Spotlight on Japan: Late Autumn

There are 3 names that always come up when one reads about the history of Japanese cinema: Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. Of these three, Ozu is probably the most mysterious one because he is considered the most “Japanese” director possible. What does that mean? Is his aesthetic somehow distinctly Japanese? Or does his philosophy reflect the general opinion of the nation? Even the Japanese themselves can’t explain this description – it’s something they know from experience.

All the way from his early silent films until he died in 1963 Ozu directed films that focused on family. Even though his depictions of Japanese families are clearly products of the Japanese culture his films are clearly universal since he has had an enormous impact on cinema everywhere in the world. If you take any of the films he made after the World War 2 you’ll find basically the same plot ingredients and themes: there’s a (more or less) fixed marriage and a clash of different generations in a Japan that is a “victim” of rapid modernization. Late Autumn is not an exception: its focus is on a mother (Setsuko Hara) who tries to get her unwilling daughter (Yoko Tsukasa) married. However, what makes Late Autumn a bit different is how it is clearly more about the mother remarrying than about the daughter marrying – hence the title that explicitly compares the state of the mother’s life to a season.

Ozu portrays the characters as victims of cultural and social boundaries, but unlike his contemporaries (mainly Mizoguchi), he never seems to criticize the society for it. Instead he writes characters that might resist a bit, but ultimately succumb in a very Japanese way – yet they still find happiness in this silent suffering. What is surprising about Late Autumn is the frequency of the comic relief – solely provided by the three old men who constantly crack subtle jokes and blunder in their social adventures.

That is not the only surprise for an Ozu fan: the daughter’s friend (Mariko Okada) is a very unlikely Ozu character, a determined young woman who Ozu lets run wild and twist the plot at her own whim – eventually becoming the sole most important character in the picture. The character could be problematic for the film without Okada’s stunning performance that nearly steals the show even from the Ozu regulars, such as Setsuko Hara who turns in yet another great lead performance.

Ozu’s style is one of the most famous because he sticks to the same formula for all of his postwar films. The camera always rests just a bit above the ground, making it feel like you, the audience, were sitting on a tatami mat. Camera movement is rare – in some cases, there’s none. Ozu is nearly obsessed with exploring and introducing the sets completely – and he has a sharp eye for composition (pretty much every shot is gorgeous and balanced). When he started making color films (Late Autumn was shot in color) he began to place even more attention for colors in the sets and costumes which are, to this date, absolutely beautiful thanks to his perfectionism. He also has a habit of having his actors speak directly to the camera without any hint of breaking the fourth wall for a joke.

All of these techniques, and many more, come together to create a film that is very involving – which is perfectly put in the famous statement that says Ozu’s films leave such a strong lasting impression that it feels like you have lived with the characters as a member of the family. And that’s what I want YOU to remember of Ozu because it is the very reason he is one of my all time favorite directors.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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