The final film from Yasujiro Ozu was also his last masterpiece, a gently heartbreaking story about a man’s dignifed resignation to life’s shifting currents and society’s modernization. Though widower Shuhei (frequent Ozu leading man Chishu Ryu) has been living comfortably for years with his grown daughter, a series of events leads him to accept and encourage her marriage and departure from their home. As elegantly composed and achingly tender as any of the Japanese master’s films, 'An Autumn Afternoon' is one of cinema’s fondest farewells.
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu began making silent films in 1927, but unfortunately over half of those have been lost over time. His first use of sound was a 1936 documentary and his first use of color was 'Equinox Flower' (1958). While Ozu is currently held in great esteem around the world, during most of his lifetime his work was rarely shown internationally. Many of his films are part of the Criterion Collection, including Tokyo Story (1953), considered one of the greatest films ever made by voters in the last three British Film Institute's polls, and his final film, the recently added 'An Autumn Afternoon'.
A frequent subject in his work, 'An Autumn Afternoon' finds Ozu exploring the clash of Japanese tradition within the country's evolving modern society. Shuhei Hirayama's (Chishu Ryu) family is the focal point. He is an aging widower whose 24-year-old daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), runs the household in terms of the chores. Shuhei has given little thought to what her desires might be and isn't sure what to make when he receives an offer for marriage from a friend's wife who has found someone.
Shuhei frequently gathers with former classmates at a local restaurant. Although they are all older men with professional jobs, when together they still interact as if they were the age they met. For example, Horie gets a lot of the teasing due to having a beautiful young wife that he likely can’t keep up with or satisfy at his age. But it's obvious, they are all jealous. They also act like a bit like school children when a former teacher, who is down on his luck, joins them for drinks. However, when called upon, they show respect.
Ozu's directing style is notable and comes across timeless here in a film over 50 years old. He limited his use of the tools at his disposal. Setting the camera at a low level in a spot it doesn't move from, he allows the actors to perform in front of and many times directly into the camera. His choice provides an opportunity for the audience to focus solely on the actors' revelations about the characters' humanity by creating a more intimate entry into the conversations taking place.
Ozu's contemporary Akira Kurasawa, whose influence from Hollywood films like John Ford's was a major factor why his films were more accessible to the west, outshined him on the world stage. Ozu's films tell smaller-scale stories dealing with situations more likely experienced by the viewer. Yet, the lives of the post-war Japanese middle class characters he deals with are no less fascinating. They come across as real people who deal with issues that may be unique to their society but the humanity on display also makes the stories universal.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'An Autumn Afternoon' (#446 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 12-page leaflet containing "Fond Farewell," an essay by Geoff Andrew.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.37:1. The liner notes state, "This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative at IMAGICA Corp. and IMAGICA West Corp. in Tokyo, where the film was restored in 2K resolution.
While leaning towards a slight green tint, the image exhibits many warm colors as seen in the vibrant reds, strong grays, and the great deep blues that appear as night descends. Blacks are solid and occasionally crush. Contrast can be dark in some scenes. The image looks clean and sharp, with evidence of the latter on display in the textures on the bamboo used in the restaurant design. The transfer appears free of digital artifacts.
Also from the liner notes, "the original monaural soundtrack was removed at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle wrtr manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX4."
There's not much to work with, but the dialogue is clear throughout and not hampered by signs of age or defect. Music, effects, and bass are all limited as is the dynamic range, but the latter delivers well on the quiet side of the spectrum as the soft sounds of wood floors responding to footsteps can be heard.
While the lower numbers of the mono audio track and the limited supplements bring down the disc's score, Ozu's 'An Autumn Afternoon' tells a captivating story about families and growing old. It's a welcome respite for those looking to see something different than the popular superhero/comic book fare. Although it's last film, 'An Autumn Afternoon' is a great entry point into his work.