Friday, July 08, 2005

Essay: An Autumn Afternoon

An Autumn Afternoon(1962)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

"Chance and Fare in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon"
by Cullen Gallagher

When Yasujiro Ozu made his final film, An Autumn Afternoon, 1962, it was not the first time he had approached its subject matter. Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn (1960) all deal with a daughter’s reluctance to marry, and her single parent’s (father in Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoon, mother in Late Autumn) unselfish decision to get them to marry. The bond between parent and daughter in these films is one of immeasurable strength, and the parent’s decision to help arrange the marriage is arrived at with great difficulty. They do not want their children to leave them, and they do so only in knowing that if their children stayed with them, they would miss the opportunity to lead a full life, and end up staying forever and, inevitably, being lonely. Ozu has explored such bonds between children and their parents in countless films, including Passing Fancy, Early Spring and Equinox Flower (which also deals with a daughter’s marriage, this time against her father’s will.) Any consideration of other aspects of An Autumn Afternoon would undoubtedly appear in many other films. Clearly, there is a repetition throughout Ozu’s oeuvre.

Any amount of predictability in his films is limited to certain situations, emotions, and the inevitable conclusion of loneliness. As Paul Schrader pointed out, “it’s roots [do] not stem from a lack of initiative or originality, as it does in the films of some directors, but rather from the primitive concept of ritual in which repetition is preferred to variety (Schrader 22).” Repetition is key to Ozu’s films. Kathe Geist reminds us that “his frequent uses of not ‘impose their will’ on Ozu’s plots: they are his plots (Geist 94).” It is this, the formulation of plot from motif, which distinguishes each Ozu film from the others, regardless of story, character, or conclusion similarities.

An Autumn Afternoon develops from a motif of chance and fate, two seemingly oppositional characteristics. One reason for this juxtaposition is that, “in Ozu’s mind Japanese life had resolved into certain opposing forces which he repeatedly demonstrated in his films (Schrader 19).” This opposition will become the driving force of the father’s dilemma of his daughter’s marriage. A better reason, perhaps, is that by examining both ends of the spectrum Ozu is able to represent the gamut of our indecision.

The use of chance and fate in the film can be broken down into four main categories. Firstly, as a narrative function used in the construction of the story; secondly, as a means of comedy, a mainstay in any Ozu film; and finally, as two themes that reappear in each of the characters: opportunity and fatalism.

I. Narrative Functions
In the opening scene, Hirayama is in his office. His friend Kawai visits him to talk about a marriage prospect for Hirayama’s daughter, Michiko. Hirayama is hesitant to marry off his daughter because he thinks she is too young. Michiko does not want to leave her family, as well. Kawai thinks otherwise, claiming that if Michiko doesn’t marry now, she’ll grow old and never have another opportunity at marriage. He spends much of the rest of the movie trying to convince Hirayama and his daughter to change their minds.

The question of whether or not this is a good chance (or the last one) for Michiko to marry forms the frame of the movie. Within this global frame of chance, there are many subplots also dealing with chance.

At a dinner one night, Kawai, Hirayama and their friend Horie discuss a chance meeting with their old professor on a train. As it turns out, Hirayama has been living near “the Gourd” (their old nickname for him) for many years, never running into him before. The friends plan a dinner with their professor, which introduces a parallel between Hirayama and the Gourd. The Gourd tells of his daughter, whom he allowed to stay with him after his wife died, instead of getting married. Now she is too old to marry, and both she and the Gourd are lonely, even though they live with each other. He was faced with the same dilemma that Hirayama is, and he chose not to separate himself from his daughter.

Hirayama also has a son, Koichi, who is introduced when he is given a great opportunity to purchase Macgregor golf clubs at a cheap price, which he still cannot afford. So, he goes to his father to borrow the money. Later in the film, when Koichi is bargaining with the middleman of the Macgregor deal, Miura, Michiko comes to pay a visit. After the deal is closed, Miura goes to leave, and Michiko follows. This is the first indication that Michiko has a romantic interest in anyone. The possibility of a marriage between Miura and Michiko comes to nothing because Miura already has a fiancée. This prospect, though, according to Kathe Geist, is a major foundation of the theme of the “missed opportunity (99)” which permeates the entire film, and will be explored in greater detail in the “Opportunity” segment of the paper.

II. Comedy
Another chance meeting is between Hirayama and an old war buddy, Sakamoto. They run into each other and go to a bar, getting extremely drunk and talking about the war. They discuss their own fate since the war, the hardships they endured, and what it would have been like had Japan had won. Sakamoto fantasizes of living in New York, with all the Americans wearing dark wigs and playing on traditional Japanese instruments. Hirayama, realizing the absurdity of such an image, comments: “It’s lucky then we lost.” Not only does he accept fate, but he seems glad of it, as well. Even though they suffered greatly because of the war, Hirayama believes their fate was the right one.

This scene serves little to further the plot: it is just a chance meeting with a character that never appears in the story again. The scene’s importance, though, resides in its subtler means: the ability to strengthen the motif of chance and fate, as well as provide comic relief. This combination of masquerading deeper character traits and the contemplation of fate through comedy is a commonplace in the film.
During dinners between the trio of friends, Hirayama, Kawai and Horie, combinations of fate and comedy appear constantly. While talking about the sad fate of The Gourd, Hirayama speaks up: “I lived by him all this time and I never knew.” Horie realizes that, “Such is the hand of fate, as in my own case,” referring to his marriage to a younger woman, two years older than his own daughter. This purpose of this juxtaposition is to link fatalism into the ‘lighthearted’ moments of the film, those where people are supposed to be laughing, leaving them vulnerable. Ozu uses this vulnerability to further implement chance and fate into yet another aspect of the film.

It is important to remember, though, that Ozu does not dwell on the ‘heaviness’ in these ‘lighthearted’ scenes. Above all else, these scenes of comedy are in the film as breathing room, much like Ozu’s own use of transition shots, and the pillow words in Haiku.

III. Opportunity
The basic outline of An Autumn Afternoon had been filmed over a decade earlier as Late Spring (1949). In both films, Ozu does not let the daughter marry whom she wants to. But the reason why they don’t marry is very different in both films, and this difference helps to clarify the individual themes of the films.

Late Spring suggests that the heroine misses marrying the man she loves and she does so more because the two discover each other too late than because he was ready when she was not [as is the case in An Autumn Afternoon.] Thus “missed opportunity” is uniquely central in An Autumn Afternoon, and the baseball game is our first indication (Geist 91).”

The aforementioned baseball game comes at the beginning of the film. After Kawai discusses a marriage prospect for his daughter, Hirayama asks him if he is coming to dinner that night. Kawai responds that he has tickets to a baseball game that he wouldn’t pass up. The next shots are exteriors of the baseball stadium, complete with the sound of an announcer giving play-by-play commentary. Following these are shots of the game as shown on a television set, proceeded by three men at a bar watching the TV. A waitress walks by them carrying a tray. The camera follows her down a corridor and into a room where Hirayama, Horie and Kawai are seated. He did skip the game: he gave up the opportunity. Such a series of shots not only establishes a sense of temporality, but also their independent destinies: everything operates independently. After Horie skips out early on the dinner to go home with his new wife, Kawai’s bitterness comes out: “I gave up the night game to come here.” Horie’s shrug let him know that that’s the way things turn out sometimes.

A subtler example of missed opportunity is one that also draws binding ties between Michiko and her family. Hirayama comes home late: he has missed dinner. Michiko informs him that their maid has quit, and that the whole family will have to do more work around the house. Hirayama says he is leaving early tomorrow morning and doesn’t have the time; his youngest son says he is sleeping in, as well. Michiko is miffed, and orders the two men to do the dishes now. The next shot is of her doing the dishes.

This sequence develops a complex relationship of dependencies within the family. The men are dependent on Michiko to clean the house, the cook the food, and so forth. But, at the same time, Michiko is feigns a dependency on the men in her family in that she allows them to arrange a marriage for her.

The marriage proposal is one of many possible opportunities found in the everyday life of the characters in the film. Koichi has the prospect of golf clubs that he’s always wanted. And as Horie stresses to his older, widower friends: if you get the chance to marry a younger woman, take it.

IV. Fatalism
The combination of chance and fate can at times be contradictory. One of them offers choice, and the other a lack of choice. But both of these elements are apparent in An Autumn Afternoon. Ozu’s decision to this reflects the dual nature of the characters in the film: one that resists fate, as well as one that accepts it.

The majority of the resistance of fate comes from Kawai. He makes three standout statements on this subject. First is the threat that he constantly tells Hirayama: marry your daughter off or you’ll end up like lonely and unhappy like “the Gourd”. The second is a conversation he has with Michiko when he tries to convince her to take up his prospect: She says she can’t get married because her family needs her. He says to her, “You’d give up a good marriage?” She replies, “It can’t be helped.” His response: “Yes it can.” He believes that we have control over our actions, that we do have a choice.

The final statement is an empathetic piece of advice he tells Hirayama after his daughter gets married: “It’s still a shock.” He is talking about the shock that comes from your daughter getting married and leaving you. This is very ironic, seeing how he was pushing for this marriage from the start of the film. It’s also ironic in that even though he acknowledges that daughters have to leave, he still doesn’t accept it. Donald Richie says that irony in Ozu’s films “is there for but one purpose: our detachment reveals a design of which the characters are unaware, and this makes us want to move closer to these warm and very human people (Richie 50).” The design that arises from this irony is the sealant that binds chance and fate as one struggle for the characters of An Autumn Afternoon.

Fate isn’t always fought against, though. Many characters constantly refer to fate in trying to find some reasoning for either uncanny good or bad luck. Horie describes his marriage to a younger woman as, “the hand of fate.” Koichi, after finding out that not only does Miura already have a fiancée, but that he had asked to marry Michiko before and that Koichi had said no, also says “the hand of fate.” The Gourd even says that he is “accustomed” to the loneliness that is his life. These characters accept their life as it is.

Hirayama is aware that even though the Gourd didn’t marry off his daughter that he is lonely. He is also aware that if his daughter leaves he will be married. These opposing forces, the ones that Schrader called attention to, lead to a great contradiction in An Autumn Afternoon. Even though he does have two distinct choices to choose from, the ultimate consequence is the same: an inevitable loneliness. The ultimate coalition of chance and fate is not a cheerful one: the illusion of choice is overshadowed by an inescapable fate. This fate is the end of almost every Ozu film: a father sitting alone.

Richie’s notice of chance in another Ozu film is reflective of the conclusion of An Autumn Afternoon, one that is a summation of the pointlessness of chance. “In Early Summer a character observes that life is like a game of chance. ‘Happiness is only a hope - hope more like a dream, like hoping you are going to win at the racetrack.’ (Richie 67)”

Works Cited
An Autumn Afternoon. Dir. Yasujiro Ozu. Perf. Chisu Ryu. Videocassette. New Yorker Films, 2001.
Geist, Kathe. “Narrative Strategies in Ozu’s Late Films.” Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History. Ed. Arthur Nolletti and David Desser. Indiana University Press, 1992. 91-94.
Richie, Donald. Ozu . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film . Da Capo Press, 1988

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