Thursday, January 31, 2013

The End of Summer

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1961)

This DVD had been sitting on my coffee table for at least a month.  I have no good excuse for such neglect, only that I haven't been much in the mood, lately, for the kind of sustained, serious film-viewing that had previously been a habit of mine.  I've still got a ridiculously long list of "must-see" films, but lately, the urgency of that designation has been lost on me.  I could blame it on an inclement work schedule, or a diversifying of aesthetic interest, or even the weather in Tubruk, but at the end of the day, it's just one of those things.  Ozu was exactly the kind of filmmaker I wasn't in the mood for; pre-1970s, restrained in style, somber (or at least subdued) in atmosphere.  But you know how these things work: what you think you don't want, in some cases, reveals itself to be exactly what you need. 

So the other morning, as the day began to swelter precipitously, I popped in the disk and watched.  And it was terrific.  Ozu is a master, so seminal to Asian cinema and some of the most exciting and original directors coming out of that half of the world, that it's hard to give him his full due.  Ranking is silly, but it works as a quick shorthand, and for me, Ozu only is slightly beneath Mizoguchi, and a hair above Kurosawa, in the canon of Important Japanese Directors.  He was one of the first auteurs to manage the trick of being audacious, even radical, through his apparent subtlety and reserve (a trick he learned from John Ford, among others.)  He's not the spiritual visionary that is Mizoguchi, or the transcendent master of high drama that is Kurosawa, but he nails his own completely distinct and galvanic place in turning the melodrama of the everyday into a dazzling evocation of the deepest questions and values of existence.   His subject was usually middle-class Japanese life - the day to day concerns and anxieties that make up what we usually refer to as the quotidian - but his interest ran far deeper, into the very rhythms of a life, and how they reflected deeply urgent intellectual, moral, and emotional yearnings.  Ozu's world is a private world, and he sees, in the everyday rituals and emotions of ordinary people, the inner workings of the universe.

In the End of Summer, we view the life of a family as it is disrupted by the sudden decline in health of the family patriarch.  Ozu's exploration of the individuals' lives is as gentle as it is lapidary.   His use of symbols (there is a particularly brilliant usage of a blue lantern) is matched only by his ability to evoke a specific time and place.  Through glances, quiet conversation, and idle play, a entire web of family relationships is created and dramatized.  The overlapping spheres of childhood, youth, middle age, and old age are deftly brushed and detailed.  Tradition and decorum are alternately observed and protested against.  Hou, the patriarch, has created a family that spends a large, perhaps inordinate, amount of time worrying about him.  His charming, raffish, devil-may-care demeanor has had the impressive effect of giving him a comfortable life while everyone around him struggles and frets - over the faltering business, over their love lives, over his love life, etc.

In the end, when the carefree soul must finally face his own mortality, things take an interesting tonal shift.  (Incomplete...)

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