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AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON - Ozu's permanent impermanence

AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (Yasujirō Ozu, 1962)

-Mocha J Herrup, PhD

1 May 2023

One of Japan’s best known directors, Yasujiro Ozu was as prolific as he was influential. During the span of his thirty five year career, the auteur produced at least 54 films, of which only 36 survive.

When AUTUMN AFTERNOON, a somber yet comical film about an elderly man and his adult daughter, was released in 1962, the director had no idea it would be his last. With another film already in the works – Ozu had hit his stride later in life, creating a film every year– the TOKYO STORY director passed away on December 12, 1963, the day of his sixtieth birthday.

Ozu made his first film in 1927, about two generations after the dominance of Japan’s Ukiyo-e art gave way to the Meiji period. While Ukiyo-e, “art of the floating world,” relied on the use of woodblocks, ink, and handmade paper, the Meiji Era ushered in a new century with its use of modern photographic technologies.

As a director working in the early medium of film, Ozu found inspiration from early Hollywood behemoths such as Frank Capra (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT) and Howard Hawks (SCARFACE) and their classic cinematic conventions. Ozu would, however, go on to develop a distinctly non-tinsel town ethos of restraint and contemplation to create films that, despite being produced in this new age of mechanical reproduction, bear deep influence of Ukiyo-e art in both their visual style and thematic concerns.

In films such as AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, Ozu often frames his shots with a stationary camera, emphasizing the importance of the composition within the frame. This technique is similar to the flattened perspective found in Ukiyo-e prints. Similarly, the use of empty space, geometric patterns, and minimalistic composition are traits of Ukiyo-e art observed in Ozu’s films. These visual similarities create a sense of stillness and serenity that invites the viewer to contemplate the beauty of everyday life, a hallmark of Ukiyo-e art.

Thematically, Ozu’s films also share similarities with Ukiyo-e art and its concern with the fleeting nature of life and the impermanence of beauty. AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON’s focus on a widowed father who is trying to arrange a marriage for his daughter while confronting his own loneliness and the changing times around him is an exploration of the transitory nature of life and the struggle to find meaning in the face of impermanence, themes that are central to Ukiyo-e art. AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, like most of Ozu’s work, observes and chronicles “ordinary, middle class” lives, another major similarity to the Ukiyo-e art tradition.

If the impermanent, fleeting quality of life is a central tenet of Ukiyo-e art, then life imitates art. A large number of Japanese films, including many Ozu works, were lost at the hands of natural and human-made disasters such as the Great Kanto Earthquake and the postwar torching of films during the Allied Occupation. What was once preserved was lost forever.

Ozu, who never married, shares a grave with his mother that bears no name– just a single character “mu,” which translates to “nothingness.”

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