So last time I didn't have much to say about Au Revoir Les Enfants, one of the best known foreign/art house films. Much to my own surprise I find I have plenty to say about Autumn Afternoon by Yasujiro Ozu. I first learned about Ozu in college. His style of film making is very particular. He has famously restricted himself to domestic dramas that revolve around traditional Japanese themes. His stories are made up of little things with almost no dramatic outbursts. I saw one of his movies, I can't remember the name right now, and I found it at the time a little hard to sit through. The story was very small and the characters often seemed to be talking directly to the camera.
So I went into Autumn Afternoon not expecting much. And was I shocked to discover how much I loved this film at the end. It just misses out on being a new favorite. A professor at NYU once told me that you shouldn't see Ozu until you were old. I'm older than I was but I'm certainly not old. I think part of the reason I love this film is that since my college days Sophia Coppola has come onto the scene. She's not exactly an American Ozu but she does specialize in smaller more intimate stories. Lost in Translation is one of my favorite movies. But more than that I got what Ozu was driving at with Autumn Afternoon. I'll get to that in a little bit.
The story is one of Ozu's typical domestic dramas. It's about a past middle age father whose daughter still lives with him. His friends urge him to marry her off but he's content. His daughter has become the mother of the house for both him and his youngest son. But a visit with his old school teacher has a profound effect on him. The teacher's daughter also stayed with him and now they are miserable together. The father then succeeds in finding a husband for his daughter. But that gives him no comfort. He realizes his youngest son will soon also be gone and then he'll be alone.
What first struck me is the photography. The opening shots of a 1960s era factory is gorgeous. I don't think a smog belching plant has ever looked more beautiful. Ozu does the same with crowded apartments and streets in this picture. They aren't necessarily glamorized but these scenes are alive. And I can relate. I lived seven years in a one bedroom apartment in Van Nuys, definitely not the garden spot of LA. But even there you could find beauty.
The setting may be realistic but the staging is incredibly formal. Any one shot of an Ozu film is like a carefully composed portrait. The characters still look straight ahead during some of the dialogue. Here it wasn't as distracting as I remember. That may be because I saw it on a tablet. But most importantly the heart came through. There was a lot of humor in this story. The person that stole the show was the wife of elder brother. She is a hoot in every scene she's in.
The humor made the pathos stand out. The scene where the daughter cries when she finds out the man she likes is already engaged is very moving. The final scenes with the father are incredible. He doesn't tear his hair or roar at the heavens. Yet somehow that makes it even sadder. He has no choice but to accept the lot fate has dealt him. And that's when I really got what Ozu was driving at. It wasn't just this one man who will die someday. It's his entire world. He and his generation are holding on to a way of life that will be swept away soon by the new Japan.
In a way this film has the same spirit as Sam Peckinpagh's work. Both are obsessed with the passing of an age. Whereas Peckinpagh's Wild Bunch rages against that end, the father in Autumn Afternoon decides to fade quietly. Yes I just compared Peckinpagh to Ozu.
Which brings me to the reason I love this film but can't put it in there with my new favorites. It's because this film also demonstrates that the world Ozu is mourning is deeply flawed. In the story, soon after the father finds out that the daughter's preferred suitor is off the market he goes ahead with a traditional arranged marriage. The eventual husband is never shown. Apparently no one in 1960s Japan had heard of the term "rebound." So while this film made me understand what Ozu was driving at. It's also the film that made me realize I can't share his sorrow. Somethings fade away for good reason.
This is a difficult film. I think students should see it. I don't buy that you have to be an AARP member in order to appreciate Ozu. That's not what he's about. And appreciating a story this small, and a craft this particular is a huge part in growing as an artist.