The first colour piece by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Equinox Flower is a flawless movie: funny, charming, and gently moving. It is built around one of the oldest stories in the book: “father disapproves of daughter’s fiancé”, and as trite as such a story may sound these days, this is probably the most deeply felt and well observed version of it ever made. At the centre of the film’s success is its uniformly wonderful cast, with every performance pitched perfectly between comedy and pathos.
Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) is patriarch of a happy and stable middle class family in 1950s Tokyo. In an opening scene he toasts at a friend’s daughter’s wedding, exalting the virtues of the modern Japan in which marriages can be formed out of love, rather than arranged as his own was. We follow Hirayama through his everyday life, meeting his dutiful but permanently amused wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka), his daughters Setsuko and Hisako (Ineko Arima and Miyuki Kuwano), and his milquetoast best friend Mikami (Chishu Ryu). Hirayama’s stable routine is shattered when Setsuko announces her engagement, in spite of Hirayama’s intention to marry her into a well regarded family of his choosing.
The central theme of Equinox Flower is Hirayama’s hypocrisy. Watching it, we are aware that he is not merely the stubborn traditionalist one might expect to find in a movie with this premise, but rather a progressive man who comes to realise that his ideals supporting the newfound social freedom of young people in Japan are just that: ideals. It is a quite different matter when his daughter reveals her plans to marry a man completely unknown to him. Appropriately, it is this hypocrisy which brings Hirayama down when he becomes the victim of a ruse so transparent and ludicrous that it shouldn’t work in such an otherwise careful film – but it does.
It is one of the great virtues of the film that at no stage is Hirayama crudely drawn as a bitter old man. While hypocrisy usually ranks among the most hateful of traits, Ozu’s light touch makes sure we never forget that Hirayama’s actions, however misguided, are motivated by love and concern for his daughter. Further evidence of the film’s unrivalled tact is its ability to implicitly support the Westernised social values of post-war Japan without demonising the traditional: Hirayama and Kiyoko are clearly a loving and happy couple, in their own way.
Equinox Flower is constructed in the spare style that Ozu made famous in the latter part of his career: absolutely static, low-angle camera setups, and the total absence of fades and dissolves. Some reviews refer to this style as “stilted”, but the still formalism employed only serves to support the grace of the storytelling. Ozu’s use of systematic, angular cutting to gradually reveal 360-degree spaces in a clear, readable fashion should encourage any ambitious young film maker to throw the “180-degree rule” out the window forever.
While Hirayama’s internal dilemma reflects that of his entire country, Ozu’s precise, stately style reveals a man in absolute mastery of his medium. Both of these things are a pleasure to witness.