Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

September 13, 2011

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no Aji, 1962) by Ozu

An Autumn Afternoon (1962) was Ozu's last film and has been called his swansong, more elegiac than his other films. That is incorrect hindsight, as Ozu when he wrote and filmed An Autumn Afternoon, had no idea he would die in late 1963 and in fact started work an a new film!

The title may sound elegiac to us, but two things should be noted here:
1) Autumn is not a season with sad or dark connotations in Japan, on the contrary, it is a time of blue skies when the muggy heat of summer finally makes place for pleasant coolness. It is a season people become active again in sports and hiking and when the appetite returns.
2) The title of the film is literally "The Taste of Sanma," where "sanma" is a mackerel type fish (not mackerel itself, which is saba; sanma is usually translated as "Pacific saury"). This cheap fish is a delicacy in September and that is the season the film points to (Late Autumn, "Akibiyori,"  in the same way, is set under the sunny skies of October). In fact, there is (even) more eating and drinking in this "food film" than in other Ozu reels. We also see Ozu's own favorite dish, tonkatsu (deep-fried pork) pass by.

Hirayama Shihei (Ryu Chishu) is a widower, living with his daughter Michiko (Iwashita Shima) and a younger son. Michiko is a sassy modern type, who rather sharply tells father and brother that there will be no dinner when they come home late. A long way from the demure Hara Setsuko in the late 40s and 50s - Ozu deftly reflects the changes in society.

The eldest son, Koichi (Sada Keiji), is married to Akiko (Okada Mariko). They live in their own flat (in a danchi), struggling to make both ends meet as the young couple are heavily into consumer goods - presently they want both a refrigerator and golf sticks, but papa is always good for a loan. Akiko, too, is an outspoken modern woman, Okada Mariko plays the same character as in Akibiyori. She keeps her husband on a tight leash, also financially. This last Ozu film is really very funny.

Hirayama is auditor at a chemical company (I guess that would have to be in Kawasaki, the industrial center between Tokyo and Yokohama). He has two drinking friends, Kawai (Nakamura Nobuo) and Professor Horie (Kita Ryuji), - the last one is just remarried to a young woman who could be his daughter, inducing jokes about certain proto-Viagra pills he supposedly is taking - and we see the inside of lots of bars in this film.

The "Mama-san" (Kishida Kyoko, the heroine from Suna no Onna) of one favorite watering hole resembles Hirayama's deceased wife. Hirayama has been the commandant of a ship in the war, so she plays on his nostalgia by having him listen to the "Warship March" (a piece that later became a perennial favorite in pachinko halls). But now, in 1962, Hirayama's joking conclusion is that it is good Japan lost the war: the country after all is peaceful and prosperous.

Hirayama and his two friends at a certain moment invite their former teacher "The Gourd" (Tono Eijiro, famous from his role as Mito Komon in period film) to a dinner and then bring him home where they meet his daughter Tomoko (Sugimura Haruko), who has turned into an embittered old maid. Hirayama wants to spare his own daughter this fate and as Michiko is already 24 (women should marry before turning 25, was the traditional philosophy in Japan), starts looking around for a husband for her. Both father and daughter conceal their real feelings about this marriage.

Michiko likes a co-worker of her father, but he is already engaged - she has waited too long. So an omiai (arranged marriage) is set up with a for us, as viewers, anonymous person - we don't even see him in the film - the final image of Michiko is in her colorful wedding kimono with the traditional tsunokakushi headgear.

After the ceremony, Hirayama again goes drinking (the Mama-san sees his morning dress and asks if he has been to a funeral. "Something like that," he answers) and comes home a bit tipsy. He feels his age and the loneliness that goes with it. Marrying off his daughter is like loosing the war again: so perhaps some good will come of this, too.

Other remarks:
- Ozu liked both whiskey (Scotch) and sake. When he retired for a session with screen writer Noda Kogo to an inn (or later his mountain house in Tateshina) to write a new scenario, he would line up the empty sake bottles and at the end count "a script of how many bottles it was."
-  In modern Japan, housewives usually keep the family purse, as we see in the example of Michiko. The husband gets an allowance from her.
- Socializing after work with coworkers or friends is common in Japan. As houses are too small and often located in inconvenient suburbs, this takes place in restaurants, coffee shops and bars in Tokyo and other cities. Eating out is very common in Japan. In the film, "The Gourd" and his daughter run a cheap noodle shop.
- The proprietor of a bar (the "mama-san") would usually be someone who first worked as a hostess herself, and saved enough money to start her own establishment (or, more probable, is sponsored by a well-off male friend, a former customer).
- "Women should marry before turning 25:" women of 25 and older were in the past in Japan inelegantly (and politically incorrectly) called "stale Christmas cake," as if they were "leftovers" that nobody wanted anymore.
- Friends don't have to stand on ceremony, so when Hirayama is out drinking with his buddies, everyone pours his own sake. But when they invite their former teacher, they politely pour for him (oshaku).
- Koichi has bought golf sticks, but golf courses are expensive and far out of Tokyo, so we see him practicing his swing at a driving range Japanese-style: hitting the balls into a huge net on a roof top or other restricted space. Such nets are often visible in the urban landscape.
- In the discussion with the teacher, a dish called "hamo" comes up, "pike conger," which is typical of Kyoto and Western Japan (this type of eel has countless small bones, so a special knife and preparation technique are necessary). The teacher apparently has never heard of "hamo" and keeps thinking the conversation is about "ham" (in Japanese called "hamu").

September 12, 2011

Japanese film: Early Summer (1951) by Ozu

As David Bordwell has pointed out, Early Summer (Bakushu) is an early experiment in the ensemble film - a group of characters connected in some way, instead of a single protagonist. Ozu observes the lives of 19 characters (plus a twentieth one who is not shown but very important to the film), an extended family and their friends and colleagues at work, and their interactions rather than the (nonexistent) plot drive the film forward.

The family consists in the first place of the Mamiyas, father Koichi (Ryu Chishu), mother Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko) and their two young boys - as in I Was Born, But... They live in Kamakura; father is a doctor in a hospital in Tokyo. With them lives the sister of Koichi, Noriko (Hara Setsuko), who works in Tokyo as a secretary. She is a modern young woman, and her income also helps support the family.

Also living together with these characters are the aged parents of Koichi and Noriko, Shukichi (Sugai Ichiro) and Shige (Higashiyama Chieko). They will eventually retire to the ancestral home in the area of "Yamato" (Asuka, south of Nara), but for now they are enjoying life with their children and grandchildren. A visitor in the first part of the film is "old uncle" (Kodo Kokuten), who has come to visit the family from Yamato.

There are several neighbors taking part in the story, the most important one is a subordinate of Koichi, doctor Yabe Kenkichi (Nihonyanagi Hiroshi) who is a widower living with his mother (Sugimura Haruko) and his little daughter. Another often appearing character is Noriko's Tokyo friend Aya (Awashima Chikage).

The first 40 minutes of the film just show these and other characters and their simple interactions. There is an excursion to the Great Buddha in Kamakura, Boy's Day (May 5) is celebrated with a children's party, the parents leisurely visit a park. The second part starts when the family suddenly realizes that Noriko already is 28 and that it is time for her to marry, so they all start pushing her. At the end of the second part she takes her own marriage decision and the final section of the film shows how that works out on the various other characters. An epilogue shows the parents and uncle in Yamato.

Noriko is the kind of modern young woman who often appears in other films of the period of the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), as such types were promoted by the American censorship to introduce democracy. But where other films can be preachy and almost propagandistic (Aoi Sanmyaku by Imai is such an example), Ozu, on a much higher level of artistry, just shows what it means to be a modern, professional woman.

Noriko enjoys her life and her work and has no wish to marry. With her humor she is a bright spot in the house. She likes going out with her friends, although a division has become visible between the unmarried and married ones. With her friend Aya, Noriko preaches the advantages of being a single young woman. Just when the family starts pressing her about marriage, she receives an interesting proposal for an arranged marriage (omiai) via her boss. But the interested ones are Koichi and other family members, not Noriko.

Just at that time the boys have run away after a quarrel and Noriko has been looking for them with the help of their neighbor, Yabe. Yabe has received a proposal to move for a few years to a hospital in Akita, in northern Japan. When Noriko later visits Yabe's mother, the mother suddenly presses her to marry Yabe, as it will be difficult for him to live in Akita alone with his small daughter. Unexpectedly, Noriko immediately accepts and therefore shocks her family members, who were hoping she would make a superior match with a company director, instead of marrying a doctor of a provincial hospital - and on top of that, a widower with a child. By the way, nobody asks what Yabe's wishes are and he seems rather non-committal.

Noriko is a modern woman, for she has made her own decision and rebelled against the wishes of her family. In Japan it was (and is) customary to at least consult the family about such ponderous matters as a marriage partner, but Noriko takes her decision alone. But as modern as she is in the decision making process, in the choice of her partner she is very conservative: the boy from next door, who works for her brother. As she herself agrees, this is a safe choice. She feels at ease with Yabe, and that is all. She is not in love with him, but as she is being pushed to marry, she prefers someone she at least feels comfortable with. So this no modern "love match," as her friend Aya teases her, and she will not have a modern home with Coca Cola bottles lined up in the fridge.

Another reason for selecting Yabe has to do with the absent twentieth protagonist of the film, Shoji, the brother of Noriko and Koichi who was sent to the front in the war and has never returned. His body has also never been found. Yabe was a friend of this brother and that may explain Noriko's feeling of closeness to him. The presence (or rather, absence) of Shoji hangs like shroud over the film.

The parents of course also miss their son with pain in their hearts. In the epilogue, when they have returned to Yamato (Noriko's marriage and departure for Akita has led to the break-up of the extended family), they sit looking at the early summer fields of barley, through which a marriage procession winds it way. They think of Noriko, but also of Shoji, who is symbolized by such an ear of barley. (The literal title of the film is "The Barley Harvest Season.")

Other remarks:
- Arranged marriages were the custom in this period, even among "Westernized" Japanese. The prospective marriage partners would be introduced to each other by a CV and a photo; when these were satisfactory, a meeting would follow with both families present, usually in an upscale restaurant or hotel.
- Secretly digging into the background of the prospective partners was also common. Koichi is checking the background of the man proposed by Noriko's boss, and the family hears that a private detective has been around in the neighborhood asking questions about Noriko.
- Yabe's mother gives a nice example of indirect communication: when she is angry at Yabe for accepting the proposal to go to Akita (really the boondocks at that time), she sits silent with stiff shoulders, but refuses to speak.
- The children's party in the film is Boy's Day on May 5, and not a birthday party. We also see the carp streamers (koinobori) that are hung on a tall pole outside the house for this festival: two large ones for the parents and smaller ones for the boys in the family.
- In the 1950s social pressure on both men and women to marry was very strong. Today, the Japanese marry later and later, or not at all.
- Yamato, the area (not the name of a village!) to which the parents return, is famous as the place where the first court that governed the nation was established in the 5th c. It is also a poetic name for Japan, with nationalistic overtones, and here may symbolize a return to old values. The hill in the last shot could be Mt Miwa, a sacred mountain near present Sakurai.

September 11, 2011

Japanese film: I was born, but... (Umarete wa mitakedo, 1932) by Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu’s Umarete wa mitakedo... (I Was Born, But…, 1932) is a moving comedy that is the first great film Ozu made, still in the silent era. While many of Ozu's early films are shomingeki, stories about "blue collar workers," this one treats us to a "home drama" type view of the middle class and life as a "salaryman." It is on a par with Ozu's post-war movies.

It is a film about hierarchy. A family composed of a father (Saito Tatsuo), mother (Yoshikawa Mitsuko) and two sons aged eight and ten (Sugawara Hideo and Aoki Tomio) moves to a suburb of Tokyo and is shown settling in during the first five days in their new neighborhood. This was a normal move for such families in the 1930s, when the suburbs of Tokyo were developed at a furious pace by railway conglomerates as Tokyu, Odakyu, Keio, etc. Today these suburbs are tightly packed with houses, but in 1930 there were still many empty fields were the children could play.

The one hierarchy the sons know is that of physical strength. This is enveloped in lots of myths, such as the idea that the eating of bird's eggs makes one stronger, or a weird game where the boys give their friends the sign of the evil eye on which they have to fall down and only may get up again when the boys make a Catholic cross. The boys have to fight their way into the hierarchy of the local boys and defeat the local bully. They finally do this with the help of the delivery boy from the sake shop. He helps them because their mother buys beer from the shop, and that is the first intimation that social relations are more important than pure strength.

The other hierarchy is the normal social hierarchy, where power is held based on income and position rather than on muscles or other merit. The father lives close to his boss and every morning greets him by bowing politely in the hope of getting ahead. The boys wonder: isn't their father stronger than the boss? They themselves can easily beat up the empty-headed son of the boss, who is of their age but walks around in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Why must their father behave so slavishly? The climax comes when the boys are allowed to join a showing of home films in the house of the boss and see their father clowning for his pompous and bullying superior. The father even bows for the boss's son! A classic confrontation between the innocence of childhood and the hypocrisy of the world, one could say. While this film in particular criticizes the social rigidity of Japanese society, hierarchies in themselves are a thing of all societies.

The boys create a scene at home and refuse to eat. The father explains that this is the way the world is (although the father realizes the life he leads is a sorry one) and the next morning the boys eat rice balls together with their father and peace is restored. The family warmth makes it possible for the boys to accept what they and their father must be. But innocence has been lost. A film about children has become a film about grown-ups, a bright little comedy has become darker and more serious. The defeat of the boys is as inevitable, as is the continuance of social hierarchy.

A third hierarchy the film addresses is that of the family. One could also say (as Joan Mellen has done in The Waves at Genji's Door, New York, 1976) "that the Japanese family functions to socialize the young into acceptance of the status quo." The boys challenge parental authority as they see little value in studying hard at school when the outcome of that toil will be that - like their father - they become subservient to bosses with less talent than oneself. By losing respect for their father, the boys upset the equilibrium of the family. Although the father knows in his heart that they are right, it is his duty as "traditional patriarch" to instruct them in the acquiescence to authority that society expects. There is no place in Japanese society for the rebel or dissenter, certainly not in the 1930s.

Some remarks:
- The two men helping with the removal in the beginning of the film are staff members from the office of the father. In Japan it was (and still is in many cases) normal that subordinates help with the removals of superiors, sacrificing their free Sunday. This is another case of hierarchy. Later, we hear them remark that the father (their boss) is a very shrewd man because he moves house to a location close to the big boss so that he can better pay attention to him.
- Ozu clearly takes a negative view of school and the office. Both are shown as boring places of group discipline by a shot of the boys marching in military style at school, followed by one of the employees who are similarly disciplined and regimented. In the authoritarian-structured society of pre-War Japan everybody must behave identically.
- Ozu himself was a school drop-out and never worked in an office. In both the school room and office we see people yawning. Even the boss is not working, he sits playing with his personal film camera (this must have been an expensive toy in the 1930s!). In such a rigid society, small rebellions are as natural as when the boys show their father forged school results.
- At ages 8 and 10, the boys are still indulged as young Japanese children are - in the few short years before full conformity will be exacted. That is why they still can openly criticize their father and call him a "nobody."
- The father commutes by train - we see the small, tram-like cars riding through the suburbs. His boss, however, is collected at home by a car with driver. In large Japanese companies, all persons of the level of director and higher have such shiny black chauffeur-driven cars at their disposal. But although Japan is clearly hierarchical, it also knows restraint, i.e. we never see the extravaganzas (also not as regards the salary) of American corporate directors.
- Ozu did however not "disapprove" of hierarchy. He knew that hierarchy is part and parcel of human society and that changing social systems will only change the persons in the hierarchy, not remove it as such. As in his later films, also here people bow to the inevitable - which may be a very Japanese world view. They are the casualties of things as they are (and we, all of us, are similar casualties), as Donald Richie expresses it in his book about Ozu (Ozu, Berkeley, 1974).

- Ozu liked I Was Born, But… so much that he remade it as Good Morning (Ohayo) in 1959.

September 7, 2011

Japanese film: Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960) by Ozu Yasujiro

"Akibiyori" is always translated as "Late Autumn," but more correct would be ”a clear autumn day," one of those Indian summer days in Japan with perfectly blue high skies and pleasantly cool temperatures. The film is a comedy of manners about the sunny side of the autumn of life.

The center of the film is Hara Setsuko, who appears in many Ozu films. She plays Akiko, a young widow, who at forty still looks just as beautiful as her twenty year old daughter Ayako (Tsukasa Yoko). As in Late Spring, of which this is in a certain sense a remake, Ayako has had opportunities to marry, but she prefers to stay at home with her mother, who would otherwise be lonely. When three friends of the deceased father (one of them is Saburi Shin as businessman Mamiya Soichi) introduce marriage possibilities from their network, Akiko supports these as she doesn't want her daughter to sacrifice herself. When Ayako still prevaricates, the friends decide that the only solution is to have Akiko remarry first. They themselves have since their youth been in love with Akiko, so that should pose no problem... except that Ayako gets angry with her mother when she hears a rumor about the remarriage plan (of which Akiko is perfectly innocent). In the end things go as they must: Ayako marries a promising young man, a subordinate of Mr Mamiya, and Akiko stays behind, alone.

It should be mentioned that the successful suitor of Ayako is played by Sada Keiji. Okada Mariko has an interesting role as Ayako's friend, Yukiko. She is a lively, sprightly personality, and a "modern Japanese" of the early sixties - she even sticks out her tongue! Yukiko also has an interesting role in the plot, as she "punishes" the three middle-aged friends for the trick they played on Ayako and Akiko by enticing them to a sushi bar (the one owned by her father, but she doesn't tell them) and then makes them order and pay for expensive omakese courses (chief's selection) and lots of sake.

This was Ozu's third film in color and one of his last. The colors are mostly blues, suitable for the cool autumn day. The film's locations are the houses of the characters, especially Akiko; various restaurants and bars; and the office of Mr Mamiya - it is a private office but apparently in a large corporation in Tokyo and friends and relatives just drop in, something which would be unthinkable in later times!). We often see the three middle-aged friends like small boys making their mischievous plans together. There is also a trip to Ikaho hot springs, where the reconciliation between mother and daughter takes place.

Akibiyori is an elegiac, but also a humorous film. Ozu wanted to make people feel the innate sadness of life, without resorting to (melo)drama or appealing to the emotions. He has marvelously succeeded in this film.

Some remarks:
- Ozu's films are great resources for students of Japanese: the dialogues have not aged and are still living Japanese, moreover they are spoken slowly and clearly.
- Ozu has often been called "quintessentially Japanese", for example in his general restraint, or technically his low camera angles. But in reality "Ozu is Ozu"  - for example, other Japanese films from the same period can be unrestrained tearjerkers; and if Ozu's camera angles were so very Japanese, why is he the only one to employ them?
- On the other hand, the characters he shows us are realistic, everyday Japanese. His films could be used as illustrations for intercultural understanding (for example, non-verbality or indirect communication). Although Japan has changed the last 50 years, and is much more culturally mixed now, Ozu's films show some of the original, pure types.
- 1960, the year this film was made, was characterized by social unrest in Japan, such a large demonstrations against a new security treaty with the U.S. and an on TV murder of a socialist politician by an ultra-rightist. But indeed, for most Japanese life went on normally, as it does in Akibiyori.
- Rather than "home dramas," I would call Ozu's films "comedies of manners," as the novels of Jane Austen are called. The post-war films use one of life's major rituals, "marriage," as a plot device (in so far as there is any plot!) to show the progress of time and the changes in the lives of the protagonists.
- Hara Setsuko made more than 100 films between 1935 and 1962. She worked with Naruse, Kurosawa and Inagaki, but perhaps her best films were made with Ozu (6 in all). She retired suddenly after the death of Ozu and has since been living quietly in Kamakura. In her films, she is always smiling, but also has a very distinguished manner.
- Ozu never married and lived for his art until his death at age 60 in 1962. He is buried in a temple in Kamakura and his gravestone carries the Chinese character for MU, "Nothingness."

September 6, 2011

Japanese film: Mr Thank-you (Arigato-san, 1936) by Shimizu Hiroshi

"Arigato-san" means "Mr. Thank You" and refers to the protagonist of this film who is a very polite bus driver on the rough roads of the scenic Izu Peninsula. He is played by the handsome, smiling Uehara Ken. The film was made in 1936 and follows a bus with its passengers. It is a true road movie, a film that is in constant motion - we see the bus speeding along, overtaking pedestrians, we see the scenery from the bus and we see the passengers and the driver and listen to their conversations.

It is beautiful to see the actual scenery and villages of that time, almost as in a documentary, although I must say people were very poor as well - Japan was in a deep recession. The film was based on a story by famous author Kawabata Yasunari and contains references to his story "The Dancer of Izu," that is set along the same road.

There is not much of a plot, except one red thread, a mother (Futaba Kaoru) who is so hard-up that she has to sell her seventeen year old daughter (Tsukiji Mayumi) into prostitution. This is not told us up front, but becomes gradually clear. She is taking her by bus to the station where the daughter will take the train to Tokyo, a city "full of badgers and foxes." Many daughters from the poor peninsula have made this journey and none has ever returned home, we learn from the conversation of other passengers. But we also see some tender feelings being born between the still unmarried driver and the girl, so perhaps there is hope...

Other passengers include a modern woman (Kuwano Michiko), who smokes cigarettes and drinks liquor, so she probably works as a hostess in a bar in Tokyo. She openly flirts with the driver and puts down everyone she dislikes, such as a self-important loan salesman with a huge mustache (the man is very proud of this appendage and there is a comic scene when another passenger boards with exactly the same mustache).

But the heart of the film is the driver, who chats friendly with the locals, delivers messages for them and is helpful to everyone. He is a sign of steadiness in the turbulent economic times. He had saved money to buy a second-hand bus himself, but now he uses it to help the mother and keep the seventeen year old girl out of prostitution (at the suggestion of the outspoken woman). This is not shown or explicitly mentioned, but in the final shots we see how the next day the girl and her mother return home by the same bus. Presumably, the bus driver will marry the young woman.

Arigato-san was made by Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-66), a friend and colleague of Ozu Yasujiro at the Shochiku studios. This light but uplifting film has become available thanks to the Criterion Collection.