by Allan Fish
(Japan 1960 128m) DVD1/2
Two lights in a hallway
p Sanezumi Fujimoto, Maskatsu Kaneko, Tadahiro Tedamoto d Yasujiro Ozu w Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu ph Yuuharu Atsuta ed Yoshiyasu Hamamura m Kojun Saito art Tatsuo Hamada
Setsuko Hara (Akiko Miwa), Yoko Tsukasa (Ayako Miwa), Mariko Okada (Yukiko Sasaki), Shinichiro Mikami (Koichi), Kuniko Miyake (Nobuko), Miyuki Kuwano (Michiko), Nabuo Nakamura (Shuzo Taguchi), Fumio Watanabe (Tsuneo Sugiyama), Chishu Ryu (Shukicki Miwa), Keiji Sada (Shotaru Goto), Shin Saburi (Soichi Mamiya),
Watching Ozu’s late masterwork prior to jotting thoughts down here, I was reminded by a throwaway piece of dialogue from Hitch’s Rebecca when, during the Monte Carlo prologue, Joan Fontaine’s demure heroine tells of how her father, an artist, wasn’t one for variety, preferring to draw or paint the same tree over and over again. He felt, and I quote from memory not verbatim, that once you have found one perfect thing, you should stick to it. Larry Olivier’s Maxim mutters that “I’m a great believer in that myself.” I get the feeling that Yasujiro Ozu might have nodded at such a maxim.
Late Autumn would be the first of two reworkings of his earlier masterpiece Late Spring. Unlike in that film and in his later farewell An Autumn Afternoon, it differs in one vital plot detail. Those two films detailed the attempts of a widower to marry off his young devoted daughter, whereas Late Autumn showcases a widow trying to do the same for her daughter. The widow, Akiko, and the daughter, Ayako, attract the attention of three middle-aged friends of their late husband/father, who become matchmakers in triplicate, with one of them holding out his heart to the widow as well. The young man they find for Ayako, Goto, is at first turned down by her, but then she warms to him. She nonetheless worries at her mother being left alone, and is delighted when she hears that she’s going to remarry.
There’s a strange symmetry to this, for in Late Spring it was Setsuko Hara who played the finally married daughter and, as if the whole thing has moved forward a generation, it’s now she who is left alone by her daughter. It’s simple, one could almost be excused for calling its plot perfunctory, and yet it’s a film which is, if it’s not a contradiction in terms, perfunctorily perfect. Hara’s mother goes through her own ritual, in this case preparing for bed and her first night of a life alone in her home. Throughout as she always does, Hara smiles through the pain, and it makes it all the more emotional to watch, not least in the scenes towards the end where mother and daughter make a final trip to a relative before the daughter’s marriage. If in a Western film a mother talked of how she was going to be lonely but the daughter shouldn’t mind that, and went on about how it was going to be their last trip together, one might find oneself muttering obscenities at the screen at the mother’s selfishness. That’s what makes Hara’s performance all the more remarkable, for you never once think that; there’s no emotional blackmail here, she’s utterly guileless, and when she talks of remembering their last trip, you’d swear you can see her memorising the slightest detail for the memory banks. The performances are typically superb, not just from muse Hara, but from Okada as the friend who dispels the gossip and rumour and visits Hara in the deeply affecting final scene, and from Tsukasa, magnificent as the young daughter. The ethos is plain, even obvious; time passes, friends part, daughters leave, parents are left behind, but it’s timeless. For Ozu, sadly, time was closing in, not just his own mortality but in the way his cinema was seeming old hat. Even the setting – the surrounding pre-fabs and railings on baking concrete roofs – looks ahead to the cinematic revolutionaries of the decade to come, of Oshima, Imamura and even the excesses of Wakamatsu. Mizoguchi, I always felt, could have adjusted to the times, but Ozu couldn’t, and nor could Hara. She never made another film after his death, retired at 43.