By Daniel Barnes
“I was born, and here I am. That’s all that matters.”
There is no more powerful a sequence of images in the cinema than a Yasujiro Ozu shot-reverse-shot. The great Japanese director was a master of composition, a painter of perfectly vertical lines, but I always associate him with his uniquely intuitive approach to a classic one-on-one conversation. Ozu had a knack for getting his actors to address the camera at 92-98% direct eye contact with the camera lens in these sequences, giving the impression that the audience-eye is the one getting met while still offering a quintessentially Japanese sliver of modest remove. Whatever sensation of pure glee my nine-year-old niece gets from the “Let It Go” sequence in Frozen, I feel the same thing watching Ozu dialogue scenes.
I am no advocate for Eastern spiritualism or soft-headed New Age-y dogma, but I am a firm believer that the films of Yasujiro Ozu make us better human beings. The End of Summer was the next-to-last movie Ozu made before his 1963 death, and it is imbued with a sense of loss, both of mortal life and a smaller, simpler era in Japanese life. There are beautiful rhyming shots of a skyscraper, TV antennae, a temple, and the smokestacks of a crematorium posed against the tree-lined Kyoto skyscape.
By this point in his life, Ozu knew that he was passing away, but he also understood that his way of making films had expired – this was a man shooting Technicolor features in Academy ratio in 1961 after all. In The End of Summer, there is a through line about a small, old-school sake brewery barely holding on against a giant conglomerate, and we feel Ozu’s fear that small-batch sake will expire along with his own eternally patient and culturally astute approach to cinema.
It takes a while to orient ourselves in the narrative because Ozu refuses to nudge the plot into artificially comfortable spaces. From the very first sequence, a sense of contemporary artifice gets established – a widow and a widower are being set up in the neon-lit “New Japan” of Osaka by a hunch-shouldered go-between, although the widower farcically insists that they make the meeting seem like an accident. Awkward and funny in a way that Noah Baumbach would envy – the dullard widower who collects “cow-related things” coolly lights her cigarette with a blowtorch-like flame – it’s a beautiful sequence, an ideal introduction to the blend of screwy comedy and sad drama that Ozu will revisit throughout the film.
As it turns out, none of the three characters introduced in the opening sequence becomes central to the plot, and most of the action takes place in Kyoto instead of Osaka. Eventually, the central figure that emerges is the sake brewery owner, an elderly father-in-law to both the widow and the matchmaker from the opening scene. His wife long since deceased, he has recently reconnected with an old flame from his married days, a supremely practical woman who urges her Americanized daughter to play the role of the sake brewer’s illegitimate offspring, because she might as well. The portrayal of disrespect towards the pre-war generation personified by the sake brewer (“I wish father would act appropriate for his age”) is similar to Ozu’s masterwork Tokyo Story, only cut with sly comedy and borderline Sirk-ian melodrama.
No one can make empty spaces feel as full as Ozu, and that gift is perhaps never more tangible than in The End of Summer. In a film that can alternate between knowing comedy and aching regret within the same moment, the most emotionally shattering scene comes between a couple of characters who are relatively incidental to the narrative. One of the sake brewer’s daughters accompanies a co-worker to the train station, seeing him off as he travels to a new position in Sapporo, both of them painfully aware of an unspeakable attraction. The comma in the sentence is a shot of the two would-be lovers shot from behind on gray station bench, resigned to their separation. The period is a shot of the empty bench with the sound of a rushing train in the background, and the following sentence begins with an image of a clock. It’s like a tincture of undiluted Ozu – devastating, life-affirming, wise, and inevitable.