Monday, March 1, 2010
The End of Summer
The End of Summer was Yasujiro Ozu's penultimate film, and it's thus perhaps fitting that the film's subject, at least in part, is the end of life: the English title refers not only to seasonal changes but to pivotal moments in life, particularly its cessation. (The Japanese title, literally translated as Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family, conveys the same sense of some doors closing while others open anew.) The elderly Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura) has had a full, busy life, and now that he's near its end, he wants only to squeeze out the last few drops of pleasure from his existence, and to leave this world believing that his family is going to be taken care of after he's gone. He doesn't dwell on death or show any overt signs of preoccupation with what happens after he's gone, but it nevertheless clearly motivates him. In particular, he wants to know that his daughters — young, unmarried Noriko (Yôko Tsukasa) and widowed Akiko (Setsuko Hara) — are settled and married. His eldest daughter, Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) is already married, to Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi), and for them Kohayagawa wants to know that his perpetually struggling business, which he's more or less passed on to Hisao, is well-maintained. Still, although Kohayagawa is in some ways getting his affairs in order and tying up loose ends, he's hardly given up on life, and he retains the sense of pleasure he feels in the company of Sasaki Tsune (Chieko Naniwa), who he'd had an affair with many years before and with whom he'd rekindled this affection in his dotage. He is an example of one end of the see-saw dichotomy that runs through so much of Ozu's work: the tension between personal happiness and the stability of the family or the larger community. It is the tension between the individual and the group, here realized as Kohayagawa's balance between doing what he wants and doing what his family, who are embarrassed of his philandering and his carefree lifestyle, would prefer.
This is a recurring topic in Ozu's films, many of which involve the kinds of marriage dramas that Noriko and Akiko face, in which the women must choose between the option that will make them happiest, and the option that will make their families happiest and most stable. Noriko and Akiko are both being set up with men who bemuse and entertain them but who they certainly don't love. Noriko, in fact, is in love with another man, a man who she worked with but who moved away before they could truly express their feelings for one another. Akiko, for her part, would prefer to remain a widow, raising her child by herself, rather than get married again. But both women nevertheless are seriously considering these arranged marriages for the sake of their family. The film's drama, quiet and understated as it is, revolves around the sisters' crucial choice between their individual happiness and their reluctance to disappoint or inconvenience their family. It's a plot Ozu returned to again and again, as he probed the changing dynamics of Japanese culture post-World War II, the infusion of Western influences, and the friction between old ways of doing things and new understandings of the possibilities open to individuals outside of traditional group structures.
Ozu's gentle aesthetic — static shots from a fixed, low perspective, arranged in patient rhythms — is perfectly suited to such introspective stories. He intersperses his inter-generational narrative, as usual, with unpopulated interludes, shots of these domestic settings denuded of their inhabitants. These interludes are lyrical poems, often three-line poems in which each "line" is an individual shot. These triplets serve multiple purposes for Ozu: they are dividers between dramatic, narrative, dialogue scenes; they establish a sense of place; they influence the film's rhythm and pacing; they enhance the impression that Ozu is a sublime documenter of everyday life in all its minutest details. But most importantly, these images are simply sensual and sensory, almost abstract in their oblique relationships to the narrative scenes.
Sometimes the syntax of these "poems" is clear enough: start with a medium shot of an empty room, then cut to a closeup of a pale blue lantern, a detail from the wider shot. That's a standard enough gesture. More unpredictable is Ozu's penchant for offering unusual angles on the same scene. The three shots shown above are a typical example of one of Ozu's poetic sequences: three views of wooden baskets lined up along a wall, but the relationship between the three shots is ambiguous and formal rather than straightforward. The first two shots rhyme against one another with opposing angles and slightly altered distance, together forming an uneven upside-down "V" shape, while the third shot unexpectedly pulls back down an adjacent alleyway. This shot sequence is mysterious and purely formal, a diversion from Ozu's documentation of his ordinary characters to examine the rich details and prosaic beauty of their surroundings. This particular tendency in Ozu is perhaps his most characteristically Japanese touch, derived from a rich tradition of such visual poetry, like Hokusai's famous "views" of Mount Fuji, each one drawn from a different angle and infused with different hues.
The film's opening sequence provides a stunning example of how Ozu's patient cutting from one static shot to another can subtly lead into the buried drama of his stories, as well as creating an overpowering mood through the rhythmic editing. The first two shots show the city of Osaka at night, its blinking neon lights and tall, dark skyscrapers instantly announcing the modernity of the setting. Ozu then cuts to a shot in the interior of a bar, looking from his typical low angle down a row of bar stools at the blinking neon sign out the window and the bar patrons sitting at the counter. The next shot is a two-shot of a man sitting at the bar with one of the hostesses, and then Ozu cuts to single shots of each of them in turn. It's a simple rhythm, but in just six shots Ozu has moved fluidly from the broadest possible context to the most intimate, from images of an entire city to closeups of individuals. His deliberate aesthetic creates a cumulative effect, with each shot adding to the mood established by the earlier shots; the intrusion of Setsuko Hara, as the traditional woman Akiko, into this modern world is especially startling, with her traditional garb clashing against the bright, stylish dresses and American-style makeup favored by most of the younger girls in this place.
All of this slow accumulation is leading towards a moving, complex denouement, in which Akiko and Noriko make their respective decisions as the older generation cedes its reign to the younger ones. The film's entire final act is comprised of Ozu's epic depiction of a funeral, a lengthy and emotionally intense sequence spread out across multiple different locations. His editing rhythms take on a sublime purposefulness at this point. A pair of peasants by a river are surrounded by crows, a harbinger of death, and they look up at the tall chimney of the nearby crematorium, which will emit clouds of smoke at the climax of the funeral. The peasants exchange pat clichés about the "cycle of life" and death as the passing of the torch from one generation to the next, but Ozu makes these values apparent more poignantly in his visuals, and in the more indirect conversation between Akiko and Noriko. The two sisters watch the smokestack from a nearby hillside, discussing their respective decisions and the importance of being happy in life. Meanwhile, the remainder of the family gathers in a restaurant for the funeral lunch, and though they chatter on about life and death, sometimes cheerful and sometimes distraught, the moment when they first see the crematorium's smoke is entirely silent, shot from behind, with one woman slowly rising to watch and the others solemnly following, until everyone is arranged at the window in a tight group, watching the last fragile wisps of a life being blown away by the wind. The film ends with another of Ozu's poetic interludes, on the subject of death this time: crows under a pier, crows on a sand bank, crows hopping from one grave marker to the next, cawing, their black feathery forms seeming like negative space against the pale blue of sky and water or the lush greens of the foliage.
What's especially unexpected about The End of Summer, given its big themes and serious subjects, is how light it is in its approach. Ozu's comedy is often broader and airier than one would expect from an artist of his general delicacy and deliberateness. In one scene, Akiko's would-be new husband pulls out a cigarette lighter that unleashes a massive flame, so that the act of lighting a cigarette is like sticking one's face into the path of a flamethrower; it's a gag of visual incongruity on par with Quentin Tarantino's recent pipe gag in Inglourious Basterds (and that's probably one of the few times you'll see anyone link Tarantino and Ozu in any way). More importantly, Ganjiro Nakamura in particular delivers a wonderfully comic performance as the family's spry, cheerful patriarch. When he walks through the streets, fanning himself to shield against the oppressive heat, there's a faint bounce in his step, a peculiar waddle that Ozu synchronizes with the jaunty soundtrack. There's great comic charm in Kohayagawa's attempts to elude his family so he can visit his mistress. At one point, while playing hide-and-seek with his grandson, he pretends to be looking for the boy but is actually stealthily dressing and preparing to go out. Sasaki, his mistress, provides some wry humor as well, particularly in her relationship with her daughter Yuriko (Reiko Dan), who she claims is Kohayagawa's daughter even though the girl's parentage is by no means certain. These two women are matter-of-fact gold-diggers, getting the most they can out of their relationships with men, but Ozu doesn't judge them harshly: they simply do what they have to in order to get by, to survive and experience some measure of happiness in their lives. Like Kohayagawa himself, they take life as it comes and enjoy it as much as possible. Despite Ozu's sympathies for older ways of doing things, for the bonds of tradition and duty and responsibility, it's apparent that he appreciates this more lackadaisical approach to life as well.
The End of Summer is a beautiful, graceful film, a resonant work that frankly addresses mortality and the shifting cultural status quo. It is a profoundly unhurried film, and yet there is an economy of gesture and movement in Ozu's aesthetic that makes the film seem very condensed. Each movement has a purpose: there are several shots in which two people sit into a crouching position together, their movements perfectly synchronized, as though they are both attuned to the world's invisible rhythm. This rhythm, so subtle and yet so powerful, is the rhythm of Ozu's films: slow, graceful, perhaps slightly melancholic, but also at times joyful and even exuberant, quietly exulting in the possibilities of the future or even just the sunny warmth of one of the final summer days before autumn.