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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Yasujirō Ozu | Akibiyori (Late Autumn)




the oppositions
by Douglas Messerli

 Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay, based on a fiction by Ton Satomi), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Akibiyori (Late Autumn) / 1960, USA 1973

 As in many of Japanese director Ozu's films, the story of Late Autumn is, superficially, quite simple. Commemorating the death of Akiko Miwa's husband, several of his close male friends, his wife, and daughter Ayako have gathered at a Buddhist temple. The men suffer the ceremony, commenting on the lengthy performances of the monks, but also gossiping, afterwards, about their own youthful love of Akiko (beautifully played by Setsuko Hara) and their worry over her daughter Ayako (Tōko Tsukasa) for her marriageless state. These three busybody and bungling businessmen—Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), Marniya (Shin Saburi), and Hiriyama (Ryuji Kita)—don't even have an available candidate in mind, but are determined to intrude themselves into the Miwas' life.

     At a meeting with Ayako, one of them suggests an employee, Goto (Keiji Sada), an attractive enough man that Ayako does agree to go out with him on a date. But Ayako is quite insistent that she has no intentions of marrying; somewhat shocking all of the older generation, except perhaps her mother, the young daughter relates that "I'm happy as I am," later adding that love and marriage do not necessarily go together.

     So the director sets up what might at first seem to be a statement of generational change, the older, more traditional generation, represented by the men, unable to comprehend the younger generation. Indeed, that is precisely what these meddlers proclaim! Yet, Ozu's carefully framed scenes reveal numerous contradictions or, better yet, oppositions—not so much between generations as within the emotional attitudes of most of the film's major figures. Two of the businessmen have very happy home lives, with smart, contemporary children who still seem to be friendly with and close to their fathers and mothers. The third man, although a widower, is apparently quite happy in his newfound bachelorhood. Yet, underneath each of these individuals is nostalgic for and, at times, apparently regretful for their pasts; perhaps they all would have, at one time or another, proposed to Akiko—the fact of which the two wives seem quite aware. Accordingly, what at first may seem as simple kind, if intrusive actions, are gradually recognized as attempts to once again make contact with Akiko and their own pasts.

     Similarly, Ayako proclaims that she is perfectly happy living with her mother, and the two do seem to enjoy each other's company, shopping together, lunching, and later, even enjoying their time together at a country retreat. In short, despite their different dress and ways of communicating with the outside world, at home they seem to be pleasantly alike, so in tune with each other that you well understand Ayako's attitude towards marriage.

     At the office, however, Ayako and her friend rush at a certain hour to the roof in order to see a train, filled with brides on their way to their honeymoons, speed past. They are disappointed that another friend, evidently just married, has not waved at them with her bouquet as promised. For a woman who declares no interest in marriage, Ayako seems to have secret yearnings that she has not quite explained to herself.

     Unable to succeed in convincing Ayako to leap into the wedded state, the busy trio determine to find a companion for Akiko first, which will "allow" Ayako, as they see it, to seek out her own love. The widower among them finally realizes that he would enjoy the company of Ayako, and, after much confusion and misunderstandings (which results in a good scolding from Ayako's throughly modern friend Yukiko), he proposes. But instead of freeing Ayako, the idea of her mother rewedding shocks her, as she verbally lashes out at Akiko, somewhat like the children in Douglas Sirk's melodrama All That Heaven Allows, describing it as "filthy." If she has seemed of the new generation in her attitudes toward marriage and sex, she is a strong traditionalist in terms of her mother's situation.

     As critics such as Adrian Danks have pointed out, however, there is a huge gap between the children of Sirk's film and Ayako. For ultimately, Ayako, who remains close to her mother, perceives the error of her ways, and agrees to marry Goto. It is perhaps inevitable, now that we better understand her attitudes,  that she marries in the traditional Japanese wedding garb.

     At movie's end, contradictorily, Akiko determines not to remarry, deciding to remain alone with her memories of her dead husband. Her final turn to the camera with a half smile restates all of Ozu's "oppositions," leaving the viewer with a mixed sense of joy and sorrow, as we recognize her emotions of  acceptance and sadness of her future life.

     With his low-set camera and straight-on portraiture of his figures as they speak—most often over food and, particularly, drink—Ozu has helped us to realize that people are  complex beings. What they often say on the surface is not what they may do in their lives, and vice versa. Despite her traditional ways, Ayako has joined the new generation. But perhaps it is a generation that is not so very different, after all, from the past. For Ozu, what I have described as "oppositions," might be spoken of as a balance, a balance he displays in almost every shot of the film (for example, cases of Coca-Cola bottles placed outside a traditional Japanese bar), between the changes of the future and the values of the past.

     If ultimately Ozu's work seems to be a profoundly conservative vision, his view also, laced with his sense of mono no aware (a recognition of the impermanence of things), accepts change.


Los Angeles, January 25, 2012


     

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