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For viewers who associate Japanese cinema with vengeful ghosts, samurai swords, and Toshiro Mifune in warrior mode, the films of Yasujiro Ozu must come as quite a surprise. Gentle, understated, often tinged with subtle irony and patient sadness, Ozu's dramas and comedies deal with people as real and familiar as the ones we encounter every day in ordinary life. Late Autumn (1960), made in the autumn of his own career, is a glowing example of his artistry at its most mature.
In a fascinating paradox, Ozu crafted his richly realistic movies with emphatically cinematic techniques. His films rarely employ the kinetic montage and hyperbolic acting found in many of Akira Kurosawa's pictures, and you won't find the long takes and bravura camera movements used by Kenji Mizoguchi to capture nuances of acting and character relationships. But watch closely and you'll see that every scene and sequence is assembled from individual shots that Ozu has executed and joined with the precision of a great composer placing every note and chord into patterns that breathe with loveliness when experienced as a whole. By the time he made Late Autumn in 1960, he was able to express his unique sensibility with unsurpassed skill and assurance.
Late Autumn is a tale of family life, falling into the shomingeki or "home drama" genre, which Ozu never tired of during his long career. Coming back to a story formula he used more than once, he centers the movie on a young woman named Ayako, who is reluctant to get married because it would mean leaving her widowed mother, Akiko, with no companion or caregiver. For the sake of her daughter, Akiko flirts with the idea of marrying a second husband, which tricks Ayako into accepting marriage for herself.
Sacrifice by parents or children is one of the strongest recurring themes in Ozu's dramas, and like every other element in his pictures, he keeps it fresh by giving it a slightly new spin every time he revisits it. Late Autumn is an indirect remake of Late Spring, the 1949 masterwork that's often considered the first film of Ozu's so-called late period. Among other connections, actress Setsuko Hara - whose pensive eyes and charming smile made her Ozu's most memorable female star - played the daughter in Late Spring but returns in Late Autumn to play the sensitive, caring mother who replaces the widowed dad of the earlier movie. In addition, Ozu now gives the single parent a more self-sufficient life and free-spirited personality while placing more emphasis on the daughter's needs and feelings. The result is an absorbing new take on some of Ozu's most abiding interests.
No serious film produced in Japan soon after World War II can be fully understood without taking the nation's recent history into account. A particularly turbulent wave of wrangling and violence hit Japanese society in 1960, when the fiercely debated Japanese-American Security Treaty was up for renewal. Opening in November of that year, Late Autumn was disparaged by some observers, including the influential critic Tadao Sato, as a retrograde, even reactionary yarn with nothing to say about the most important issues of its own uneasy time. Looked at more closely, though, the story and psychology of Late Autumnare deftly calculated to express deep-lying tensions between the lure of old Japanese traditions and the growing presence of modern Western attitudes that were entrenching themselves in Japanese culture. Ozu was never as old-fashioned or out of touch as his harshest critics sometimes claimed.
Ozu has been called the most quintessentially Japanese of all Japanese directors, but his work was universal in appeal, and he seemed to signal this by making so many movies named after seasons. He directed Late Autumn three years before his death in 1963, followed by The End of Summer (1961) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962); earlier he had made Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), and Early Spring (1956). Of course, Ozu also used titles of different kinds - he directed fifty-four features - but when he chose to name a movie after a season, the only one he didn't use is winter, and only one of his many postwar films (Tokyo Twilight, 1957) takes place in that inhospitable time.
It's worth remembering, however, that Ozu's seasonal titles generally refer less to when the story takes place than to its prevailing mood. More broadly, it also reflects his Buddhist-inflected view of nature and human life as cyclical processes without identifiable beginnings or definitive conclusions. Ozu's untiring exploration of certain themes, narratives, and character types is also rooted in this philosophy, as is his habit of repeating time-tested ingredients that make each new film seem like a familiar old friend; these range from small details, such as the roughhewn cloth almost always seen behind the opening titles, to fundamental cinematic choices, such as shooting from slightly low angles and placing the camera at 15-degree intervals along a 360-degree circle around the main point of interest. Ozu filmed almost all his shots with a 50mm lens - close to everyday vision, distant from the widescreen modernism he hated - and he didn't make a color picture until Equinox Flower in 1958. When he finally made the switch he used color brilliantly, as Late Autumn beautifully shows.
Ozu worked regularly with a team of trusted creative partners, and their contributions are key to the success of Late Autumn. In addition to Hara, who appears in many of Ozu's films, the cast includes the director's alter ego and favorite male actor, Chishu Ryu, this time in a minor role. Ozu wrote the screenplay with his seasoned collaborator Kogo Noda, following their usual procedure of consuming countless bottles of sake while setting their ideas on paper. The gifted cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta had worked with Ozu since the 1920s; art director Tatsuo Hamada had worked with him since the 1930s; film editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura had done so since the 1940s; and composer Kojun Saito had done so since the mid-1950s.
Together they helped Ozu create an ageless film at a time when others at the Shochiku studio, where he made most of his pictures, were trying out more conspicuously modern stories and styles, hoping to compete more successfully with rival companies. Ozu bent with the winds of change when he had to, but he stayed loyal to his artistic convictions until the end. Late Autumn is a wonderful place to get acquainted with his work, and for Ozu admirers it's a pleasure that refuses to fade.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Producer: Shizuo Yamanouchi
Screenplay: Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda
Cinematographer: Yuharu Atsuta
Film Editing: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Art Direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Kojun Saito
With: Setsuko Hara (Akiko Miwa), Yoko Tsukasa (Ayako Miwa), Mariko Okada (Yukiko Sasaki), Keiji Sada (Shotaru Goto), Miyuki Kuwano (Michiko), Shinichiro Mikami (Koichi), Shin Saburi (Soichi Mamiya), Chishu Ryu (Shukichi Miwa).
by David Sterritt