“Late Autumn” - Yasujiro Ozu (1960)

Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960), like his two preceding films, Floating Weeds (Ukigusa, 1959) and Good Morning (Ohayo, 1960), was a rehash of one of his earlier black-and-white films. In this case the earlier film, Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), was one of Ozu’s personal favorites. But Late Autumn was also a critical success and won the Golden Lion award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. Interestingly, long-time Ozu favorite Setsuko Hara starred in both Late Spring and in Late Autumn but in different roles.

As was customary with Ozu films, the story of Late Autumn concerns cross-generational cultural issues – in this case about a widowed parent’s efforts to marry off an only-daughter.  But there is a light-hearted air to the entire proceedings, and we could justifiably call this film a comedy, even though there are some moments of melancholy.

The key to understanding the meaning behind the film is that the marriageable daughter, Ayako Miwa, is subject to the opinions and maneuverings of three distinct cultural spheres or attitudes.  The resulting interactions and misunderstandings across these three spheres constitute the heart of the film.  Before describing these spheres, let me list the principal characters:

  • Three Ladies
    • Akiko Miwa (played by Setsuko Hara) is the widow with an only child, Ayako
    • Ayako Miwa (Yoko Tsukasa) is Akiko’s daughter
    • Yuriko Sasaki (Mariko Okada) is Ayako’s office colleague and friend
  • Three Middle-aged men who are of similar age, temperaments, and opinions and who were longtime friends of Miwa, Akiko’s deceased husband.
    • Shuzo Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura) is a business manager. Of the three middle-aged men, he is the energetic source of new ideas, which he often fails to bring to successful closure.
    • Soichi Mamiya (Shin Saburi) is also business manager. Of the three men, he is the decisive, get-things-done person who seeks closure, but his crude acts are also often ineffective in this story.
    • Seiichiro Hirayama (Ryuji Kita) is a mild-mannered college professor who tends to go along with the more highly opinionated Taguchi and Mamiya
These characters constitute the three cultural spheres:
  • Traditional values – embodied by Akiko
  • Modernism – represented by Yuriko
  • Opportunism – this invokes traditional values and modernism as suits the occasion (in the minds of the three middle-aged businessmen)
How these cultural spheres interact and affect Ayako is told through a series of conversations which on the surface seem to be mostly just courteous small talk.  There is almost no real action in the film, and even some of the key personal interactions are not shown but merely talked about after the fact (this omission of key moments is a characteristic of Ozu’s mise-en-scene).  A further beclouding aspect of the storytelling is the cultural practice among the Japanese middle class to suppress overt emotional reactions and to merely display a smiling countenance.

Offsetting these obfuscating aspects of the narrative, however, is Ozu’s characteristic cinematography, which features low-angle closeups and medium shots, with many of the conversation participants looking straight into the camera when they speak. This makes the viewer seemingly directly involved in the conversation and more sensitive to the nuances that are being conveyed. Over the course of this sequence of conversations, the viewer watches the story pass through four stages.

1.  Ayako is Available
After attending the temple ceremony commemorating the seventh anniversary of the death of their friend, Mr. Miwa, the three men (Taguchi, Mamiya, and Hirayama) talk together about the two surviving members of the Miwa family – Akiko and her 24-year-old daughter Ayako.  It is clear that all three men lustfully regard Akiko as a great beauty, even though she is in her forties, and they feel that they missed out by not marrying her.  They also feel that it is their comradely/familial duty now to find a suitable husband for Akiko's daughter, Ayako.  Taguchi suggests a candidate, but that person is already taken, so Mamiya suggests a person from his office, Mr. Goto.

But Ayako is a modern girl and uncomfortable with these kinds of arranged marriages. She also feels guilty about leaving her mother all alone if she gets married. So she tells Akiko to decline the offer. But Akiko tells her that it would be a sacrifice that she would be willing to make.
“I’d miss you, but it can’t be helped.  I’d have to make do.”
There are no scenes showing Akiko being presented with the Goto offer, nor of her ultimate response that the offer is declined.  We only learn about these events from subsequent conversations.

2.  A New Candidate is Found
On a hiking trip with some coworkers, one of her colleagues offers to introduce Ayako to Mr. Goto, anyway.  Ayako agrees and begins seeing the man, but she is still not interested in getting married.  Accidentally running into Mamiya at a restaurant, she informs him
“For me, love and marriage don’t necessarily go hand in hand.”
Meanwhile Taguchi, Mamiya, and Hirayama try to come up with a “plan B” to get Ayako a husband.  Since Ayako is evidently worried about Akiko being left alone, Taguchi asserts that they must find a husband for Akiko, too.  And the one they come up with is Hirayama, who has been widowed for four years.  Hirayama at first feels that marrying Akiko would be disrespectful of his old friend, but after talking it over with his son, he gives in to his personal desires.  He tells his other two friends that they can inform Akiko that he would like to marry her.

3. Resistance to the Proposal
Again, a key interaction with Akiko is omitted – in this case it is the one where Taguchi goes to ask her about the possibility of her remarrying. We only hear Taguchi later telling Mamiya that Akiko told him she wouldn’t remarry.

But Ayako has learned of the proposed union anyway and mistakenly thinks that her mother has accepted. Before Akiko can correct her misunderstanding, Ayako quarrels vehemently with her mother for being unfaithful to her deceased father and runs off to visit her coworker friend Yuriko.  At this point Yuriko becomes a major figure in the story. 

Yuriko is a modern girl and scolds Ayako for not letting her mother live her own life.  After visiting Akiko to comfort her, Yuriko tries to fix things.  She goes to meet Mamiya, Taguchi, and Hirayama and forcibly lambasts the men for being meddlesome and clumsy in the way they have handled things.  After getting Hirayama’s assurances that he truly loves Akiko, Yuriko is sure that all the problems and misunderstandings can be resolved.

4. A Wedding
But Yuriko’s modernism cannot budge Akiko’s traditionalism. Akiko tells Ayako that she will remain a widow, but urges her daughter to go ahead and marry Goto.  The traditional wedding ceremony is duly held, after which Akiko is left alone in contemplation.
Although the general tenor of Late Autumn is that of a comedy, with the three middle-aged men continually joking their way through their marriage-making antics, the ending, for me, is not a happy one.  There isn’t much love depicted in this story.  And the one person who believes in love, the modernist Yuriko, appears to have been stymied in her efforts to encourage its flowering.
  • Ayako’s marriage to Goto appears to be merely a practical decision. Goto seems to have been chosen from a utilitarian perspective. At the wedding, Ayako looks trapped and almost smothered in a traditional bridal gown.
  • Akiko’s dedication to traditional values forces her to part permanently from Ayako and deny the possibility of a new life with Hirayama. She is abandoned by everyone, and ultimately by the story, itself.
  • Taguchi and Mamiya appear to be living in cold marriages.  They almost openly admit to their wives that they would have preferred to marry Akiko.  In fact Taguchi at one point tells his wife, “marriage is really tedious when you think about it.”  When Hirayama complains at the end that he was just used by his other two friends and got nothing out of all their shenanigans, Taguchi tells him that he did get something precious – dreams.  Taguchi’s own dreams are evidently dead.

In fact many of the misunderstandings in the film were caused by the crude, “businesslike” manner in which Mamiya informed people about his plans for Ayako.  The three middle-aged men are opportunists, because they support traditional values where and when convenient. But if the opportunity would come up to be with Akiko, they would jump at the chance. In the end, they seem moderately happy that they have arranged what appears to me to be like a “business” deal – the marriage of Ayako. They toast themselves in celebration. But the real person who was capable of authentically expressing herself and of seizing the moment was Yuriko. She seems to be the only one in the film who could spontaneously express genuine anger, loving compassion, and joy.

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