Rarely does film so delicately capture the fragility and tensions of familial ties and duties with such grace as master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon has. In his final statement to cinema, Ozu treats the audience to a vast array of picturesque homes and bars, whose walls seemingly echo the fears and expectations that accompany the traditional lifestyle of 1960s upper class Japan. At the core of the film’s themes lie the cost and aftermath of marriage, and the relationship between father and daughter, which is delivered succinctly by the gorgeous cinematography.
With the film consisting mainly of interior shots, the landscape of the mid-century Tokyo uptown suburbs constantly frames the cast, trapping them and almost pushing them to act upon one another. Yûharu Atsuta’s masterful camera work and the subsequent poignant set design deliver the characters within constrictive boxes at different stages of their dilemmas. In this way, the numerous settings of the film almost act as a catalyst for the characters’ actions while the camera retains an intimate presence within the traditional home.
Ozu deliberately surrounds the family members with walls and shōji to evoke a sense of repression and solitude within the film as well. The lighting setup of each scene also enhances the various moods and situations of characters in a very subdued but meaningful manner. The final shot is a prime example of the fantastic staging, portraying the emotional heft of loneliness and loss through the same techniques, bringing the intimate melancholic tale to a close.
Cinematography aside, it would be a crime to omit the superb performances of the main cast. Chishū Ryū delivers a cautious but clearly caring father and war veteran in Shuhei’s character with great aptitude. As a long time actor in much of Ozu’s work in particular, it is easy to see the organic presentation of the character by Ryū as he embraces the difficulty of marrying off his beloved child. Eijirō Tōno’s sentimental performance as the tragic, downtrodden Sakuma, a victim of both war and the refusal to let go, is simply haunting, and one cannot overlook the elegance of Shima Iwashita as Michiko, Shuhei’s beautiful daughter.
The microcosm of Tokyo that Ozu is able to capture with this film is utterly fascinating to behold, with each shot reminding the viewer of daily life’s simplistic beauty and the ties between friends and family that enrich our lives. Sadly, Ozu died the year following the film’s completion in 1963, but surely not before delivering one of his greatest and most memorable works.
An Autumn Afternoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion and can also be streamed through Hulu Plus.