The Ozu films I’ve seen are kind of the same: a comfortable family, usually led by Chishu Ryu, finds itself faced with the sad inevitability of change, which they try to accept with a certain Zen-like stoicism. I don’t understand a word of Japanese, but in film for film you always see these conversations where Ryu says “Ahhhhh….” — which can mean anything from “I see” to “Oh yes” to, generally, “Well, I guess that’s just the way life goes.”
“An Autumn Afternoon” takes all of Ozu’s familiar variations on the change theme — aging parents, the onset of marriage, the lingering pain of losing the war and consequent post-war industrialization — and rolls them into one beautiful film. The basic story involves Ryu, as an elderly widower, coming to the realization (as he did in “Late Spring”) that he must marry off the single daughter who lives with him. The story is strongly accentuated by other subplots involving his children or friends. His son, for example, has married, but he’s not quite the success his old man was; he can’t handle money, his wife hen-pecks him, and the two of them often turn to Ryu for help. Another story involves Ryu’s reunions with his old high-school friends: one has married a much younger woman, another is a poor, pathetic old fool who lives with his daughter and runs a lousy noodle shop. Between the two, Ryu seems to forge his own fate: he doesn’t want to ruin his daughter’s life by having her live with him, and he entertains the idea of remarrying a young woman he meets at a local bar.
All this takes place against the backdrop of a 1960s Japan that is rebuilding itself from the ashes of the war. In one superb scene, Ryu, whom we discover was a former high-ranking officer, meets ones of his soldiers in a bar, and the two discuss what it might have been like if Japan won the war: maybe the kids in New York would be trying to look like kids in Japan instead of the other way around. But then, maybe it’s good we lost the war, the soldier says; now we’re not pushed around by the militarists. Nonetheless, the two love to recall the old days, and they happily parade around the bar as a waitress plays a military march on the soundtrack. It’s an incredible scene, if only because it seems so revealing of the torn feelings of Japanese identity as expressed by average people.
Telling the same basic story over and over again might seem like a flaw in some artists — but look at the novels of Jane Austen or the comedies of Shakespeare. They repeatedly followed the same basic formula, but with each effort there was something new. Ozu, likewise, keeps seeing something new in the same story, or another way to tell it, or another observation to make. Some painters never tire of the same subject, and just better and better at it.
I watched this film last night and I’ve been thinking about it all day, thinking about how it approaches the subject of time and family from several angles and as a result delivers a work of art that, like his other films, is compelling and beautiful and rich in its own way.