A cinematic masterpiece in season

An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味 Sanma no Aji “The Taste of Mackerel Pike”) was Ozu Yasujiro’s last film before he passed away a year later in 1963. I’ve only watched it twice but it is one of my favorites and one that stays with me easily. The main theme is a typical Ozu one of a unmarried 24-year old daughter Michiko (played by Iwashita Shima) who continues to live with and run the household of her widower father. She seems happy taking care of her father and younger brother, but increasingly her father Hirayama Shuhei (played by the quietly charismatic and always gentle Ryu Chishu) worries that she’ll end up an unhappy and resentful unmarried spinster. The plot is predictably about steering the daughter toward marriage, so I’ll leave it there and instead talk about some moments that I think are particularly special.

One impetus for Hirayama to marry off his daughter is an encounter with his former high school teacher’s daughter. After a night of drinking and reminiscing, Hirayama and Kawai escort their drunken teacher, affectionately and teasingly nicknamed Hyoutan (gourd), home and meet his unmarried daughter. Perhaps she’s simply annoyed at her drunken father but her expression toward her father and his former students seems cool. Hirayama and Kawai later comment on her coldness and point out her unmarried state. This barely hidden resentment and regret is played with masterful disdain by 9-time Ozu film actress Sugimura Haruko. Sugimura always does a great job of playing disgruntled or aloof in several of Ozu’s films. The scene closes with the men having left and Hyoutan crashed out on a chair as she quietly sobs into her handkerchief.

There is also much humor in the film. Hirayama and Kawai often play off each other as a subtle but delightfully funny comedy duo. One of the running jokes is that their third cohort Horie is married to a woman quite younger than himself with the implication that he can’t keep up with her appetites. In one scene, Hirayama and Kawai are at their regular restaurant and when the mistress asks about Horie’s young wife, they proceed to mischieviously mislead her about Horie’s state of health. The scene ties together with the banter from other scenes and is a showcase of solid script writing and actors obviously having fun on screen.

Ozu’s films play like plays and the best scenes are carefully staged interactions between the actors, the camera, and the editing. Characters are already on screen, others enter, they interact, some of them exit, and the scene continues for one or two more beats, revealing an extra emotion or unspoken thought. The endings of Ozu films of course wrap up the story but since they are usually simple, it’s not about solving a mystery or tying together major plot points. Oftentimes, the characters will gather after a wedding or a funeral and reminisce about what they used to have and what their lives will bring going forward. An Autumn Afternoon is no different. After Michiko’s wedding (not shown on screen) Hirayama opines that sons are best and there is no point in having a daughter. This kind of commentary pops up in Ozu films but I think it’s an emotional red herring. Hirayama adores his daughter and is proud of her. His comment is not of spite or chauvinism but is instead an expression of how much he loves is daughter and how terribly he will miss her.

If I have to choose, Late Spring is my favorite Ozu, but this film is equally delightful and perhaps because it is in color and is Ozu’s final masterpiece, more accessible. It has all the Ozu elements and wonderfully, there is a subtitled high quality version on YouTube for free. So, it’s as good a place as any to get started on your Ozu adventures.