“An Autumn Afternoon” – A.J. Hakari

The ability to make a great film with relatively few ingredients is slowly becoming a lost art form. At the sake of sounding like a cantankerous old man (and at age 23, that’s an achievement), a scant number of modern films actually take the time to stop, smell the roses, and build a fascinating story around them. Enter An Autumn Afternoon, the final film from acclaimed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. A man famous (and, in some circles, infamous) for taking leisurely steps with his storytelling, this is a picture whose power and genius lies with its simplicity, a position that many movies have vied for but few have succeeded in earning.

As is the usual with Ozu, An Autumn Afternoon focuses on a family; in this case, it’s one struggling amidst the changing of the times. Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) is a widower who lives at home with his slacker son Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami) and his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). Michiko has taken care of her family for the past few years, but as she reaches her mid-20s, Shuhei begins to worry about whether or not she’ll find a husband. The situation is worsened when Shuhei attends a middle school reunion, and after seeing an old teacher (Eijiro Tono) still being cared for by his old maid of a daughter, he decides that enough is enough. By hook or by crook, Shuhei becomes determined to find a suitable mate for Michiko, so she can go out and finally live her own life. The trouble is that marriage is the last thing on Michiko’s mind, and sending her off might just be the worst thing Shuhei could do.

An Autumn Afternoon sounds like pretty heavy stuff, and I’m not one to disagree. I hadn’t seen any Ozu films before this, and my friends’ reactions to his work, which ranged from “brilliant” to “godawfully slow,” didn’t help either. While I’ll admit that his style definitely isn’t for all tastes, I must say that this story was a very heartfelt and involving one. An Autumn Afternoon isn’t a drama that wears its heart on its sleeve, relaying its overly sentimental intentions with all the subtlety of an atom bomb. Instead of spending his 113 minutes straining to get you to care about his characters, Ozu employs a more natural approach. He merely establishes his players with a simple set of emotions and motivations, steps back, and lets the story take care of itself. Ozu is playing the part of observer here, not once interfering with the lives of his characters and never stooping so low as to incorporate phony drama into the plot. Whatever conflict emerges in the story feels right and is dealt with realistically, as opposed to the over-the-top screaming matches that occupy most American pictures of this breed.

But the real clincher is that An Autumn Afternoon doesn’t depress viewers into submission. It’d be a far stretch to call this a happy film, but with its warm characters and sunny, Tatiesque score, An Autumn Afternoon comes across as more bittersweet than dour and downbeat. Though the story looks as if its on the thin side, Ozu provides plenty of thematic material to chew on. His plot is set firmly at a time when not only Japanese life and traditions were changing, so were those of other parts of the world. Ozu depicts a collection of characters torn between resisting the country’s gradual Americanization, staying true to their old ways, and acknowledging the fact that there are some things they can’t hold onto any longer. Nowhere is this conflict more intriguing than with Shuhei’s dilemma. On the one hand, he wants to see Michiko go off and start a family, to not spend her days looking after him — but what if this is what Michiko herself wishes to do? Ozu makes the battle between choice and tradition a most thought-provoking skirmish here, one that’s performed brilliantly by both its participants. Ryu is convincing as Shuhei, but the real find is Iwashita, whose subtle performance is so downplayed, you just might miss the quiet power she carries with her.

As an unabashed member of the ADD Generation, I do admit that An Autumn Afternoon felt fairly stiff at times. The pacing was a little slow, the story grew a bit repetitive, and the editing took its formal attitude to the extreme. However, be you an arthouse dweller or just someone who appreciates a good melodrama, I wholeheartedly recommend giving An Autumn Afternoon a thoughtful and well-deserved once-over.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s An Autumn Afternoon review here.

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