Near the beginning of An Autumn Afternoon (aka Sanma no aji), the final film from Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu, he feints that this is yet another reboot of his classic Late Spring; or rather a reboot of 1960's Late Autumn, which was itself a new look at the same subject of unmarried young women who feel a duty to care for their parents. But Ozu shifts his perspective this time around to focus primarily on the parents, as well as a wider view of the dynamics of marriage within mid-century Japan.
Ozu mainstay Chishu Ryu stars as a widower whose middle child, his daughter Michiko, is 24 and shows no interest in romance, acting instead as a platonic wife for her father and younger brother. Ryu's friends insist that she marry soon or face a life of loneliness and regret, and a class reunion with an old teacher (Eijirō Tōno; nicknamed "The Gourd") provides evidence to support their theory: in his old age The Gourd no longer enjoys a glimmer of the status of his previous position, but runs a risible noodle shop with his grumpy unmarried daughter, whose contempt for him is equal to the solace he seeks in alcohol. There is a lot of drinking in An Autumn Afternoon, and the way all of the middle-aged (and older) men pound back the Sake, whiskey and Sapporo — and insist that each other have yet one more drink — suggests that Ozu detects a specific malaise in the generation of men who not only suffered a major military defeat a generation earlier but who are also ambivalent about it.
With matchmaking for Michiko as background, Ozu also gives us a look at the marriage of Ryu's adult son (Keiji Sada) and his wife (the delightfully spunky Mariko Okada), who are strapped for cash and yet can't resist the allure of expensive modern amenities. There is a shroud of defeatist malaise over everything: surrender in war, surrender to consumerism, surrender to loneliness, surrender to marriage… and yet Ozu doesn't seem despairing about it, as there is comfort in accepting one's role and enduring the gentle push-and-pull of life as it settles people into their outcomes.
It's a bit strange to watch An Autumn Afternoon so soon after Late Autumn, as Ozu uses many of the same actors in similar roles, and places them in nearly identical sets, making the thematic echoes between the two movies maybe more profound than intended. While An Autumn Afternoon shares some of the light tone of the earlier film — with a similarly mischievous collection of randy old men at its core — it's more melancholic overall, though its emotional impact is far more subtle than, say, that of Tokyo Story. While its effect is more modest than that of his earlier classics, An Autumn Afternoon is a fitting cap to Ozu's career, showing off once again all of his delicate strengths as both a technician and as an observer of intimate social dynamics. I wonder if his use of color in his later movies softens their landing just enough that my immediate reaction to them is to categorize them as "lesser" works? They're certainly no less compelling or thought-provoking. Or maybe the artist simply found himself mellowing into the same serene acceptance of life's increasingly smaller challenges as neared the end of his life.