Ranking: #72/111

Director: Yasujirō Ozu (Japan)

Genre: Social & Psychological Drama

Yasujirō Ozu is a legendary Japanese filmmaker who developed his own distinctive style of shooting and editing a film. You always know when you are watching a film by Ozu. For example, he invented the so-called “tatami shot”, where the camera is placed at a low height, more or less at the eye level of someone kneeling on a traditional Japanese tatami mat, to film a scene. Sometimes his camera is only one or two feet off the ground. I’ve never seen such a consistent use of low angle camera work in any other director’s work. This approach comes across to me as a sign of respect for the characters, giving them a stature above the interior setting. It’s as if his whole style of filming is deferential.  It has been pointed out that he always used a 50mm lens, the one closest to human vision.

Ozu also doesn’t use much montage, with sharp cuts or unusual juxtapositions, in order to create a feeling of narrative continuity in his films. For him, the action is centred primarily on the characters, meaning that the objects and places around them are somewhat inert, merely part of a setting in which development of the plot and of the characters is the priority.

Another typical Ozu shot is filming a character who is speaking face-on, to let him or her speak directly to the camera, and thus to the viewer.

The net effect of this unique, classical, style of filming is to convey the fundamental humanism of the director. The viewer can almost detect in his movies the presence of a wise, concerned and kind “uncle” behind the camera. There’s always a subtle simplicity, a human depth and, finally, an overarching calmness in the films of Ozu.

All of his work is about the complexities of human relationships within traditional family values and structures in Japan. He deals with inter-generational conflicts and differences, as in his famous Tokyo Story, where the elderly parents visiting their adult children in Tokyo are treated disrespectfully as the younger generation becomes immersed in the new post-war materialism sweeping through Japanese society as it westernises. And he deals with relationships between the sexes and within the dynamics of family life. The family is always at the heart of his stories. It is these all-important relationships, where people sometimes clash, which help the director to build up narrative conflict. Yet it’s always a gradual build-up towards a climax and resolution of conflict.

In The End of Summer, there’s a complex network, or web, of relationships. At its core is an older man, Manbei Kohayagawa, a widower who owns a small sake brewery, along with two daughters and a widowed daughter-in-law. Recently, he has started acting strangely, being frequently away from home, while also spending too much money on the cycle races he loves to watch. His family become concerned about his behaviour and start spying on him to find out what’s going on. It transpires that the old man has reconnected with a former mistress, or “old flame”, named Sasaki Tsune, nineteen years after their original love affair. He is enjoying a new lease of life, making him almost child-like in his old age. Later, this fact leads to much pathos in the final sequences of the film. The film evolves, with a masterful delicacy, from a witty, light-hearted social drama into a tragedy.

The film opens with a beautiful shot of the city of Osaka at night, with one neon sign proclaiming “New Japan”. As the penultimate film by the Japanese master (he died just over a year after the making of the film), I believe he’s symbolically passing on the baton to the next generation, making a final statement about his country towards the end of his life. The maturity and dignity of Manbei’s two daughters show the director’s trust in the new generation to take the country forward. For me, knowing that this is the second-last movie Ozu ever made, adds to the nostalgia in the movie. It’s about the changing of the guard in the Kohayagawa family, and about the end of a more traditional Japan, as well as the passing of an era in Japanese cinema.

Using a rich, yet subtle, Agfacolor palette in the many contextual shots of modern Japan in the film affirms the promise Ozu’s “New Japan” holds for the future. There’s a lot of focus on the younger Kohayagawas, and they are seen as having the character and sense needed to take life forward without the old generation. Sasaki Tsune’s grown-up daughter, Yuriko, symbolises the more materialistic trend of Westernised Japan, as she constantly tries to get Manbei to buy her a mink stole.

There is a lot of match-making in the plot, as expected in a society obsessed with marriage and the traditional family, but the older sister’s acceptance of her status as single at the end of the film hints at a more diverse approach to love and marriage in the New Japan.

While the Kohayagawa family meet up at a memorial service for their late mother, Manbei has a heart attack following a quarrel with one of his daughters who is angry that her father is seeing his old flame again. Suddenly, Manbei recovers and is filled with energy, and is soon playing like a little child with his grandson.  However, his recovery is short-lived and he has a second, fatal, heart attack soon afterwards while secretly visiting his old mistress Sasaki. She informs his family that he has died.

Ozu shoots a dignified and moving funeral procession, the black clothing of mourning contrasting with the cloudy blue sky above. At times, it becomes ominous, especially with the black crows alighting on the gravestones, as the smoke from the crematorium billows through the chimney in another classy, memorable image. It felt for me in the final sequences of the movie that Ozu was showing us the finality of death, warning us to understand this reality in this line from the script: “We humans can’t come to terms with death until it’s too late.”

But there is also a resignation in the face of death, and a faith, as already mentioned, that new lives will replace the old. This point is reinforced when the sake brewery is going to be merged into a bigger company; the implication is that it will survive in the New Japan. As an old peasant woman watching the smoke pour out of the chimney says to her husband, “It’s the cycle of life.”

The End of Summer is a masterful coda to a profound body of work about life in a changing Japan, combining the classical cinematic techniques developed throughout Ozu’s career, but with a new tone of resignation in the face of the inevitable changing of the guard.