If you’ve never seen an Ozu film then, ironically, the final one he ever made is probably a good place to start. An Autumn Afternoon will never be recognised among Ozu’s absolute masterpieces, yet it has an agreeable accessibility and humour that make it a very fine initiation into his world. And for Ozu’s many fans, the movie represents a perfect crystallisation of his famous thematic obsessions and legendary film style. Telling (surprise surprise!) a story of familial tribulation in an increasingly westernised Japan, An Autumn Afternoon moves at (for Ozu) a brisk pace with an uncommon lightness and exuberance of performance.
Shuhei Hirayama (magnificent Ozu standby Chishu Ryu) is a widower who is moved by the predicament of a friend’s homely daughter who has apparently passed her marriageable use-by date caring for her father. Determined that the same thing should not happen to his own girl, Michiko (Shima Iwashita, who frankly has very little to worry about in the attractiveness department), Hirayama plays matchmaker. Given that he has one son, Koichi (Keiji Sada) already married and another, Kazuo (Shinichirô Mikami) inevitably heading in that direction, marrying away his daughter will mean sentencing himself to life alone.
Never having used colour until the last five years of his distinguished career, Ozu’s sixth colour film is a feast for the eyes, the director seeming to delight in this new dimension to his medium. He and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta employ a varied palette of dingy greys in Hirayama’s workplace and warm earth tones in his home and social circles, punctuated by playfully bold primary colours which jump right off the screen: a bright blue wheelie-bin in the foreground of an establishing street shot is followed by a bright red bucket placed (for some reason) in the foreground of a hallway shot. Table scenes are typically marked by colour-drenched crockery dominating the bottom of the screen.
The minimalist narrative, unflawed by its innate predictability, ends with a drunken Hirayama being abandoned by his children who have all, in their own ways, gone out to find their own place in the world. In actual fact, Kazuo is still asleep in the house by the movie’s end, but Ozu makes the situation perfectly clear in a heartbreaking series of shots of the house’s silent, empty rooms.