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To his fans, Yasujiro Ozu is not a mere artist, but a friend with whom you've shared a few Sapparos and who makes you feel you've known Japanese all your life. Thus these notes are written out of a familiarity and kinship, to a good friend in a neighboring city...
1) Ozu and Ralph Fasanella
One should not be afraid to read class into an Ozu film. It is everywhere within his movies. In the way a neighbor will wander from door to door to borrow a large bottle of sake or a handful of tomatoes, to the manner a grown-man whimpers over a set of titanium golf clubs, class has always mattered to Ozu. Even many of his earliest silent comedies and dramas were about street hustling and cinching one's belt in anticipation of the next time one would be able to eat again. Though the Ozu of the 1960s is much more modernized and mirrors a society that is in much less dire straits than the Ozu of the 1920s, money and its lack always has a way of intruding into his pictures.
Perhaps the best way to phrase this idea is through the image of laundry. Every Ozu enthusiast knows that beloved pillow shot -- a colorful red jersey, stretched and canvassed across the taut wire of the laundry line. While phenomenally, the color blast of red will return one to the rhythm of all that is red within an Ozu, laundry also tells us something else. In Autumn Afternoon, there is a shot across some rail crossings and dreary wooden signposts blocking out a small nestled space where one sees a large tenement complex flattened in the background. A single train passing gives us the phrase -- other side of the tracks. Yet the next image is what truly sings out an aria to bargain price city living. A panoply mosaic of colored sheets and towels, women's panties, dowdy bed comforters, etc., so much laundry hung across balconies to dry off in the rays of the sun. If but for a brief moment, Ozu touches fingers with Ralph Fasanella, who would also choose to paint spaces of overly compacted living, of honeycomb proletariat who understand very well the meaning that life lived was life lived among many. Yet what binds Ozu and Fasanella together in their ethos is a joie de vivre, an optimistic pleasure in living that does not hesitate to portray a daily lower-middle class struggle of life in technicolor. If one hesitates to see class in either Ozu or Fasanella, it is because one's eyes are too busied by a lyricism, a coloration, and a music of living.
2) Just Say No to Bordwell!
A teapot is a teapot is a teapot. The redundancy and tedium of Bordwell's words over Ozu's images have all the charm of Zapruder analysis. In listening to Bordwell's commentary, one feels the pained expiration of the mystery and simple transparency of Ozu now turned into mathematics. If the body is the form of the soul, then Bordwell's regard for the film forgets the latter.
"Hide what the spectator wants to see the most." --Ozu
Sex occurs in Autumn Afternoon without the viewer ever seeing it. It is the penumbra that lurks beneath all that Japanese politesse. It occurs in language, the plot elements, those embittered battles between husbands and wives. When a gathering of men clink their sake cups together they joke about the possibility that one of their middle-aged friends might pass away due to the new excitations offered by his young wife. A husband and wife will tussle and complain over how money is spent. A father will wrangle a husband for his daughter. Did it really take all the freedom of sixties counter-culture to work up the courage to utter the word aloud and in all of its blatancy? That sex was that very difference, that very tension unnerving men and women both?
Ozu was prudish, though. Sex never amounted to more than words in his films. It was everything after and simultaneous of him that had unlatched the storehouse of the Japanese libido. Imamura, Oshima, and Suzuki, the vanguard of the Japanese New Wave, were all working to make up for the lost time and conservatism by leaping into a mode of insistently raw pornography. Ozu, now, seems the more radical though. In today's liberal-democratic age where sex understands few boundaries and the fervor and the enthusiasm of 60s -- catchwords like youth, rebellion, politics, etc. -- all burned themselves out, Ozu managed to keep a few secrets. For him, sex seemed more erotic in its saying, not in its seeing.
4) Eating Grapes...
This is a note dedicated to screenwriter Kogo Noda, because to say "Ozu" is already to footnote the twin-brain collaboration of their writing process. The beautiful writing of situation and place in this film renders down to the poetry of an anecdote, where a detail, an action, or a gesture manages and encapsulates the rhythm of a scene. Mysterious and sparse in its movements, the writing breathes openly like the words of Raymond Carver.
There is one very good scene to describe Ozu-Noda at work in Autumn Afternoon. A woman bickers with her husband. She asks him if he wants grapes. He tells her he wants to sleep and to make his bed. She refuses and says she is eating. She sits at the counter eating grapes rapidly and remarks about buying a refrigerator wholesale. He yawns and stares off kneeling upon the floor. She continues eating grapes, spitting the seeds into the palm of her hand. Laconic and crisp in its writing and delivery, the film exercises a flawless control over the construction of the film itself. Ozu-Noda succeed at turning actions into emotions, where the activity of gestures becomes a theater of naturalism. There is no lack of words in this scene, only a plurality of words that went into the making of this scene. Lest we forget, words make images.
5) Revelations of Beauty
"It's curious. I cried both times when the young woman appears in the traditional wedding attire. I think there's a great violence and harshness to that scene." --Georges Perec on Autumn Afternoon
Novelist Georges Perec provides a very suitable answer when he gestures towards the scene at the end of Autumn Afternoon when the father's daughter, Michiko, suddenly turns to us in all of her splendid wedding garb. But what to say of this man, Perec, who without shame can admit to crying twice to that most grotesque cliché of melodrama and catharsis, that hackneyed turning of the neck that instantly signals the very moment of realization, where a gasp fills our throat. Yet to truly understand Ozu is a matter of sympathizing with the sensitive Perec, because his tears best understand this phrase -- Ozu invents our desire. More specifically, a desire that we did not even know we had. One will counter saying, "Isn't the driving conflict within Autumn Afternoon really about the father marrying off his daughter? So why should this be so entirely surprising if Ozu had already informed us of his intentions?" Ozu tells, but never promises. While he does resolve to center his conflict squarely upon the shoulders of the unmarried daughter, when is it ever that we really see Michiko? Occasionally she spills into the frame, reminding us that she exists, but the film is not truly about her. It is about her father and his desire. For a film so concerned with Michiko, it is strange that one sees so little of Michiko.
Michiko turns her face to her father. There is a certain violence to this scene, and that violence is within the texture of an image. Painted in her cloud-silver kimono, stained with faint pink, dabbed with the hardest impression of pure red placed against white, and a blanche-talcum face accented by the most tender of smiles, Michiko is entirely beautiful. Yet what is so disruptive about this moment is that it seems so mismatched against the rest of the film. She's the image of a fantasy too incandescent, too refulgent that burns sorely against every other frame in the film reel, like an actress who had wandered accidentally from one of Mizoguchi's ghost-lover films onto this meager Shochiku soundstage. But Michiko belongs to this instance because it is where Ozu creates a genuine sense of surprise -- an accident of desire that is aroused the same moment it is seen. Put simply, it is love at first sight. To see Michiko so beautifully is to witness a life's worth of day-dreaming suddenly made material. To see Michiko so magnificently is to contemplate her beauty through the lens of another -- Perec's tears are our own.
The Criterion Collection DVD of Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon comes out Sept. 23, 2008
For Clifford Hilo's musings on Ozu's silent comedies, click here.
Date Posted: 9/19/2008