I have done a lot of traveling, but living in Japan had to be one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. From 1999-2000, I taught English in the small seaside town of Togane, just southeast of Chiba City and an hour by express train from Tokyo. I noticed that some men and women still followed traditional roles outlined for them by Japanese culture. Like something out of our own ’50s stereotypes, the man brought home all of the money and spent evenings at the bar with his co-workers, while the wife controlled the finances and the household. Of course, the importation of Western mores and modernization has changed these roles significantly (such as women going to work), especially in the metropolitan regions, but in Togane, those older traditions still lingered.
In An Autumn Afternoon, Japanese directorial giant Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, the values of traditional Japan clash with the impending modernism imported during the ’60s. The story concerns widower Shuhei Hirayama (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu in a touching, gentle performance), who realizes that he must allow his daughter to marry lest she suffer the fate of becoming an old maid by devoting her life to care for him. Though many consider the film to be Ozu’s last words, the director died from cancer at 60 and we cannot expect him to have made the film with encroaching death in mind.
Besides Kurosawa, Ozu is the most popular director to come from Japan. His films are instantly recognizable for their stationary, low-angle camera and short takes. The actors generally talk into the camera, as if the viewer is the one they are addressing. But beyond the technical, most of Ozu’s work meditates on a similar theme: domestic stories centering on the conundrum of whether a daughter will marry or stay home to care for a widowed parent. Stars Ryu and Setsuko Hara (before she became a hermit) frequently took on the role as father and daughter in these dramas. But anyone who accuses Ozu of making the same movie over and over has not really watched these films, for the subtleties in each really makes them unique.
In this film, widower Hirayama is living the traditional Japanese life, content to keep his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) at home (she cooks and cleans), while he goes out in the evenings to drink with his old friends. His son Koichi (Keiji Sada) and his wife live nearby while younger son Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami) is still at home, also under Michiko’s care. Meanwhile, Hirayama’s drinking friends insist it’s time to marry off Michiko, who is approaching her mid-20s, before turns old and bitter. A chance encounter with an old teacher lovingly called “The Gourd” (a hilarious Eijiro Tono), who now owns a noodle shop with his aging, sad daughter, forces Hirayama to decide between his comfort and his daughter’s happiness.
As simple as the plot sounds, there is a lot going on in this film. Themes such as aging, being alone, reminiscence, and duty are explored. Although Hirayama and Michiko’s story is central to the plot, the other characters provide an array of possibility for the direction of their fates. Hirayama’s friend Horie is now married to a woman the age of his daughter who he dutifully kowtows to. Koichi does not make enough money to pay for a pair of golf clubs he covets, much to his wife’s (the CFO of the household) chagrin. This consumerism counters the dying patriotism that fueled World War II (as demonstrated by a lonely, drunken veteran in a bar who comes to life when a military march is played). Straddling this line of tradition versus modernity is Hirayama.
There are a lot of empty spaces in An Autumn Afternoon -- lonely shots of vacant rooms, quiet railroad platforms, and impersonal industrial complexes. Ozu is not a director to be maudlin, and when Hirayama allows Michiko to marry, sentencing himself to an old age of loneliness, Ozu does not force the audience to feel his sadness. Most films about weddings are full of joy. An Autumn Afternoon is just satisfied to avoid dissipation as old values, as always, die off and new values are born.