The film ends with a conclusion that leaves all parties satisfied, but the viewer has been shown a portrait of Japanese postwar society as it transitions from the traditional world of the parents and new modern world of the children, in a most entertaining fashion.