“Equinox Flower” - Yasujiro Ozu (1958)

Yasujiro Ozu’s first color film, Equinox Flower (Higanbana, 1958) did not represent a radical break from his famously rigorous visual style. He merely extended that style by including colored objects as another formally manipulable stylistic element. The Japanese title for the film, “Higanbana”, refers to a “red spider lily” that blooms around the time of the autumnal equinox (hence the English title), and so red-colored objects are prominently on display throughout the film. In particular, there is a brightly red-colored tea kettle that is prominently shown in the main domestic setting.  It is frequently repositioned so that it occupies a significant position in the frame in various situations.  Because of its continued visual prominence, I wonder if it has some special symbolic significance in the Japanese cultural context.

The subject matter of Equinox Flower is in accord with Ozu’s usual themes concerning how cross-generational Japanese family life tries to find harmony between the old and the new. In this case, though, the film features more light-hearted comedic content than usual, to the extent that many people have classified this film as a comedy.  I wouldn’t go that far, though, and in fact the film’s ultimate message seems, like many of Ozu’s films, almost elegiacal about the passing on of a generation.

The story concerns a middle-aged businessman, Wataru Hirayama (played by Shin Saburi), who finds himself confronted with the eternal parental problem of how to shepherd a daughter to a successful marriage. Hirayama is a senior manager accustomed in the Japanese tradition of wielding complete power and receiving deferential treatment by all those around him. Though he is mild-mannered, he expects absolute obedience.  But it turns out in this story that many of the people around him are women with their own ideas of how things should be done with respect to choosing a marriage partner.  The narrative tension in the story concerns how Hirayama adjusts himself to these unsettling circumstances.

The film starts right off on the subject of marriage, with Hirayama and his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) attending the wedding of a business friend.  Given his authoritative status at the company, Hirayama is asked to say a few words at the reception, and he remarks (somewhat belittlingly in the face of his wife sitting next to him) that while his own marriage was pragmatically arranged by the parents and was not a love match, the present bride and groom are to be admired and envied for their evident love for each other.  This points to the primary issue in the film: should a bride be able to choose her mate, or should the parents arrange a suitable match for her?  There are three separate young women featured in the film who struggle with their parents about this question:
  • Setsuko Hirayama (Ineko Arima), is the Hirayama’s elder daughter.  She wants to marry a young coworker with whom she has fallen in love, but her father wants her to marry a man from a more prosperous and esteemed family.
  • Fumiko Mikami (Yoshiko Kuga) is the daughter of Hirayama’s old school friend, Shukichi Mikami (Chishû Ryû), who is a widower.  She wants to marry a musician she has met, but her father doesn’t approve.
  • Yukiko Sasaki (Fujiko Yamamoto) is the daughter of Hatsu Sasaki (Chieko Naniwa), a woman who operates an inn in Kyoto. Yukiko doesn’t have a boyfriend, but she resists her mother’s incessant attempts to find a match with anyone who comes along who looks well-to-do.
There are two other women in the background who give significant support to their “sisters” in these struggles:
  • Kiyoko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) is Wataru’s wife and, though lovingly obedient to her husband, she devotes herself to overall familial harmony. Throughout the film she behaves like a saint and radiates the warmth that is lacking from her husband.
  • Hisako Hirayama (Miyuki Kuwano), Setsuko’s younger teenage sister, is fully modernized and a cheerfully staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose.

The narrative passes through three stages of development.  In the first stage, the various characters are introduced and given the opportunity to express their views on marriage. Hirayama discusses with his wife the idea of their daughter Setsuko having a marriage arranged with a man from a prominent and wealthy family. Hearing this, younger daughter Hisako avows that she would never accept an arranged marriage.  Later Hirayama’s old friend Mikami visits Hirayama and tells him about his parental problems with his wayward daughter, Fumiko, who has run away from home and gone off to live with her musician boyfriend. Fumiko is now working at a cocktail lounge and is not in communication with her family, so Mikami asks Hirayama if he would go over there and “check up on her”.

Also during this first stage Hirayama is visited by a woman friend who operates an inn in Kyoto, Mrs. Sasaki, who is visiting Tokyo with her daughter, Yukiko.  Mrs. Sasaki is a nonstop chatterbox, and her presence is apparently supposed to inject humor into the story.  On a subsequent private visit to Hirayama’s residence, Yukiko confidingly complains to Hirayama about her garrulous mother’s repeated efforts to find a husband for her.  She is just not interested in her mother’s candidates. Hirayama, in line with the sentiments he recently expressed at the wedding, advises her not to marry just anyone and warns her, “you may think marriage is golden, but it can end up being brass.”  But Yukiko is rather cheeky and can fend for herself.  When she talks to Setsuko (they are old friends), they make a secret pact to help each other fend off their parents match-making impositions.  Anyway, up to this point things have been going pretty smoothly.

But in the film’s second stage, conflict arises.  Hirayama is shocked to be approached by a young man, Mr. Taniguchi, who asks for his daughter Setsuko’s hand.  Although it turns out that this is the man Setsuko really wants to marry, Hirayama is angry that he has not had a chance to conduct the requisite family background checks, and so he rejects the proposal outright. This sets off a family storm, and Hirayama dictatorially orders that Setsuko be confined at home, telling her 
“Bad things happen when young girls go out. Stay home for a few days and think it over.”  

Hirayama is not outwardly aggressive, but he is used to operating within a system where authority is obeyed without question.

In an effort to assist his old friend , Hirayama goes over to the cocktail lounge and tries to talk to Fumiko Mikami, but he sees that the girl is happily and seriously committed to her new life.  Now he is beginning to see the other side of things.  When Yukiko comes to visit him and confides that she wants to merry someone for love, against her mother’s choice, Hirayama encourages her to follow her heart.  But this turns out to be a ruse on Yukiko’s part, in keeping with the secret pact she had made with Setsuko  – Yukiko informs HIrayama that she will now tell Setsuko that her father accepts a girl's right to choose her own mate.  The logic of Hirayama’s original position has now been exposed as flawed.

The third stage of the story, and roughly the last one-third of the film’s running time, concerns the growing acceptance and resignation on the part of Hirayama that the whole system of doing things that he is accustomed to is passing away.  To his credit, Hirayama gradually accepts the modern way.  When his wife Kiyoko tells him that he has been inconsistent, he sadly acknowledges that “as a scholar said: ‘the sum total of inconsistencies is life’”.

He and Mikami then go to an old school reunion, where the men in attendance all reflect on their passing glory. These men, who are all mild-mannered white-collar businessmen, have been working within a system that glorifies leaders as noble warriors and heroes. The others all invite Mikami to recite a poem said to be by the ancient hero, Kusunoki Masatsura, who died in battle at the age of 22 some six centuries earlier [1]. In sonorous tones, Mikami sings to them
"My father's precepts are engraved in my heart.
I will faithfully follow the emperor's edict.
10 years of patience, and finally the time has come.
Strike a powerful blow
For the emperor's cause we are struggling now.
To fight and die as men, we make an oath.
We, 143 companions of war, united as one,
Determined to fight until victory, yes, we are.
By dying, heroes earn an immortal glory,
The cowards suffer an eternal shame.
With the edges of our arrows, we engrave our story,
The blades of our swords shine in the evening.
Against the approaching enemy, let's walk with the same step,
At their general, let's give the final blow."
To their credit, Mikami and Hirayama have come to accept the new form of familial autonomy that they have hitherto resisted. Ozu seems to be telling us that you can teach old dogs new tricks. This is the modern way, and they will just have to become accommodated to it. 

Setsuko’s wedding to Taniguchi goes ahead on schedule. With one last act of cheekiness, Yukiko convinces Hirayama that he should go visit the newly married couple in Hiroshima and assure them of his warm paternal endorsement. The final shots of Equinox Flower show him headed away on the train to pay his penance.

1.    "Kusunoki Masatsura", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation (accessed 20 August 2014).

No comments: