Film Review: ‘An Autumn Afternoon’


Familial ties and their effect on our lives were always a chief concern of Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu, specialising as he did in shomin-geki: realist films about ordinary people. His final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), is a fittingly contemplation of the passage of time; the dangers of holding tightly to the past collide with the pain of letting it go. Starring Ozu’s regular cypher, Chishû Ryû, this was one of only a handful of colour films made by the director and is now rereleased by the BFI from a new 2K restoration courtesy of Shochiku Studios and Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art. Ryû plays the affable widower Shuhei Hirayama, whose advanced years haven’t dimmed the twinkle in his eye.

After Shuhei and a group of old classmates treat their aged teacher (Eijirô Tôno) to a boozy meal, they accompany him home to find his unhappy spinster daughter (Haruko Sugimura) awaiting his return. It becomes apparent to Hirayama that the time has arrived for his own daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), to marry and set forth from the family home, which she runs single-handedly. He takes on the role of match-maker, coming to terms with his impending loss whilst dines with old friends and meets new ones. It can be easy to overlook aesthetics in favour of a film’s thematic ruminations, and this is particularly true of Ozu’s understated milieu. Yet there’s astounding and intricate beauty present in An Autumn Afternoon’s elegant static camerawork, formal patterns and subtle palette.

Throughout, Ozu strikes a touchingly profound note whilst imbuing proceedings with his usual playfulness. Hirayama’s desire to remain anchored in the past is humorously undermined, as a meeting with a former shipmate provokes a gentle satire on the military pomp of Japan’s naval past. A potential infatuation with a pretty bar owner is also undercut by the claims of his son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), that she looks nothing like his deceased mother. Meanwhile, Koichi’s own marriage provides further comic relief as he spars with his headstrong wife (Mariko Okada) who, along with Michiko, embodies the changing place of women in the Japan of the early sixties. It’s Michiko to whom Hirayama’s heart truly belongs and the hole that will be left is an enormous one, much like that left in cinema’s heart with Ozu’s own departure. What better reminder of this can there be than the exquisite majesty of his final composition.

Ben Nicholson