Yasujiro Ozu classic
When an artist has reached a level of such high art that he and his work can be spoken of as being in the top tier of his art form, something terrible happens: often brilliant – but not quite ineffably so – work is looked upon with a lesser eye by critics and audiences alike. This is not an unnatural development; once treated to fancy cuisine, even a good steak can seem a comedown to most palates. Yet, that is a frustrating development, for sometimes quality is overlooked or dismissed because it is merely an 8 of 10, rather than a perfect 10.
Such is the case concerning the critical reception of Yasujiro Ozu's 1961 effort Kohayagawa-ke No Aki / The End of Summer (or literally, The Fall of the Kohayagawa Family).
In fairness, The End of Summer, Ozu's penultimate film before his premature death, is not as unassailably great as his “Noriko Trilogy” (Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story). However, it is still an excellent film in its own right, which knows when to not let a scene play out, and which, at 103 minutes, does not overstay its welcome.
Now, sometimes a film contains a small element that serves as a fractal for the whole. In the case of The End of Summer it is the appearance of a character named Noriko, though this time around she's not played by the Trilogy's great Setsuko Hara. Perhaps it was some god of cinema's karmic hand, but the fact that Hara is called Akiko in The End of Summer shows how just slightly off from greatness the film is.
Something else that augurs the slight fall from grace of The End of Summer is Toshiro Mayuzumi's score. Whereas all aspects of the Trilogy were in perfect harmony, Mayuzumi's score is often light and comic at inappropriate moments. When it is needed to be comic it serves well, but a listener almost feels like the scorer fell asleep during editing, thus allowing the same whimsical tunes to play on for too long – or to be heard in places where it should not be at all.
Shot in color (in contrast to the black-and-white trilogy), The End of Summer is a visual feast. Ozu's famed “tatami mat” shooting style defines the spaces inside the characters' homes, but for some reason the use of color heightens the flattening effect of the static shots, making them resemble even more the two-dimensional art of Classical Japan. That's probably because the colors mute the shadows that are heightened in black and white, which thus adds definition and seeming solidity to objects that, in color, flatten out.
Written by Ozu and longtime collaborator Kôgo Noda, the screenplayis very good, deftly mixing comedy (though not as “sitcom level” as the farting in Good Morning) and drama (though not as sublime as that found in the Noriko Trilogy). The result is a film that uses contrasts to great effect: the comedy leavens the black subject matter of death and the disposition of a life's remnants, while the drama never lets the comedy get too silly or cartoonish, keeping it within the realm of the real workaday experience that all people, be they the Japanese of half a century ago or modern Westerners, can relate to. This, of course, being the essence of universal art.
The narrative in The End of Summer is simple: the widowed but impish patriarch Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura) of the Kohayagawa clan, which runs a small but failing Osaka-based sake company, has taken to seeing an old mistress, Tsune Sasaki (Chieko Naniwa), in Kyoto. Sasaki claims her venal daughter Yuriko (Reiko Dan) was sired by him.
The 'daughter' has no real interest in Manbei, save for what he can provide for her financially. She also dates American men, which leads to a funny moment between the old man and his lover, who tells him that their daughter 'sometimes she brings home strange things.'
Manbei has three daughters of his own: two of them, Akiko (Hara) and Noriko (Yôko Tsukasa), are being wooed for marriage. Akiko's suitor is a business friend, Isomura (Hisaya Morishige), a widowed steel mill owner, while Noriko's is never seen onscreen. The man she loves, however, is present. He's played by Akira Takarada, the veteran of many Godzilla films.
After the patriarch has a heart attack, his children and siblings all gather to see him off. Following a second heart attack, Manbei dies. A delicate situation plays out - both personally and professionally - as the rest of the family bonds in differing ways, thus lifting The End of Summer out of standard soap opera fare.
One particularly effective sequence has the whole family attend a funeral observed by outsiders, people who have not been in the film before, but who, upon seeing the smoke from the crematorium, discuss the life and death of a man they did not know well, if at all. It's a simple yet jarring technique that puts to lie the claim of those Ozu detractors who insist he was a conventional director.
As a plus, the acting is stellar. Ganjiro Nakamura, who was so great in Ozu's Floating Weeds (1959), is a delight to watch. Hara, as the widowed daughter, brings an ineffable grace to her role, even if it is a familiar one.
The rest of the cast also has their chance to shine, including some terrific cameos: one of Ozu's great regulars, Chishu Ryu, plays one of the peasants commenting on the old man's death; Haruko Sugimura, another regular, is Manbei's sister Katou; and even Manbei's grandson, Masao (Masahiko Shimazu, who played the devilish little Isamu in Good Morning), has a memorable sequence where he plays games with the old man.
The End of Summer DVD is part of The Criterion Collection's third affordable “Eclipse Series” called “Late Ozu,” which also includes Early Spring, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, and Tokyo Twilight. It offers no extras, save a small essay on the inside of the DVD case.
The film itself is shown in the original 1.33:1 aspect ration and is stunningly transferred. The subtitles are in black and white, which works better against color films, but Criterion really needs to get their act together on subtitles and English dubbed soundtracks.
And while I understand the desire to get affordable versions of films out there, are a few extras really going to break the bank? I mean, even a trailer and a five- or ten-minute “Making Of” featurette is de rigueur in even B-film DVD releases these days. Nonetheless, The End of Summer gets a hearty recommendation.
But is it the best the Master ever offered? No. Has it familiar elements? Yes. Does it have a few clunky moments that would not have made the cut in his masterpieces? Yes.
Even so, it is still a fabulous film, leagues above 99.9 percent or more of all other motion pictures ever made. It is also one that shows that even the simplest and seemingly most banal material, in the hands of a great artist, can make one laugh and cry, and sometimes do both at once.
The End of Summer may have come at the end of both its main character's and its creator's lives, but it shows that Yasujiro Ozu was still fertile creatively, and that his untimely death impoverished the world, cinema, and art in general of a voice and eye that centuries hence will still have relevance. Not bad for a second-tier work of art, eh?
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
The End of Summer / Kohayagawa-ke No Aki (1961)
Dir.: Yasujiro Ozu.
Scr.: Yasujiro Ozu, Kôgo Noda.
Cast: Ganjiro Nakamura, Setsuko Hara, Yôko Tsukasa, Michiyo Aratama, Chieko Naniwa, Hisaya Morishige, Reiko Dan
Photos: The Criterion Collection