Monday, April 12, 2010

The Times, They Were a'Changin'

Films: Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Eventually, every great director makes his or her last film. Kubrick’s career ended, Hictchcock made a final film, and someday so will my current favorites, Danny Boyle, Guillermo del Toro, and David Fincher. I bring this up because today’s film, Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon), is the last film in the distinguished career of Japanese film maker Yasujiro Ozu.

It’s easy to think of Japanese films as falling into one of three categories: monster movies, martial arts movies, and samurai movies. That’s the equivalent of saying that the entire American film industry consists of nothing more than blockbuster action films, horror films, and remakes. It may feel that way sometimes, but it’s far from the truth. Sanma no Aji is a domestic film about life in post-war Japan and the changes in the culture. More specifically, it’s about how those changes affect the people living in that society.

Shuhei Hirayama (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) is an older widower, a veteran of the war, who lives with his daughter (Shima Iwashita) and son Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami). His older son, Koichi (Keiji Sada) is married, and has a difficult relationship with his own wife. Shuhei isn’t sure he wants his life to change, but he is encouraged by his friend Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura) to get his daughter married off before it becomes too late for her and she turns into an old maid. Shuhei is convinced that she isn’t ready for marriage despite the fact that other women of her age are getting married. She is equally convinced that her father and brother would not survive without her assistance.

At the same time, we learn of Koichi’s relationship with his wife, Akiko (Mariko Okada). Koichi very much wants to have a traditional wife, but she talks back to him and doesn’t let him do what he wants. Shuhei’s friend Horie (Ryuji Kita) has a new young wife who he claims makes him happy, but she seems to rule the household and keeps him in line. Additionally, the men reconnect with one of their old teachers, nicknamed “The Gourd” (Eijiro Tono), who has an old maid daughter who he claims to have ruined by not allowing her to marry.

It would seem that this should be straightforward. Michiko is young and pretty, and there are plenty of marriage prospects for her. But Shuhei isn’t sure, she isn’t sure, and the portrait of marriage presented by the various matches in the film don’t seem to paint a rosy picture of wedded bliss. Shuhei wants his daughter to be happy, but he also doesn’t want her to go away from him. And so, the film is essentially about his decision of whether or not to allow his daughter to, more or less, grow up.

The world of Japan at the start of the 1960s is changing, and this film is a reflection of that change. Any change encounters resistance from a variety of quarters, here no more than the Hirayama family. Ozu reflects this in a number of ways, contrasting elements of the film with each other both to reflect constancy as well as change.

The soundtrack, for instance, is entirely western, and French in particular. At the very least, the music is not traditionally Japanese. Additionally, we are bombarded by images of the changing reality in Japan. We see, for instance, Koichi, who wants a traditional marriage and to rule his own home, happily standing in the kitchen cooking and wearing and apron while his wife brings home pre-made hamburgers for dinner. Change is occurring, and it cannot be stopped.

On the other hand, Ozu never moves his camera. While every scene contains a variety of shots and camera angles, in any given shot, there is not a single camera movement—no pans, no tracking shots, not a zoom or a pull back. Once a camera is placed, the scene does not move until it simply switches to another camera. In a sense, there is a sea of constancy amid the growing changes of Japan. Additionally, Ozu uses the older feeling 1.37:1 aspect ratio instead of a wider screen format, which gives the film in many ways a more traditional feeling. And throughout the film, the marriages talked about are arranged, as traditional as one can get. It’s almost cute as one man talks about being engaged to a woman whose hand he has held.

Sanma no Aji is a pretty film. It’s impossible not to like these characters and want them to make the decisions you know in your heart they should make. This film is charming and sweet, and I enjoyed it completely.

Why to watch Sanma no Aji: Sweetness and light.
Why not to watch: No monsters, karate, or samurai swords.


  1. The thought of martial arts or monsters in an Ozu movie is so weird that it is actually funny.
    It is remarkable that all those potential conflict this transition period creates are handled quietly without any shouting or fighting. At most they cry or sulk, but that is it. I find that a relief.

    1. I agree. I think it's a hell of a fine movie, and Ozu is sadly underknown outside of Japan and movie nerd circles.

  2. My fascination for Ozu developed much earlier and entirely independently of my relationship with the List. I saw Tokyo Story about ten or twelve years ago, and I've been watching Ozu's films, sometimes from Netflix and usually on TCM, whenever I get a chance. I think I've seen about 12 of his movies.

    I watched An Autumn Afternoon yesterday, and I was mesmerized, as usual. Nothing happens for two hours except for people talking on the floor in restaurants and dining rooms, yet it's fascinating!

    Afterward, I got to comparing my Ozu experience with which Ozu films are on the List, and I was kind of surprised to find that Ozu only has three films on the List. And before yesterday, I had only seen one of them - Tokyo Story. As for Floating Weeds, I've seen the 1930s A Story of Floating Weeds, but I've never seen the later version.

    I don't even know how I would narrow it down if I had to pick three Ozu films. Tokyo Story is an obvious choice because it's his most famous film, but I don't really think it's noticeably better than his other masterpieces.

    My favorite is Good Morning. I've seen it a couple of times, but I seem to be the only Ozu fan who rates it so highly.

    But after Good Morning, I think I would have a ten-way tie for second place. I think of the very funny scene in the office bathroom in Tokyo Chorus and the bratty son - disappointed that he's not getting a bike - poking holes in the paper walls. I think of the very jarring scene in Tokyo Twilight where the main character finds out his depressed daughter has walked in front of a train. I saw Diary of a Tenement Gentleman recently, and that whole short movie (72 minutes) is a wonderful unknown masterpiece.

    And then there's Equinox Flower, Early Spring, The End of Summer, I Was Born But ... and a few others.

    An Autumn Afternoon is another great Ozu film! I adore Chishu Ryu so much. He's the Japanese Henry Fonda. The daughter and the son's complaining wife were also really good.

    And I always like it when Daisuke Kato shows up, even though it's usually only for a few minutes. You may remember him from Yojimbo where he plays Inokichi, Ushi-tora's dim-witted brother with the awful teeth.

    1. The fact that Ozu can make a simple conversation so enthralling puts me in mind of Robert Bresson. What would be pure tedium in the hands of virtually any other director is genius and enthralling in his hands.

      Ozu was always smart enough to simply let his stories tell themselves. The stories are always based in real people dealing with real things. There's not a great deal of artifice and instead a focus on the actual, and I think that works to his credit.