Very few of us will get the experience of watching a Yazujiro Ozu film along with UW professor emeritus David Bordwell, author of “Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema” and considered one of the world’s leading scholars on Ozu.
But you get the next best thing with Bordwell’s commentary track for “An Autumn Afternoon,” Ozu’s last film, from 1962. Bordwell recorded the track for the DVD release in 2005, and it appears on the new Blu-ray edition recently released by the Criterion Collection.
Commentary tracks are usually pretty disposable, often beatific reminiscences from directors or producers about what a great guy everybody was. But Bordwell’s commentary is engaging and essential, mixing useful biographical details, thoughtful explorations of the movie’s themes, and revelatory shot-by-shot analysis of Ozu’s technique.
That shot-by-shot analysis is particularly critical because the meticulous Ozu relies so much on repetition and rhythm in his framing and editing; at one point about halfway through the film, he presents the same series of shots that opened the film, leading Bordwell to comment “Is this movie starting over?”
On first viewing, an Ozu film can seem deceptively simple. But, in fact, Ozu frequently uses small variations on the same shot to create a genuine cinematic poetry, and Bordwell, who has been watching, teaching, and thinking about Ozu for decades, catches all these tiny, meaningful, even playful divergences. Upon first viewing, we may not notice how carefully Ozu has arranged the objects on a table in a restaurant scene. But Bordwell does, and what they mean.
Only a keen observer of everyday life could represent it so clearly and meaningfully on screen. Ozu was just as sharp an observer of people as well, and his films are full of so-called “ordinary people” and the life-changing dramas they live behind closed doors. “Autumn Afternoon” takes a familiar theme of Ozu, of the young woman leaving her family behind to be married off.
But this time, the perspective is not the young bride’s, but the father’s. Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) is a widower whose life largely revolves around work and after-dinner drinks with his old school friends, his family less so. (“Revolves” is the key word, as Ozu emphasizes the cyclical repetition of his days). Eventually, Hirayama realizes he should marry off his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwsahita). He succeeds, only to realize he has let his family (and, really, his life) slip through his fingers.
As always, Ozu conveys these emotions not through big dramatic scenes but through subtle patterns and framings — when we hear an old Japanese war song the first time, for example, it’s drunkenly and happily sung in a bar. The second time we hear it, it’s sung again in a bar, but in a more melancholy vein. The third time, at the end of the film, a drunk and devastated Hirayama is mumbling the song as he shuffles off to bed with the movie’s final line, “Alone, eh?”
With his close observances of the rhythms of everyday life and the complexities of family, one would have assumed Ozu was drawing from experience. But as Bordwell points out, Ozu never had a family, living with his mother until his death, and really had just one job with one company his entire life. It’s in the careful observing, and the understanding Ozu brings to characters who were very much like his audience, that made Ozu a master.