Friday, November 11, 2016

Yasujirō Ozu | 秋刀魚の味 Sanma no aji (The Taste of Pike, later translated as An Autumn Afternoon)

coming to terms with life
by Douglas Messerli

Kogo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu  秋刀魚の味 Sanma no aji (The Taste of Pike, later translated as An Autumn Afternoon) / 1962, USA 1964

The plot of Yasujirō Ozu’s last film, An Autumn Afternoon, although essential, is not what really matters, and can be summed up in a simple few paragraphs. The elderly factory manager, widower, Shūhei Hirayama (the regular Ozu actor, Chishū Ryū), has relied on his obedient and caring daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita) to keep the house for him and his younger son, Kazuo (Shin'ichirō Mikami) far too long, and at 24 she is beginning to move away from marrying age. His close business friends attempt to explain to him the situation, and even seek out appropriate young men for her. But neither he, nor his daughters, seems interested her leaving the house—after all, how will he and slightly irresponsible son survive without her? 
        A reunion his former schoolmates with their elderly professor, nicknamed “The Gourd” by his students (Eijirō Tōno) begins to make him realize the error of his ways, for the now alcoholic professor  relies on his long-unmarried daughter, now a quite bitter old maid, to run his small noodle shop. And meeting her, he begins to realize that this may ultimately be his and his daughter’s own future if he does not quickly change his ways.
      Although Michiko is almost offended at his suggestion that she should be married, she has, quite secretly, been attracted to one of her elder brother’s co-workers, Yutako Miura (Teruo Yoshida), and the older, slightly unhappily married Kōichi (Keiji Sada) is enlisted to discover whether or not Miura is interested. He might have been, in turns out, but since Kōichi himself has suggested his sister is not interested, he has found another woman to whom he is engaged.

       Now, since Michiko has finally given into her father’s demands, she is even more hurt by the news, and is forced to meet with the stranger whom  Hirayama’s friends have suggested.
       We never do meet, with the film’s confines, the young groom, but it is clear that he has met her demands; for soon after, suddenly coming into full beauty as a bride, she marries him (off screen), after which Hirayama, in a night of drunkenness, is forced to realize that he will now have to get on with his young—and suddenly more responsible—without her, clearly a recognition that leads him to recognize that he is now in his “autumn afternoon,” and life from here on will be always quite lonely.

        As I earlier mentioned, however, that it is only Ozu’s basic plot, it is not truly what the movie is about. As in all of this director’s films, family life is at the center of this film, but the way he reveals it is never as a merely tranquil world of Norman Rockwell-like joy.
     Given Ozu’s analysis of the post-War Japanese society, very much at the center of this film (and surely another of character’s recognition of an “autumn” of their cultural lives), as each must learn to give up their former war-time fascist pretensions and come to live within more meager and even sometimes desperate conditions.

       And, as in nearly all of Ozu’s great films, An Autumn Afternoon, shot with the camera at nearly floor level, suggests the Japanese subservience to each other and to the past, so that  when, as the characters often must, stand at full height, they appear—particularly in a movie in which the males drink almost constantly—to be tottering into a space in which they cannot quite properly maneuver. Indeed, for the elderly, the world they encounter is now one of Western mores, a society in which the women—daughters, wives, lovers, and even strangers—are no longer terrified of challenging and even dominating. The elderly men and women of so many Ozu films, even if they can claim moral superiority, seem exhausted and incapable of quite retaining their balance.
      Those men (and women) who have not quite been able to adapt to the new Japan despair in their conditions, quietly crying to themselves—all of which makes this film a quietly painful work.

       I say “quietly” because Ozu never overstates his concerns. One of the commonest expressions in this film is an impassive sign of recognition: “Uhhmmmm,” expressed most often by Hirayama, but also by others.  Indeed, the figures Ozu presents us with our seldom demonstrative, and hardly even vent their grievances. Like the larger society, they simply  attempt, over and over again, to adapt to their often unhappy situations, portraying their inner conditions, often during their drunken stupors as, “very happy,” “enjoyable evenings” and “wonderful encounters” with the world at large.
     They drink out of long friendship and nostalgia, as a small society of what is left of a past world. The sudden meeting of a former sailor who served under Hirayama in World War II seems to become a reunion almost as important as Hirayama and his friends’ discovery of their former professor on a subway. 
       Yet, in his quiet unstated presentations, Ozu makes it clear that, except for the westernized young, these older folks will not and cannot be part of the current fabric of their own society. They are the lost generation—lost and forgotten even more than the men and women of Hemingway’s post World War I. Although some have jobs and are financially surviving, their own daughters and sons are still suffering the problems of a growing new economy, which hasn’t, in the 1962 period of this movie, quite caught up to Japan’s later economic miracles. 
       So many of Ozu’s families, throughout his filmmaking career, have been broken in half, with wives and husbands missing, the survivors having to go on without them. Some, like Hirayama’s good friend, Shin Horie (Ryūji Kita) have found love in the younger generation and feel, in the process, rejuvenated—even though Hirayama and others of his friends mock that resuscitation of life. But for most of the elderly Ozu men and women, their only hopes lie in the future for their children, as they, themselves, realize their must abandon their own dependence upon family ties—and cultural attachments—to the past.
       Yet Ozu makes us realize this is not just a Japanese conundrum. As he stresses throughout this film, this is a human condition: we all live alone. We all seek whatever happiness we might  find. We all get on each day the best as we can. If his characters endlessly drink, it is for good reason. They are lonely. They miss something or someone else in their lives. They know they must abandon the love of their own children. Even the great French pataphysician, the ever playful Georges Perc, admits to have cried during his viewing of Ozu’s late masterpiece, particularly when the former shy and seemingly unmarriageable Michiko suddenly appears near the end of this movie as a stunningly beautiful bride. She, at last, has agreed to move into the new world she has inherited. And her father has finally come to terms with his age and death itself.
      If her father, Hirayama, has a hard night of it after the wedding, he will wake up, return to work, and with his now more helpful younger son, Kazuo, survive, one hopes, into old age. Isn’t that all of us can ever imagine for ourselves?

Los Angeles, November 12, 2016

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