An Autumn Afternoon [Sanma no aji] [The Taste of Mackerel Pike]

(Japan 1962)

“We are alone in life. Always alone.”

— Sakuma

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

Production: Shochiku

Distribution: Shochiku, Shochiku Films of America (USA), Criterion Collection (USA), Janus Films (USA)

113 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

https://www.criterion.com/films/784-an-autumn-afternoon

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

Bakushū [Early Summer]

(Japan 1951)

After a presentation of shorts, the George Eastman Museum kicked off its third annual Nitrate Picture Show with a Japanese drama, Yasujirō Ozu’s quiet and gracefully understated Bakushū [麦秋]. In the context of midcentury Japan, Ozu explores the generational clash between tradition and progress, and both the possibilities and the casualties brought on by the latter. Opening with something that deals with changing values was an interesting choice on multiple levels.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) lives in postwar Tokyo with her parents, Shūkichi (Ichirō Sugai) and Shige (Chieko Higashiyama); her older brother, physician Kōichi (Chishū Ryū); his wife, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake); and their two unruly young sons, Minoru (Zen Murase) and Isamu (Isao Shirosawa). Noriko earns her own living as a secretary and contributes to the household, maintaining her own active social life. She seems happy, or at least content. Still, her more conventional family is concerned because she’s 28 years old and still isn’t married.

Noriko is a good sport about her family members’ not-so-subtle reminders, but the heat intensifies when an elderly uncle (Kokuten Kōdō) stays for a visit. Her chauvinistic boss (Shūji Sano) plays matchmaker, introducing her to Mr. Matanabe, a business associate in his 40s (all of his interactions occur off camera, so we never see him). He proposes. Naturally, Noriko’s family pushes her to accept his offer, which she considers even though the prospect doesn’t excite her.

Enter childhood friend, Kenkichi (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), who returns to the neighborhood with his daughter. He’s a widow in between job assignments. Noriko suddenly develops her own idea about which path she wants to take, much to the dismay of her family.

Bakushū is not a kinetic film—it’s slow, and the action centers on mundane routine activities like preparing meals, eating, conversing, working, and getting ready for bed. Some of the plot’s significant events aren’t even shown. Ozu favors low angles and wide, distant shots. He keeps the camera pretty still. He doesn’t use a lot of sets. On top of that, it takes some effort to keep track of the many characters.

Admittedly, I found myself zoning out at the beginning. Once I settled into Ozu’s rhythm, though, I got more interested in Bakushū. Some of the plot elements make the story seem slightly ahead of its time, but the core themes are universal. This is a family drama; the family unit ultimately falls apart, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The family portrait at the end closes things on a bittersweet note. I sensed more than a nod to the burgeoning westernization of Japanese society.

Bakushū fits nicely into the midcentury films I’ve developed a taste for. I never heard of it or Ozu, but I’ve already looked him up. I’m interested in seeing more of his work. As for this print, it was in all likelihood the very first feature film I’ve ever seen on nitrate (we’re not counting the shorts). The picture was crisp, but I must confess: its quality didn’t wow me like some others I saw after this.

With Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Igawa, Haruko Sugimura, Seiji Miyaguchi

Production: Takeshi Yamamoto

Distribution: Shochiku Company Limited, The Voyager Company (USA), Janus Films (USA)

124 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show