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").