“We are alone in life. Always alone.”
If one film perfectly captures what solitude, melancholia, and acceptance of things for what they are feels like, it has to be Yasujirō Ozu’s gorgeous and quietly contemplative An Autumn Afternoon [秋刀魚の味]. Framing death and loneliness in such metaphors as war, alcohol, marriage, aging, and the global impact of postwar America, this one packs a punch that hits like a feather but still leaves a mark.
Shūhei Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) is a middle aged man who emits an air of defeat, as if life has disappointed him. A widower with three adult kids, only one of them, elder son Kōichi (Keiji Sada), is married — and he and his wife (Mariko Okada) have some messed up priorities, especially when it comes to money. No one seems interested in daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). Who knows what the deal is with younger son Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami)? Hirayama bides his time between home, work, and dining with former classmates Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), Horie (Ryūji Kita), Sugai (Tsūzai Sugawara), and Watanabe (Masao Oda) at Sugai’s restaurant. They mostly drink sake, reminisce, and make fun of each other. Horie’s new wife, who’s much younger than he, provides ample material for discussion.
A former professor, Sakuma (Eijirō Tōno), comes to dinner one night. He has way too much to drink. Hirayama and Kawai drive him home, where they meet his spinster daughter Tomoko (Haruko Sugimura). They learn he’s not doing well, operating a jank noodle joint in a low rent neighborhood to make ends meet. This gets Hirayama thinking about his own family and his obligations there.
An Autumn Afternoon is a film you see to experience its mood — not to be entertained. The narrative is engaging and plotted nicely, but it’s only half the story. Ozu uses composition to convey his points as much he uses words and characters. Long shots. Hallways, stairs, and windows. Army green and brown hues, a very ’60s sitcom look. Colors, solids, patterns, and textures. All of this is just as important as the narrative. More important, actually.
Roger Ebert offered the best description of Ozu I’ve seen to date: “He is a man with a profound understanding of human nature, about which he makes no dramatic statements. We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on.” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-an-autumn-afternoon-1962). Amen. This is the essence of An Autumn Afternoon, and it’s beautiful.
With Teruo Yoshida, Noriko Maki, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kishida, Michiyo Kan, Daisuke Katō, Shinobu Asaji
Distribution: Shochiku, Shochiku Films of America (USA), Criterion Collection (USA), Janus Films (USA)
(iTunes rental) A-