Late Autumn is character as jigsaw puzzle, with tantalising missing pieces—the characters' silences, the film's empty spaces.
Ozu's film concerns the mystery of the human essence, and much of it is devoted to the surmises, opinions, machinations and viewpoints of those around the mother and daughter, including Aya's friend Yuriko and three friends of her late father. As in Citizen Kane, each observation or comment presents the two women in a new, slightly different light. The goal is not so much truth or completeness as an appreciation of the elusiveness of truth. The most 'dramatic' scene—Akiko 'rhapsodising' about her late husband when it is suggested she should remarry—is not even shown, only related in dialogue. We see the two main characters principally through the other people—further, the implication is that we see them through our eyes, or through Ozu and Noda's. Our conception or impression of a character in a film is ultimately just that—our conception—and not the character itself, who is necessarily filtered through our subjectivity and is thus distorted, however slightly. We can't quite know others (or ourselves): this is the sense of the character of the father in Late Spring …, and the sense of Late Autumn as a whole.
The four friends serve a dual purpose. They are half-callous, half-conscientious manipulators. Their scheming separates, unites, provokes Akiko and Aya. Fate-like, they determine the 'plot'. They are also extensions of the two women. Yuriko, for instance, shares their distaste for second marriages (her own father remarried), but is more 'realistic' on the subject. Her disloyalty to her mother, however, is balanced by loyalty to Aya and to her mother, whom she promises to visit often after Aya leaves. This sense of almost comically convoluted, conflicting loyalties to oneself, one's parents, one's offspring and one's friends is strangely crystallised in one simple action: angry at her for approving her mother's remarriage, Aya orders the concerned Yuriko out of the apartment. Reluctantly, Yuriko leaves, but as she walks away she whirls around, pausing momentarily, and only then departs for good.
That moment of hesitation is like a miniature of the conflicts of mother and daughter. It suggests, in its quirky conciseness, how it is possible for Aya, at two different times, to respond very differently to the idea of her mother remarrying; why Akiko wants does not want Aya to marry; why Ozu can't explain to us exactly why Aya cries. Taken separately, Aya, Akiko, Yuriko and the three older men reflect each other's inconsistencies and sense of divided loyalties, or split affinities. Together, they are like a fantastically detailed, permutated composite character—mutually enriching analogues of each other that form one master portrait. For all this detail, however, Ozu is finally forced to come back to Hara's suggestive smile at the end of the film, that ironic smile which intimates that there are still many details that he has left out of the portrait….
[An Autumn Afternoon] is similar in story and structure to Late Autumn—too similar, perhaps. It is always a source of amazement how many formal and narrative elements Ozu repeats from film to film, and yet how distinctive each one is as a whole—no one, really, like another. Only An Autumn Afternoon of Ozu's later films seems to me to have no clear identity of its own; to be, in its almost rote reshuffling of the elements, simply reminiscent of earlier films in story, structure, scene and character…. Its closing note—Ryu sitting alone and drunk in the kitchen, in long shot, after his daughter's wedding—is a typically memorable Ozu ending. But even this coda has an air of forced variation, as though Ozu and Noda did not want to repeat themselves, or not exactly. What they do here they do well; it's just that they did it before and better, with more sense of form and purpose….
In one unfortunate way, An Autumn Afternoon did represent a new departure...
(The entire section is 1,420 words.)