The comforting and unorthodox aspect of Yasujiro Ozu's filmmaking is the undeniable presence of a formula to his movies. You know not only that you will see the same actors used repeatedly throughout his filmography, but also that they will tend to play the same roles. The same story events even seem to take place repeatedly, particularly the one in which a grown-up daughter is fussed over by her (male) family remembers due to her lack of marriage.
The reason why this formula is unorthodox is that you never truly can predict the path Ozu's stories will take. They have an equal chance of leading to happiness, tragedy or a mixture of both, and he never tips his hand as to which way his film might go. Like Shakespeare, Ozu masterfully moves between genres and tones without making you aware of the shifting tides of good and bad fortune for his characters, much in the same way that life does.
All of this occurred to me while watching The End of Summer, Ozu's penultimate film and his last work with Setsuko Hara. Hara's presence in this film, as well as Ozu's previous work, Late Autumn, made me realize (belatedly) that she plays essentially the same character every time: a unmarried woman who is getting on in age to various degrees and whose singleness perturbs her family members, usually the men. Earlier on in her career, as in Late Spring and Early Summer, Hara played headstrong women named Noriko, who had their reasons not simply to go along with what her male brethren required her to do. As she ages, Hara becomes more passive in Ozu's films, but remains self-possessed and has lived long enough to understand the perils of remaining single in a country that was (and still very much is) an absolute patriarchy. Due to Ozu's sensitivity and resolute neutrality, all this lies beneath the surface of the film, never intruding on the story at hand.
In a poignant shift from earlier on in Ozu's career, the Noriko role has moved to the younger actress, Yoko Tsukasa, who plays Hara's younger sister in The End of Summer, but was her daughter in Ozu's previous film. Given Ozu's inclination to work with the same actors over and over, his films have a tendency to shuffle around the same people in different relationships to one another, which can be distracting at first, but upon reflection, feels very Buddhist in the way that people's identities and roles are fluid. Tsukasa lacks the striking star presence of Hara—the former still lives, but retired from acting in the 70s—but she carries well the torch that has been passed to her. She the reticence and self-effacing quality characteristic of the older Hara, providing in an interesting twist on the Noriko character.
The other trope we see repeated is Ganjiro Nakamura as the philandering patriarch, whose mistress throws his family into chaos much in the same way he did in Ozu's previous masterwork, Floating Weeds. His presence is less destructive here, however, more amusing and irritating than anything else. As a point of comparison, his dubious parentage of a mistress's son provides much of the drama at the center of Floating Weeds, whereas in Summer his ditzy, illegitimate maybe-daughter cares less about whether he's actually her father and more about whether he will buy her the mink stole she's been begging for. Nakamura, despite his relatively advanced age, brings a breath of fresh air to a film that has many reasons to sink under the weight of the important issues at hand, but it remains afloat.
One of the most distinctive aspects of End of Summer is its ending. Many of Ozu's films end with the death of a central character, but few dwell on mortality so directly and for so long. It is one of the few instances in Ozu's career that I can think of being heavy-handed in its imagery: a major character dies, and suddenly the countryside is beset by an unusual number of crows. We see several shots of a graveyard as aggressively somber music plays on the soundtrack. We then cut to the funeral procession, which moves slowly across a bridge, the actors' faces impassive. Finally, the main cast, along with two Greek chorus-esque characters (one of whom is played by Ozu regular, Chishu Ryu) look up at the smoke rising ominously from the top of a crematorium chimney. Ryu and the other woman discuss the fragility of life, but also how it is offset by the constant rebirth of new life. It is one of the most ambivalent endings not only in Ozu, but by any director I've seen. It left me uneasy, and also anxious to watch his final film, An Autumn Afternoon.