What does a wedding look like in an Ozu film? Two large hired cars outside an anonymous block of flats. Inside the building, father and elder brother in sleek Western morning suits, younger brother in smart but more casual clothes. Sister-in-law very tidy in black traditional Japanese dress. Bride cloaked in a mountainous confection of pink and white silk, topped by a hat that looks like a small but heavy monument. When she moves it’s as if a tent were shifting its ground. She kneels before her father, he says she looks wonderful. The party leaves for the wedding. The next scene shows the father drinking with his friends much later in the day. We have not seen the groom, and never do, he is just an arrangement the bride’s father and an old schoolfriend have come to.
The film offering these images is An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Ozu’s last work – he died in 1963 – now showing at the BFI. Ozu is routinely praised for the delicacy and discretion so often associated (correctly) with Japanese culture. But in this film he has tilted the emphasis in a striking way. Here all the hints are obvious, even gross, all the jokes slow and clumsily signalled, all the meanings left lying around for us to fall over them. What is delicate and discreet is Ozu’s silence on what is actually going on in the minds of the people who are perpetrators and victims of these activities. The women’s faces especially show virtually nothing with an almost painful precision. It’s not that they can’t speak or feel but that they know how little their speech or feelings matter. They are certainly capable of telling their men off, of getting them to cook their own meals, and of deciding how the family money will be spent, and one wonders at the beginning of the movie why they are so sulky – shouldn’t such liberties cheer them up? No, because they live in a world where all the real decisions are taken by men, mere nagging and bossiness are just expressions of the right to discontent.
The men too hide all kinds of emotions, especially from themselves. The father of the bride, for example, is so caught up in his liberal kindness that he doesn’t know how cruel he can be. And although I haven’t had the chance to do the proper statistical count, he probably says ‘Mmm’ more often than any other character in a feature film, Eastern or Western.
The film’s large narrative question is what a widowed father should do about his daughter. Who will look after him if she gets married? A subordinate question is whether an older man should remarry, and many of the film’s broadest jokes address this topic with unbearable jollity on the jokers’ part. ‘Unbearable’ is an odd word to use of anyone’s behaviour in an Ozu film – his films are models of kindness in the way Buñuel’s films are models of cruelty – but his portrait of the old school pals in An Autumn Afternoon is lethal. They meet up for reunions they don’t like to attend (they would rather be at a baseball match), they drink beer and sake and whisky, and in some cases get falling down drunk. Then they go home – or at least two of them do – to their patiently or not so patiently waiting daughters.
The great negative example of the film, a parody of a man who feels sorry for himself, played by Eijirô Tonô, is Sakuma: he has not remarried and his daughter is now merely the old maid who puts up with his drunken self-pity and barked commands. Our hero, Hirayama, played by Chishû Ryû, is being nagged by his friend to avoid this fate, and above all avoid this fate for his daughter; and he does, but he takes a long time to come to his decision, he doesn’t have any interest in whom she marries, and when she’s gone he too feels sorry for himself, and brutally remarks that it’s not worth having daughters because they leave you so soon. And this is the film’s nice guy, the paradigm of a decent, thinking fellow. He has to be thinking something as he keeps saying ‘Mmm’.
There’s a series of scenes that are really terrifying in their patriarchal calm. The brother and the father discuss marriage candidates for Michiko, played by Shima Iwashita. There is the man the old school-friend is suggesting (he’s the unseen groom of the end of the movie), and the man they think she rather likes. Then the brother has a conversation – more beer and sake – with this man, but it’s too late, he’s already engaged, although if they had acted sooner … The father and brother explain to Michiko that she can’t have her first choice – if this man was her first choice: they haven’t asked her, only guessed – so will she accept the other fellow? She says yes with perfect composure, she has been nothing but composed throughout the scene, and the men agree that the chat went surprisingly well. (They thought she might cry or something.) Then the younger brother comes in and asks what the matter is with his sister, she’s been crying. The father goes to her room to make sure she is all right. She says yes, but turns away as she says it.
Ozu’s films are famous for their empty corridors and low angles – the shots look like quotations from Orson Welles deprived of all their drama – and characters often appear as almost incidental figures in these decors, ghosts in their own lives. But An Autumn Afternoon, while faithful to this tone and style, fills them out with colour and a little more history than usual. Hirayama was a captain in the Japanese navy, and at one point meets up with his old petty officer, now a motor mechanic. They go to a bar where the owner obligingly puts a patriotic Japanese march on the sound system, the ex-petty officer parades up and down saluting, singing a part of the words to the tune, Hirayama smiles and salutes back, even the lady running the bar salutes. The two men wonder what would have happened if Japan had won the war, and Hirayama says quite firmly that it’s better that they lost. The burden of the sequence, though, is not the war but the past, whatever the past was. This is a world where the present can never match up to it, and the future can only be worse. The point comes home to us when Hirayama returns to the bar after his daughter’s wedding, gets thoroughly soused, and listens to the march again. The movie ends with him sitting in his flat drunkenly singing a few lines from the march, as his son and daughter-in-law leave, and his younger son and only co-resident goes crossly to bed. Who would have thought the departure of a powerless woman could produce such disarray?
We have now seen enough of this man at least to wonder whether he will escape following the example of Sakuma. He is intelligent and sensitive and (generally) dignified, and on other days will no doubt be dominated by something other than self-pity. Still, the possibility that keeping your daughter with you and letting her go can lead to the same sodden result has a terrible epigrammatic feel to it. And the scene in the film that is most moving and hardest to forget is the one where everyone is behaving well. Hirayama asks Michiko if she would like to marry. It would be all right with him, he says, he and her brother will manage perfectly well. Finally, her politeness and patience crack and she gets as close to shouting as she ever will. ‘How can you be so inconsiderate?’ she asks. Just when he – and we for that matter – thought he was being the soul of consideration. She says this because she thinks he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a tricky way of announcing that she will have to stay with him for ever. But it’s part of the film’s desolate poignancy that the supposedly progressive option is not much of an improvement. It might be better to hang on with your father than marry someone the film can’t bear to show us.
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