The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu made movies that sneak up on you with their shrewd delicacy. From the late 1940s onward—Ozu died of cancer in 1963—virtually all of his plots were simple domestic dramas, often revolving around the bonds between parents and their adult children, and not one of them gets within shouting distance of anything one might call melodrama. There’s no shouting in an Ozu film. Often, the surface is so placid that one wonders whether anything is really churning underneath; no other titan of world cinema so regularly risked seeming inconsequential. Inevitably, though, the series of low-key conversations and negotiations acquires a cumulative force that packs an unexpected wallop by the end.
That’s especially true of Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon, which Criterion has just given a welcome Blu-ray upgrade. In some respects, this is the flip-side of Tokyo Story, the consensus Ozu masterpiece, in which an aging couple is treated shabbily by all but one of their kids (and kids-in-law). Here, the elderly widower Hirayama (Ozu mainstay Chishu Ryu) gradually realizes that he’s taking advantage of his only daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), who’s reached marriageable age but isn’t pursuing any romantic interests, because she feels obligated to take care of him and her younger (but grown) brother, Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami). Ozu juxtaposes this slow revelation with various tangentially related subplots, including the financial woes of Hirayama’s eldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), who’s constantly arguing with his wife (Mariko Okada) about what luxuries they can afford, and a series of drunken reunions among Hirayama and his school chums, who play practical jokes on each other and decide to help out a former teacher (Eijiro Tono) who’s down on his luck.
For American viewers in the 21st century, An Autumn Afternoon, like many of Ozu’s films, requires a willingness to empathize with some rather antiquated notions. Hirayama isn’t sick or otherwise infirm, requiring constant care—in Ozu’s world, men are just utterly helpless without a woman around to cook and clean for them, so if the guy no longer has a wife, he needs his daughter. (It’s made plain that having Kazuo around is meaningless.) Furthermore, the young women who work at Hirayama’s office, reminding him of Michiko, are fully expected to quit the instant they get engaged, as their jobs are merely a means of killing time until someone proposes. On the other hand, Hirayama is fairly progressive, for the era, when it comes to Michiko’s suitors—though he sets up a possible arranged marriage with a stranger, he’s perfectly willing to allow her to marry someone she actually loves. Unfortunately, he’s waited a bit too long to prod her, and the fellow she fancies (Teruo Yoshida) has gotten engaged to someone else.
“Isn’t life disappointing?” one character famously asks—with a smile—at the end of Tokyo Story, and that’s the same contradictory conclusion An Autumn Afternoon ultimately draws. Compromises abound, and acts of generosity bear a heavy price tag; even at their most well-meaning, people often fail to understand each other. In the film’s most emblematic scene, Hirayama and Koichi discuss how well Michiko has taken some bad news, only to be interrupted by Kazuo, who asks why she’s crying in the other room. Ozu shoots all of this in his usual direct, painstaking style, cutting back and forth between actors who are centered in the frame and speak directly to the camera (representing the other party in the conversation; the fourth wall isn’t broken). There’s never a big emotional moment—the most outspoken character is Koichi’s wife, who really doesn’t want him to buy some used golf clubs—and anyone seeking intense catharsis will likely be disappointed. But the sense of piercing sadness grows, and it’s somehow bleakly appropriate that the final image in Ozu’s final film shows a man sitting alone, his head slightly bowed, accepting a great loss.
An Autumn Afternoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. It can also be streamed through Hulu Plus.