An Autumn Afternoon - Ozu's private "family"
By Doron B. Cohen (Kyoto, Japan)

An Autumn Afternoon turned out to be Ozu's last film; he was working on his next project when a particularly virulent form of cancer ended his life in great pain while professionally he was still in peak form. Everything that was wonderful in his earlier films can be found in this final one, including the marvelous cast of familiar actors and actresses.

Much has already been written about Ozu's regular cast, which gives viewers the feeling of meeting with familiar family members. In some cases the family relations were real; the beautiful and vivacious Okada Mariko, who plays the daughter-in-law Akiko in this film (and who played Yuriko in Late Autumn), was the daughter of Okada Tokihiku, a star of Ozu's silent films (Tokyo Chorus), who died as young as 30 years old, only one year after the birth of his daughter. This daughter herself became a distinguished acctress, and learned from Ozu about the father she never got to know. There are a few other such cases, but the main point is that through participating in his films actors and actresses became "relatives", parts of a large and loyal family.

What happened to "Ozu's family" after the death of their sensei and "father"? Most famous is the fate of Hara Setsuko, who is not in this final film, but who had major roles in six earlier ones; she retired from the screen shortly after Ozu's death, and was never seen in public again, leading an even more stubbornly private life than that of Greta Garbo. Since her death has never been announced, she is presumably still alive at the time of writing (December 2011), aged 91. Her appeal is still strong, apparently; in its issue of March 2011 the magazine Shinko published eight pieces by writers and actors on "rediscovering Hara Setsuko", and included a DVD of one of her earliest films, Inochi no kanmuri ("the crown of life", a surprisingly socially oriented 1936 silent film by director Uchida Tomu, in which Hara had a minor part).

However, unlike Hara, most other Ozu regulars continued on with successful careers. I was struck by the fact - was it a coincidence or an intended tribute? - that several of Ozu regulars appeared years later in the films of another wonderful director, Itami Juzo, who died tragically in 1997, aged 64. In Itami's first film, The Funeral (1984), Ryu Chishu, Ozu's most regular actor, plays the wonderful part of a Buddhist abbot; in fact, Ryu was familiar with the part as he had played a similar role in director Yamada Yoji's popular series of films It's Hard Being a Man (known as "Tora-san films", after their hero), which was the longest in film history in its time (and is still the longest series made by the same director) with 48 installments. Ryu was in most of them (as well as in hundreds of other Japanese films), and is probably remembered better by the Japanese public for that role than for his roles in Ozu's films. He turned up again in Itami's fourth film, A Taxing Woman's Return (1988) as a retired Buddhist priest… (he was 84 years old at the time, and still had several films ahead of him, including an impressive part in Kurosawa Akira's 1990 Dreams). The above-mentioned Okada Mariko also appeared in two of Itami's films: in his second one, Tampopo (1985), she had a small role as a fine lady who teaches a group of debutants how to eat spaghetti politely, until her intentions are frustrated by a rude foreigner; and in the third, A Taxing Woman (1987), she played another fine lady, the wife of the corrupt businessman under investigation. What a pleasure it is to recognize her as the young, spicy girl of Ozu's films. And finally, also in Tampopo, in the small role of the "professor" who turns out to be hardly as naïve as the con-man who was laying a trap for him thought, it is possible to identify none other than Nakamura Nobuo, a veteran of Ozu's cast since Tokyo Story (the son-in-law), and who also appears in An Autumn Afternoon as the classmate who holds a grudge against their old teacher.

These actors and many others appeared also in the 1983 tribute film to Ozu, directed and scripted by Inoue Kazuo, which in the original Japanese had the meaningful title Ikite wa mite keredo ("I lived, but…"), but in English has the uninspiring title The Life and Works of Yasujiro Ozu (at least in the IMDb website's listing). In this film - which is highly recommended to all Ozu lovers - relatives and friends of Ozu, as well as film directors and actors, talk about his life and work from various angles. Ryu Chishu, Nakamura Nobuo, Okada Mariko, Sugimura Haruko and several other actors participated, but Hara Setsuko refused to immerge from seclusion even for a cause such as this. Perhaps the most moving moment in this film is when Kishida Kyoko (who plays the bar hostess in An Autumn Afternoon, her only appearance in an Ozu film which made her a "last minute" member of the "family") reads Ozu's poem on bringing his mother's ashes for burial on Mount Koya.

These are some of the many aspects that link An Autumn Afternoon to the cinematic and the real worlds. The film itself brings together several of Ozu's recurring themes: not only family break-ups and the marrying off of a daughter, but also social issues relating to the lives of the salarymen, which go back to the films of the 1930's and early 1950's. The humor is there, and the beauty and poignancy; everything we are looking for in an Ozu film.

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