This edition of the “Rapid Fire Reviews” will be slightly different this time around. Each film is written by longtime collaborators Kogo Noda and Ozu himself, and directed by Ozu. I’ve also removed the “recommendations” this time because I wholeheartedly give my recommendation to all of these films. Not everyone will enjoy or embrace these films, and I get that, but still, if I can convince even one person to look into these films and this director, I’d consider it a success. In the last edition of Rapid Fire Reviews I incorrectly noted that all six of these films were in color, but I was mistaken, the first two films, “Early Spring” and “Tokyo Twilight” are in black and white. Hopefully that won’t discourage anyone from checking these films out!
This series of films mostly focus on the divide between parents and their children. In the 1950’s Japan was experiencing a transformative evolution within their society and culture. After World War Two there was a slow drip of Western influence, consumerism was beginning to take hold, and young adults were starting to want to make their own decisions in life and love. Independence and choosing to stand up for your own happiness in life are gigantic themes within these six films. A lot of the drama rests on women rejecting the notion of arranged marriages, older men realizing they must adapt and change their notions of tradition and authority, and the complications of loneliness. Above all else these stories inhabit an incredibly mature recognition of emotional honesty and allowing people the time to change and evolve their worldview.
Below I’ve linked the three other Ozu film reviews I’ve already written here on this blog. “Tokyo Story” was the beginning of Ozu’s late career revival, and what many would consider the “Master” period of his filmography that would culminate in his last film, “An Autumn Afternoon” which is a part of this edition of the “Rapid Fire Reviews”. If you want the full picture of Ozu’s evolution on the themes of generational conflict I highly suggest checking out the three films linked below as well, they’re each an integral part of that process. I’ve also put a link to a video essay on youtube that expertly discusses Ozu’s filmography in a nuanced and well thought out structure. If nothing else, this may help you to decide whether or not Ozu is for you.
*Also, there will be spoilers, and I won’t be naming all of the actors and character names. Not out of a lack of respect, but because Ozu used so many of the same actors in widely different roles in his films with recurring themes and reused sets- it can get a bit confusing at times. However, since all of the films deal with some sort of familial drama I’ll indicate characters by their role in the family. By all means, please research these actors if you watch these films and enjoy their performances. My favorite character actor that Ozu often utilizes, to perfection, is Chishu Ryu. His gentle humility and earnestness is pure cinema.
Early Spring (1956)
This is the longest film of the bunch running at about two hours and twenty minutes. It’s also the film that has the least influence from the older generation out of this assortment. We follow a couple that’s a few years into their marriage with some growing concerns. The focus of this film is split between Ozu’s depiction of the disillusionment of white collar work and infidelity within marriage. Initially, we’re only given hints of the husband’s possible affair from multiple points of view. We get subtle suspicions from the wife, who’s informed by her older neighbor of a past affair that her husband had engaged in and gives her advice to stamp that out, and quick. We also get a lot of gossip from the husband’s coworkers who notice that he and a younger woman nicknamed “Goldfish” (due to her huge eyes) have been spending a lot of time together recently. After we’re finally given evidence of the two actively engaging in said affair the focus shifts to the husband’s friends and coworkers banding together to confront “Goldfish” about the affair. What stood out to me in this film was the encouraging sense of community, the warm visuals of friends sitting in large groups smoking, playing mah-jong, and singing together. It really balanced the darker elements of the story, especially when the source of the couple’s emotional distance is revealed. There’s also a few camera movements, which, for Ozu, felt revolutionary.
Tokyo Twilight (1957)
Tonally, “Tokyo Twilight” is the darkest Ozu film I’ve seen yet. While most of Ozu’s films have an inherent sadness to them, the despondent nature of this film’s sorrow comes from a place of tragedy rather than melancholy or loneliness. Set in the dead of winter, the focus of the story falls on the shoulders of the adult daughters of the family. One is married with a young child, and the younger distraught with her current boyfriend. The older sister has returned home on a break from her marriage and isn’t particularly happy with her husband. While the younger sister searches mah-jong parlours for her boyfriend, she runs into the owner of one such establishment who seems to know some details about her family. This mysterious woman confounds the younger daughter by these details so much so that when she brings it up to her older sister, she pieces the facts together and realizes that the owner must be their Mother- long assumed gone forever. Thus the older sister goes to the parlour to confront the mother that abandoned them and pleads with her not to reveal who she is to the younger sister. Obviously, things don’t go as planned and after realizing that her boyfriend doesn’t actually love her- the younger daughter decides not to have her unborn child, gets an abortion, and drowns her sorrows in sake. Her boyfriend barges into the bar to talk with her and she angrily departs only to be hit by a train on the way out. After her death the older sister seeks out their mother and tells her of the news, and pointedly barbs that “it’s your fault”. The older sister returns home to tell her father that she will try to make their marriage work for her child, as she has seen what growing up with only one parent can do to a person as it happened to her sister. Their father agrees, citing that though he tried his best, a child needs the influence of both parents for a well rounded childhood.
Equinox Flower (1958)
The first film Ozu made in color, “Equinox Flower” is a huge departure from the last film’s darkness. Even though Ozu was pushed to make the change to color by the studio to better capture their newly acquired actor in Shin Saburi, the director fully embraced the change. Red tea kettles and bright orange sodas pop onscreen and pair with this film’s optimistic tone quite nicely. This film takes the focus back to the parents viewpoint as they begin to take the first steps in understanding and accepting their children’s independence. Saburi’s father figure is one of the more inconsistent leads in an Ozu film. He begins the film at a friend’s son’s wedding where he gives a short speech praising the opportunities that the youth have today, and chastising the old ways of the past. However he spends the rest of the film attempting to force the tradition of an arranged marriage, for pragmatic reasons, onto his oldest daughter. In fact later in the film when he’s challenged about his resistance to change, one of his daughter’s friends (who also has issues with her own mother constantly trying to pair her up with financially stable men) takes it upon herself to act out a test for him. She asks him for some advice on her situation, framing her family strife as a stand in for Saburi’s eldest daughter’s predicament, to which he advises that she do as she pleases and that she doesn’t need her mother’s approval. The friend then reveals the set-up to him by saying that his eldest daughter will be so happy to hear that he approves of her choice to marry for love and not in the traditional way. The father finds that while his casual acceptance of the principles he espoused at the beginning of the film aren’t necessarily in practice in his family life, but his peers, wife, and children all guide him in the right direction. Eventually he accepts this change and embraces his daughter’s choice which results in one of the more uplifting endings for Ozu.
Late Autumn (1960)
This film continues the themes that “Equinox Flower” began by evolving further in embracing the younger generation’s independence. This time around the primary lens of the film flips to a mother’s view on her children’s future rather than the father’s in the last film. The widowed mother goes back and forth on whether or not to remarry so as to relieve her daughter’s guilt over abandoning her. The source of conflict comes from the three wannabe matchmaker businessmen who inflict confusion and emotional pain on these two women through their bungling attempts at setting them each up with appropriate suitors. Which only further establishes the idea that the old ways are over. This film reuses a majority of the actors and sets from “Equinox Flower” so watching them back to back can be a bit disorientating, but the core of each film has enough substance and personality to stand out from each other. This is the first film where the younger generation not only stands up for their right to choose, but does so with a fierce confidence. This is expressed perfectly in one scene where the widowed mother’s daughter’s friend dresses down the three businessmen who admit to their fouling things up. The message of the film becomes clear near the end when the widowed mother chooses not to remarry. While the daughter feels sorrow for her mother, she expresses an earnest need to her daughter to choose happiness for herself in her own life. The mother admits that she will experience some loneliness without her around, but that this cannot be helped and that they must both lead their own lives for themselves. The importance of moving forward with life is paramount in this film.
The End of Summer (1961)
The lead actor from “Floating Weeds”, Ganjiro Nakamura, returns here as the patriarch of a family that owns a small, struggling, sake brewing business. Again, as in “Floating Weeds”, Nakamura’s father figure hides another mistress from his peers- though it is from his large family rather than an acting troupe for this film. The man-child’s selfish actions blended with two of his daughters being courted by the family with various suitors makes for a well rounded combination of comedy and tragedy. This tight knit family struggles to deal with their patriarch’s childish actions and how to handle their eventual transition to power in the sake business- contemplating selling out to larger corporations rather than trying to stay afloat by any means possible. Near the end of the second act, a surprise heart attack hits our patriarch which brings the family’s strife into starker and darker territory. Ironically, our lead bounces back from his death bed with renewed vigor to settle a few more things before his end, which pairs with Ozu’s own death only two years after this release. Humorously, at one point two side characters remark at how difficult it is to keep track of who’s who in the Kohayagawa family- and I could relate!
An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
This is Ozu’s final film, and one that perfectly bookends his “Master period” that began with “Tokyo Story”. Returning as a lead character once again is Chishu Ryu as an aging widowed father who lives with his two youngest children. His daughter is of marrying age, but he’s in no rush to push her to get married and leave the household. His oldest son is married already and lives in an apartment nearby with his wife. Early in the film our patriarch throws a reunion party with his former schoolmates in honor of their aging professor, affectionately nicknamed “The Gourd”. The Gourd isn’t exactly living the healthiest life at this point. He’s a widower who lives with his adult daughter who never married out of the guilt of abandoning her father. Together they run a small, cheap, noodle shop in a dirty and industrial part of town. The Gourd is a drunk and he’s consumed by his failures in life and his part in ruining his daughter’s life as well. Chishu Ryu’s patriarch sees a possible path for his own life and family in the Gourd’s mistakes and he tries, vehemently, to amend these possible wrongs. Throughout the film we also see much more of a presence of consumerism in the characters lives. This thread began in “Good Morning”, but is expanded upon here in detail with characters obsessing over a Baseball team’s stats, watching TVs in bars, or coveting an expensive set of golf clubs. In the end our patriarch convinces his daughter to marry someone, anyone that she truly has an interest in, and not to worry about him or her younger teenage brother. The ending, while emotionally brutal, is a crucial element to the whole film. Acknowledging the pain of loss, and the loneliness of life can be difficult- but we must march ever onward, and do what is right.
NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:
Another divergence from the former format will happen as I’ll be doing a double feature review. Since Spike Lee recently released “Da 5 Bloods” on Netflix, I’ll be giving that a watch as well as his third film “Do The Right Thing”. Since I haven’t seen either film yet I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to watch and discuss both and the evolution of Spike Lee as a director in that time.