“The End of Summer” - Yasujiro Ozu (1961)

Yasujiro Ozu’s penultimate film, The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke No Aki, 1961),  had several similarities with his previous work, Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960).  We would naturally expect similarities in connection with Ozu’s unique style of visual expression, but the commonalities between these two films also extended to characters, themes, and even the leading actresses. 

Ozu’s visual style is, of course, what stands out when we encounter one of his films.  In this respect there are two main aspects: (a) narrative presentation and (b) visual expression.

  • Narrative Presentation.
    Ozu usually tells his entire story by presenting a series of short conversations between the main participants, which, because of their being situated in the layered social context of Japanese cordiality, consist mostly of polite small talk. The pace is leisurely, with many connecting shots showing (a) people simply looking idly into the mirror as they dress, (b) putting on clothes, or (c) walking down a hallway to answer a phone, etc.  This is all part of Ozu’s use of the “slow disclosure” narrative technique, whereby the viewer only gradually discerns the background context of a given situation.  On top of this, Ozu often omits presenting key action events of the story; the viewer only learns about these events when they are discussed later in one of the film’s short conversations.  This at first may sound like intentional obfuscation on Ozu’s part, but it has the effect of drawing the viewer into the important social context that is a key aspect of the story.
  • Visual Expression.
    Ozu relies heavily on static, low-angle medium shots that cumulatively can have a hypnotic effect on the viewer.  In some of these conversations, the speaking character is shown to be looking straight into the camera, which has the psychological effect of engaging the viewer (who is normally the “invisible witness” to what is happening), directly with the character speaking.  In addition there are almost no moving-camera shots, although there is some cutting on action. Sometimes specific conversational contexts are punctuated by interspersed static cityscape shots that are devoid of people.  These cityscape moments break up the flow and often serve to mark the passage of a bit of time. 
In the following I will use abbreviations to indicate two of the key Ozu technique when they occur in the narrative.  MA means that some “missing action” has taken place off-camera, and the viewer must infer what has happened.  SIC means that a particular character is looking “straight into the camera” when he or she is speaking, which suggest moments when particular sincerity is being expressed. (In this film it seems to me that there is an unusually high percentage of SIC shots – even for Ozu.)

Thematically, Ozu’s films often covered various issues associated with the Japanese family as it was affected by the entire society undergoing significant postwar social upheaval.  These issues included
  • Cross-generational issues,
  • Tradition versus modernity,
  • Individual authenticity versus social role-playing,
  • Selfish opportunism versus empathy for others,
  • Fatalism versus determined ambition.
What makes The End of Summer rather complicated compared to the rest of Ozu’s oeuvre is that all of these issues are touched on in this film. 

There are nine principal characters in the story, and they each represent a position in this multidimensional social issue context.  So the viewer has a lot to keep track of.  In fact, although the English title for the film is "The End of Summer”, the Japanese title, “Kohayagawa-ke No Aki”, means in English, “Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family”, and what this film presents is a rather wide-spectrum view of how this complicated extended family is dissolving.  The nine key characters are
  • Kohayagawa Manbei (played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is the elderly patriarch of the Kohayagawa family and is the owner of a sake brewery.
  • Akiko (Setsuko Hara) is Manbei's widowed daughter-in-law. (Setsuko Hara had important roles in many Ozu films.)
  • Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa) is Manbei's youngest daughter.  In this film Yoko Tsukasa and Setsuko Hara almost reprise their respective roles and their relationship they had in Ozu’s immediately preceding Late Autumn, as the “younger (modern) woman” and the “older (traditional) woman” both searching for meaningful relationships in marriage.
  • Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) is Manbei's older daughter and is married to Hisao.
  • Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi) is Fumiko's husband and works in the family-owned sake brewery office.
  • Sasaki Tsune (Chieko Naniwa) is the former mistress of Manbei.
  • Yuriko (Reiko Dan) is the Ms. Sasaki’s daughter.
  • Kitagawa Yanosuke (Daisuke Kato) is referred to as the “uncle," and Manbei's brother-in-law.  (Daisuke Kato had memorable roles in Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), , and Yojimbo (1961).)
  • Isomura Eiichirou (Hisaya Morishige) is a man interested in marrying Akiko.
The wearing apparel of these characters is revealing in connection with their association with modernity.  Manbei, Ms. Sasaki, Akiko, and Fumiko wear traditional Japanese gowns and kimonos, while the rest of the men and women wear modern Western clothing. 

Although the film comprises a sequence of small conversations, we can group them into four phases of narrative development.
1.  Akiko and Noriko
The first part of the film revolves around attempts of the Kohayagawa family in Osaka to find suitable husbands for the thirty-something Akiko and the much younger Noriko.  In fact the film opens with Kitagawa Yanosuke at a cocktail lounge describing Akiko’s virtues as a marriage partner to Isomura Eiichirou.  Akiko is invited to join them for dinner for an “interview”, but her self-effacing politeness conceals whatever true feelings she may have about the proposed match-up.   It is only later that we learn that she declined the dinner invitation (MA).

There are three main theaters of action for the conversations here. 
  1. Akiko, her teenage son, and Noriko live together in an apartment.  Whenever Akiko and Noriko speak to each other, they are always shown in SIC shots.
  2. There is the sake brewery where Hisao works and Manbei visits occasionally (we soon learn that the sake brewery is not doing well financially). 
  3. And there is the household of Hisao and Fumiko (they have a small son), where Manbei also lives. 
Later at the Fumiko home, Yanosuke comes to discuss Akiko’s marriage prospects with Isomura.  It is evident that the Kohayagawa family sees it as their obligation to find a suitable mate for the widow in their family, as well as finding a mate for Noriko. 

Then Noriko is shown at work in a modern office, where she is invited to a good-bye party for a male friend, Mr. Teramoto, who is not the man who has been selected by the “family” (Fumiko, Hisao, and Manbei), but to whom Noriko is romantically attracted.  To Noriko’s further dismay, Mr. Teramoto is about to leave Osaka, because he has accepted a faculty position in far-away Sapporo.  At the party, the assembled friends curiously sing a farewell song that has Japanese words, but to the tune of “Oh, My Darling Clementine”. Perhaps this was a further signal of the encroaching Western influence on Japanese life.

So far, the story interest has developed around Akiko and Noriko and how they will respond to the well-intentioned but coercive family pressure to find them marriage partners.  But at this point the narrative focus shifts to a new concern.

2.  Focus on Manbei
Manbei has been frequently away from the sake brewery running errands, and the brewery’s chief clerk wants to know why.  They soon learn that Manbei has been secretly seeing his old flame, Sasaki Tsune, with whom he had an adulterous affair that began some twenty years earlier.  Although, with Manbei now being a widower, his renewed relationship would seem innocent enough, he keeps it secret, because he knows that others around him will object.  In particular, his daughter Fumiko is highly suspicious of Manbei’s secretive behaviour and feels that he is not acting  appropriately for a man of his age.

When Manbei and Ms. Sasaki are shown alone together, they seem innocently cordial, with plenty of SIC shots when they converse.  Ms. Sasaki has a 21-year-old daughter, Yuriko, who shows up and appears to be Westernized and selfish.  When she sees Manbei, she calls him “Father” and nags him as to when he will give her a mink stole.  Later though, after Manbei leaves, Yuriko asks her mother if Manbei really is her father.  Her mother seems not to be sure, herself, and says it really doesn’t matter, anyway.

3.  Crisis in Arashiyama

Now they all go to attend a memorial service for “Mother’s” (Manbei’s deceased wife's) death to take place in Arashiyama, which is close to Kyoto and about fifty kilometers from Osaka.  We see Akiko and Noriko in conversation and learn that Akiko has already been presented with Isomura’s wedding proposal (MA), but is hesitant about it.  The rest of the family (Hisao, Fumiko, and Manbei) separately sit around a tea table and discuss the merits of the proposal, too.  At the same time Fumiko rudely taunts Manbei about the likelihood of his visiting someone in Kyoto (a veiled reference fo Ms. Sasaki).  Manbei is upset, leaves the room and soon reportedly has a heart attack (MA). 

A doctor is summoned, and various members of the extended Kohayagawa clan arrive from out of town, assuming that  Manbei’s death is imminent.  But miraculously, Manbei quickly makes a full recovery (MA) and seems as cheerful and robust as ever.

Meanwhile Akiko and Noriko privately discuss their further thoughts about marriage and whether they should accept the mates that have been selected for them.  Akiko advises that a girl should marry a man with “character” – “you can alter behaviour, but you can’t alter character.”

4 Kohayagawa Family Coming to a Close
In the film’s final phase, a climactic event initiates change.  This is marked by four conversations that each elliptically refer to offscreen action (MA).

  • Manbei has sneaked away from his family again and taken Ms. Sasaki to a velodrome for bicycle racing where they can place wagers on the outcomes.
  • Yanosuke and Isomura are waiting again at the same old cocktail lounge for Akiko to show up, and it is clear that Isomura has given up on the hesitant woman.
  • Hisao and Fumiko are at home discussing why Manbei has sneaked away again.  Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Yuriko that Manbei has had another heart attack.
  • Sasaki Tsune and her daughter Yuriko are shown sitting respectfully next to Manbei’s protrate body.  It takes some moments to discern that he is dead. While Ms. Sasaki appears devastated, Yuriko looks bored and attends to grooming her nails.  When her American boyfriend shows up to take her out on a date, Yuriko takes her leave of the corpse by crossing herself before, thereby suggesting that she has become a Christian.
The extended family members arrive again, and a funeral is held.  But it is all surface ceremony, and the inner family members are now more worried about what will happen to the sake brewery. Akiko and Noriko, walking alone in the cemetery, finally come to their decisions. Noriko vows to go to Sapporo and pursue her true love, while Akiko says she prefers to remain unmarried and attend to her teenage son by herself.
The overall message of The End of Summer  is not clear cut, and the roles the characters play with respect to Ozu’s traditional issues are mixed.  Reviewing those issues again, we see some unexpected positions:

  • Cross-generational Issues and Tradition vs. Modernity
    Youth is normally identified with modernity, but in this film, the oldest person, Manbei, had a more free-wheeling outlook.  His daughter Fumiko, meanwhile, was steadfast in asserting traditional mores.
  • Selfish Role-playing vs. Empathic Authenticity
    In some of Ozu’s other films the men are opportunists, taking advantage of traditional authority when it suits their purposes and embracing modernity when that proves to be the convenient option.  In this film, though, things are a little more complicated. Some of the women, particularly Yuriko, are self-absorbed, while Manbei seems attentive to others. Authentic interactions showing empathy and sincerity are signaled in the film by SIC shots, and these are most consistently associated with Akiko, Noriko, and Manbei.  But we know that Manbei is also selfish – he gambles away family money at the bicycle races and has had at least one adulterous affair.
  • Fatalism vs. Ambition
    When Manbei’s body is cremated, two farmers are shown watching the smoke rising from the cremation smoke stack and reflecting on the transience of existence and the inevitability of change.  This is presumably the traditional Oriental fatalistic perspective, and it is sometimes seen as a virtue.  But Ozu’s perspective doesn’t seem to be so clear-cut on this point.  For the men in Ozu’s stories, a deep concern was the looming horrors of the faceless salaryman’s suffocating existence in modern business life – so movingly evoked in Early Spring (1956).  The salarymen are little more than robots attending to the dictates of what we now term “big data”.  This contrasted with the heroic self-image that most men (in every society) have been traditionally schooled to embrace and embody.  At the end of the film, the workers at the Kohayagawa sake brewery are faced with the likelihood of the brewery being bought out by a larger firm.  They would all then become the eviscerated salary men of their nightmares.
What kept these men from being salary men earlier?   It was Manbei, a spirited individual who took a direct interest in the people with whom he interacted. So with Manbei gone, a vital flame of the Kohayagawa family has gone out. At the end of the film, it is not the men, but two women, Akiko and Noriko, who decide to take control of their destinies. They are authentic and empathic, like Manbei (but hopefully a little more responsible).

Manbei’s reported last words were, “Is this it?  Is this really it?”  These are not the words of a man who is satisfied with his ending.  He is  asking, “is that all there is to it?”  He wants more.  So does Ozu, and so do we.

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