In the end, we spend our lives alone, all alone.
Wind the clock, it's about to stop!
I had a hard time picking just one favorite quote from An Autumn Afternoon, so there are my three finalists for the honor. They each make fitting benedictions for this final cinematic farewell to and from one of the greatest of all directors, Yasujiro Ozu. Though he certainly didn't intend for it to be his last film, fate worked things out that way. Based on its content, and those crows on the gravestones in the closing shot, The End of Summer, which immediately preceded An Autumn Afternoon, would have been an even more astonishing coda. The fact that this was his final project has probably enhanced the aura of this film beyond what it might otherwise have acquired on its own merits, had Ozu lived to direct Radishes and Carrots, the project he was planning when he died in 1963, as mentioned in the booklet accompany Criterion's DVD edition of this film.
Though most of Ozu's later films were given English titles having to do with various seasons of the year, his own intentions pointed toward something more gastronomic than calendrical as indicated by the contemplated title of An Autumn Afternoon's follow-up. The Japanese title of this film translates as "The Taste of Mackerel," and in France, it was released as "The Taste of Sake" (an even more fitting title would "The Taste of Beer and Whiskey" going by the copious flow of alcohol consumed more or less from beginning to end.) Now mackerel isn't a fish eaten very often by people living in the West, so I have no qualms with the decision to leave that species out of the conversation, especially since it's never mentioned in the film. "Sea eel" is though, but Ozu could never be so on the nose as to name his film after one mild gag involving a doddering old man spelling out the characters with his chopsticks in mid-air. Still, there's nothing particularly autumnal about the film, unless we think of its story in terms of "the autumn of our years," like in that old Frank Sinatra song, It Was a Very Good Year. And most of the key scenes take place in the evening, seems to me. Everyone's still at work in the afternoon...
Putting all those naming conventions aside for the moment, what An Autumn Afternoon brings to my attention is the fundamental question of, "what will become of a man?" Specifically, as a man gets older and comes to grip with the reality that the majority of his lifetime is now in the past, the opportunity for new and positive change is running out and more likely than not, life is only going to become more difficult from this point forward. While this film's plot incorporates many of the same elements as we see in other works from Ozu's postwar years (namely, a widower in the process of marrying off a daughter who isn't necessarily interested in making that transition because she likes things the way they are now), here we see the male protagonist, here named Hirayama, being faced with different options, both plausible but requiring him to make a choice.
Hirayama has been a moderately successful businessman, respected throughout his adult life but now largely taken for granted as he settles into the graying anonymity of his aging circle of friends. He's flanked by two men who each could be seen as representing a future path for him to pursue. One one side is Kawai, more pragmatic and conventional, who exerts the most pressure on Hirayama to get serious about marrying off Michiko, his 24 year old daughter who's just on the verge of getting problematically too old to attract the best crop of eligible bachelors. One the other is Horie, like his friends, a distinguished executive in his mid-50s who recently married a pretty woman roughly half his age, and just a few years older than his own daughter. He's more than happy to tout the invigorating advantages of having a frisky young wife, and his pals nod and smile as they momentarily imagine themselves in his enviable circumstances. But they mock Horie behind his back, especially when he shows evidence of being thoroughly whipped when he leaves their nightly drinking rituals after she shows up at the bar and reminds him that it's time to go. Horie's lot isn't all bad, but he represents a kind of extended adolescence, a warped form of masculinity that seems to live in denial of the realities of life and the difficulties he'll eventually face in keeping his youthful wife satisfied as the years exert their toll on his virility.
The trajectory of An Autumn Afternoon takes us through familiar terrain (assuming we've followed Ozu up to this terminal point in his career.) The old tofu maker, as he once described himself so aptly, gives us another firm consistent slice, to be seasoned and applied however we see fit to our own lives. The plot involves beloved and oddly comforting elements like petty domestic disputes, amusing ramblings of drunken old men, pointed exchanges between generations in conflict, the creeping intrusion of modern electronic technology in the home and marketplace, and, most cathartic of all, a wedding. In this case it's just a brief but startling appearance of the daughter in her bridal attire, not the full-fledged production with guests and all the festivities that we get in Equinox Flower (or at the beginning of Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well, for that matter.) As with Late Spring and, in a gender reversal, Late Autumn, the movie ends with a solitary figure, left alone after experiencing a significant departure, in contemplation of an uncertain, or at least unsettled, future. Unlike those two films though, An Autumn Afternoon's lingering aftertaste (that hint of mackeral, perhaps?) isn't as bitterly devastating or just plain sad. Instead, we leave Hirayama in a state of poised equilibrium, with at least the possibility of a diverting new romance (that woman at the bar who vaguely reminds him of his deceased wife) and a sense of confidence that he chose wisely and well in steering Michiko toward marriage. The differences in feel and sentiment between this trio of films are, of course, quite subtle - this is an Ozu film, after all - but it does seem to me that the director had made some kind of peace with whatever inner turmoils and questions drove him to revisit this material so steadily and relentlessly over the final dozen or so years of his life. The conclusion of An Autumn Afternoon marked the end of an era in Japanese cinema, though few recognized it at the time, as Ozu left the scene. It's an auspicious film to finish up the year with for me and this blog as well. I'm genuinely dismayed that I won't have any more of his films to write about here! But I will definitely be eager to fill in the gaps, as a few of his mid-career titles like The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and the early silent Walk Cheerfully have been added to Criterion's Hulu Plus channel (but where is A Hen in the Wind?) Glad to see that I haven't yet exhausted the well! And of course, revisiting is always an option! Cheers to you, Yasujiro Ozu...
Next: Winter Light