It's safe to say that Yasujiro Ozu didn't know he was going to die when he shot An Autumn Afternoon, his final film. But the movie feels like it has reached the end of his career. Despite having reached Woody Allen levels of prolificacy in the postwar years, I get the feeling that Ozu would not have made another film after this one. It is named after the season in which everything is dying, as is a previous film, Late Autumn, which bears a similar plot in which an aging parent must accept the reality that his/her grown daughter must leave to be married.
The star of that film, Setsuko Hara, had worked for the last time with Ozu on his penultimate film, The End of Summer, so it is appropriate that Chishu Ryu, perhaps the most regular of Ozu regulars, returns to the starring role for An Autumn Afternoon. Like Hara before him, Ryu plays a similar character to that of Ozu's earlier masterpiece, Late Spring, in which he plays a widower whose close relationship with his daughter (played by a younger Hara) must finally leave his side. It is debatable which film has a more heartbreaking ending, but Afternoon feels more cynical and colder than the earlier. It's no secret that both movies end with the father left alone; the films trace out this path from the very beginning. But I can't help but get the feeling that Ozu had given up on trying for the level of optimism he had earlier on in life. In this respect, An Autumn Afternoon is a fittingly ambivalent conclusion to a career filled with ambivalence.
Part of this lack of warmth stems from the fact that father and daughter, Michiko, (played in this film by Ozu newcomer, Shima Iwashita) have no particularly strong bond between them, in contrast to the close relationship portrayed in Late Spring. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hirayama--and his younger son, by extension--will be rather helpless without his daughter taking care of him, a hint of mortality that proves to be too uncomfortable for him. There is also the reappearance of his old, besotted middle school teacher, with whom he and his fellow students have a reunion. The teacher, nicknamed the Gourd and played by Akira Kurosawa collaborator, Eijiro Tono, throws Hirayama's predicament into sharper relief when he reveals how lonely and bitter his existence has been, in spite and perhaps because of his role in guilting his now middle-aged daughter into caring for him all her life. She is played by Haruko Sugimura, the actress Ozu always tapped to play acerbic women, with a few exceptions.
If Ozu's films are any indication, men in mid-century Japan were obsessed with the marriages of the young women around them, relatives or not (Hirayama's friends are nearly as solicitous as he about his daughter's marriage). I'm unable to speculate on exactly why, other than the obvious fact that men were in a position to hold sway over these young women and custom drove them to do so. This plot recurs over and over in Ozu's filmography in a way you'd expect to feel tired and overdone, particularly by his final film, but Ozu manages to dig into the issue in slightly different ways every time. I'd argue that his investigation in An Autumn Afternoon is his most compelling, because it feels like the most likely situation of any scenario to have occurred in his films.
Ozu usually gives plenty of room to the supporting cast to draw out their own life struggles and characters, as he does with Hirayama's oldest son, a married man with a contentious relationship to his wife (played by Keiji Sada and Mariko Okada, the former of whom is a worthy successor to Ryu). This marriage is not particularly happy, yet it is precisely the sort of thing to which Hirayama family is driving Michiko. Even Hirayama's braggart of a friend can't shut up about the "advantages" of having a young wife, possibly because they have nothing between them beyond a sex life. And when Michiko finally gets married, Hirayama and his two closest buddies sit and drink sullenly, mourning the speed with which daughters get married these days. The irony seems entirely lost on the men, but not on Ozu.
It is this lack of self-awareness and the blind devotion to tradition that I believe ultimately drives Ozu to punish Hirayama with abject loneliness at the end of the film. The final several shots of Chishu Ryu are among the most heartbreaking in Ozu's oeuvre, even as they are undercut by the cheery, Nino Rota-reminiscent score. Ozu, who himself never left his mother's home, seems to find the Japanese obsession with marriage to be ridiculous, but never stoops so low as to portray his characters as buffoonish. He instead chooses to dwell on the sadness of the empty nest in the same way his characters do. Life must go on, after all, even in a world made dimmer by the dwindling number of people to share it with.