There aren’t many film-makers who demand or reward imaginative engagement to the same degree as Ozu. His films, like his most sympathetic characters, are so restrained, so respectful, so generous that their grief, regret and disappointment can be easy to overlook. Once observed they are impossible to ignore or ameliorate, and often quite overwhelming.
Returning again and again to the territory of family obligation, his career builds into a vast meditation on love, duty and resignation, always expressed in his quiet, dignified style of low angles, long takes and square, symmetrical compositions. Characters are arranged as if framed by their rooms, their conversation often directed to the camera; when movement is necessary they neatly arrange themselves into unobstructive tableaux. In later films, such as The End of Summer (his penultimate feature), the delicately judged use of colour is balanced by a virtual moratorium on camera movement – to have both, it seems, might appear profligate.
The constant subject matter combined with his repertory of actors cast in analogous roles chimes with the nature of that subject matter, the unending cycle of family interaction. This is further reflected in the seasonal titles: the Japanese title of this film more literally translates as Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family. The scenario here is based around the widowed patriarch Banpei, a brewing boss whose gently rekindled affair with an old mistress angers one of his daughters; there are plans to marry another two off. (A conversation in which two of his workers express confusion over the twists of the family tree is perhaps Ozu?s deadpan joke at his own plots? expense.) Incessantly fanning themselves in sweltering heat, the characters are of course as far from Tennessee Williams histrionics as one could imagine; the sharp tongue of Fumiko (Michiyo Aramata) apart, harsh words are rare, though the thoughtless egotism of Banpei?s supposed love child strikes us harsher than a serpent?s tongue.
They never meet, but her opposite is the widowed daughter Akiko (Setsuko Hara, whose pained smile will be familiar to viewers of Tokyo Story, where she played a similar role). Akiko dresses traditionally, not in the western style, but Ozu?s approach to the seismic cultural changes in post-war is as careful and balanced as in other areas. Osaka?s neon signs, reading ?New Japan? in English, are merely observed as things enjoyed by characters, like baseball, gin fizz or the races. Judgement and opinion in Ozu are the prerogative of characters whose actions cause pain, and these are usually the result of ignorance and often regretted later; others, like Akiko, reserve expression of their thoughts until they can no longer affect the situation they apply to. Like Bresson, Ozu shows a great enough understanding and sympathy for the human condition to allow its moments of grace to shine through while respecting the privacy of its more general confusion.
The DVD presentation isn’t especially good: the layer transfers were awkward on my machine and there are no extras at all, beyond a bare filmography.