Yasujiro Ozu's final film, 1962's An Autumn Afternoon, opens with an image of red and white smokestacks against a blue sky. In other hands, this would be a prosaic establishing shot, but the moment has the balance of a Mondrian painting. Ozu has done little but plant his camera in just the right place, but he lets viewers see the commonplace with new eyes. With factories or families, that's the Ozu way.
It's easy for even the most devoted Ozu fans to get the plots of his films tangled. An Autumn Afternoon, like others, deals with a family in transition, as a father (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) reluctantly lets go of a daughter of marrying age (Shima Iwashita). It's a slow process, aided by the gentle prodding of friends who get Ryu thinking about his daughter's marriage. Soon he's seeing cues all around. When Ryu and his middle-aged friends treat a former teacher to drinks, the old man becomes overwhelmed. When Ryu helps take him home, he sees the pitiable state in which he lives with a visibly depressed middle-aged daughter who never left home, a living reminder of what comes from fighting change.
Ozu lets the story of uneasy transitions play out against a Japan that's undergoing changes of its own. Kimonos are giving way to skirts, bars with English names have begun to crop up alongside noodle shops, and golf and baseball have become national obsessions. The film assumes the pace of life as it lets Ryu reach by degrees the conclusion that he'll have to let his daughter go. In one extraordinary scene, Ryu meets a soldier he trained during the war, listens to his fantasy of a victorious Japan imposing its culture on America, then simply says, "I think it's good that we lost." Sometimes there's profit in giving up. Nations change. Children marry and leave home (though Ozu himself never did). It's inevitable and bittersweet, sometimes with the emphasis on the bitter. As he did throughout his career, Ozu lets his final film show us what we already know, even if we don't always see it.
Key features: Film scholar David Bordwell provides a sharp, informed commentary track.