Before he died of cancer on his 60th birthday in 1963, Yasujiro Ozu left us with one final masterpiece in An Autumn Afternoon, a culmination of many of his favorite themes. The twilight work of many filmmakers often lends itself better to footnotes than introductions, but the remarkably consistent Ozu has a career filled with potential jumping-off points, and his last film is also an excellent first one for Ozu neophytes. I should know — An Autumn Afternoon was my gateway into Ozu’s exquisite cinematic worlds.
Frequent collaborator Chishu Ryu stars as Shuhei Hirayama, a widower who comes to accept the difficult truth that his 24-year-old daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) must be allowed to get married and have a life of her own. Michiko is perfectly content caring for her father and younger brother, but after Shuhei encounters the underwhelming life of an old professor and his unmarried daughter, he understands that there needs to be separation.
If that plotline sounds familiar, you may have seen an Ozu film before — Ryu also plays a widower who grapples with the need to marry off his daughter in 1949’s Late Spring, and themes of the passing of time and familial transition are a through-line throughout Ozu’s oeuvre.
One might get the sense Ozu is simply repeating himself in An Autumn Afternoon, especially when one considers the steady formal qualities that make most of the director’s films instantly recognizable. Long, static shots of domestic life, often framed from a low angle, are punctuated by serene images of nature, landscapes or architecture — otherwise known as “pillow shots.”
And yet as usual, the film is much more than the sum of its parts. Ozu cannily looks at a culture still adrift and struggling for identity more than a decade after World War II. A former captain, Shuhei fondly reminisces over a battleship march playing in a bar, but his ambivalence about his service is joined with uncertainty about his own nostalgia. The bartender reminds him of his late wife, but he doesn’t seriously pursue her. His mind is on his daughter’s future.
An Autumn Afternoon sees Ozu pairing his penetrating looks at domestic spaces with a subtle interrogation of the country’s increasing reliance on technology (a crowd huddles around a TV set, watching baseball at a bar) and an emerging consumer culture (Shuhei’s son longs for a set of expensive golf clubs). The film finishes on a note of clear-eyed melancholy — not an unusual mood for Ozu, but perhaps the ideal encapsulation of a sublime career.
Criterion upgrades its 2008 DVD release, presenting the film in a 1080p transfer and 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from a new 4K restoration, this transfer easily bests the old DVD in terms of fine detail and a film-like look, although it retains a bit of softness that may just be inherent in the elements. The DVD’s minor frame-shudder issue has been resolved here as well. Color reproduction is consistent throughout, although the image does have a kind of blue-green hue that looks a little colder than the old transfer. As for audio, the lossless mono track is nice and clean.
Extras are all ported over from the old DVD — an audio commentary featuring David Bordwell, the master of talking about shot composition, excerpts from a 1978 French TV show that takes a retrospective look at Ozu’s career, and a couple trailers. An insert features essays by Geoff Andrew and Donald Richie.