Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Late Autumn (秋日和, Yasujiro Ozu, 1960)

“It’s people who complicate life. Life itself is surprisingly simple” according to a puffed up old man having just hugely overcomplicated an admittedly delicate situation in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (秋日和, Akibiyori). A reinterpretation of his classic Late Spring, Late Autumn once again stars Setsuko Hara but this time as a widowed mother far more enthusiastic about marrying off her only daughter while enduring the sometimes unwelcome assistance of a group of middle-aged men stepping into the decidedly female realm of matchmaking and of course concluding that they are doing a fantastic job. 

The action opens at the seventh memorial service for Akiko’s (Setsuko Hara) late husband, Miwa, attended by his three old high school friends, Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), Hirayama (Ryuji Kita), and Mamiya (Shin Saburi) who’s turned up fashionably late in the hope of skipping most of the sutras. At the refreshments afterwards, talk turns to the marriage of Miwa’s daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) who is now 24 which is actually edging towards the late side by the standards of the time. The three old men offer to help find prospective matches with Taguchi instantly proposing an acquaintance to which Ayako smiles demurely but is later relieved to discover is already taken. Mamiya too has a lead, a nice young man from his office, Goto (Keiji Sada) who graduated from a good university and is not bad looking either. Though Akiko is excited, she’s surprised to discover that her daughter wants to shut the offer down immediately before even exchanging photos. She feels she’s not ready for marriage and is happy the way things are. Of course, if she fell in love it might be a different matter, but to her mind there’s no rush to get married just for the sake of it. 

Generally speaking, it’s other women who mostly enforce these restrictive patriarchal social norms, after all a daughter’s marriage is ironically the one area of a woman’s life over which she usually has total control. In this case, however, Ayako’s marriage becomes a kind of hobby for three eccentric old men who each have problems of their own they don’t seem to be in a big hurry to deal with. They each have a latent crush on Akiko from their youth though it was obviously Miwa who later married her. Hirayama is widowed with a teenage son, but Mamiya and Taguchi have wives and daughters of their own, Taguchi’s already married but apparently experiencing frequent bouts of “frustration” with her husband, and Mamiya’s still in school, while their wives are fully aware of their lingering affections for Akiko but mostly content to laugh at their ridiculousness. They are all certain that Ayako “needs” to get married as soon as possible and that they are “helping” her towards “happiness” though what they’re mostly doing is a father knows best routine in which they resolutely ignore her repeated desire for things to go on as they are until she decides that they shouldn’t. 

Ayako isn’t interested in arranged marriage, but does become interested in Goto after accidentally meeting him at Mamiya’s company and then discovering they have a mutual friend, all of which makes their relationship both “arranged” and “not”, giving Mamiya cause to think he’s responsible when he’s really just incidental. Thinking things aren’t moving fast enough, the guys decide the problem is Akiko and if they can persuade her to remarry then Ayako will be less reluctant to leave home. Their behaviour is in fact quite manipulative, something they are later called out on by Ayako’s feisty friend Yuriko (Mariko Okada) who is also trying to help but determined to do it in a less problematic way. The gang’s suggestion to Ayako that her mother is considering remarriage when in fact she had no such intentions at all places a rift between the two women with Ayako left feeling hurt and betrayed, as if her mother has offended her father’s memory and done something improper behind her back. 

Ayako is not alone in her lingering prejudice against second marriage even if Yuriko tries to explain to her that she’s being unreasonable. Hirayama too originally objects to the gang’s plan to get him to marry Akiko on the grounds that it would be “immoral” to marry his old friend’s wife, but is brought round when he puts the idea to his son and finds him wildly enthusiastic if only in part because he’s already thought ahead to his own marriage and is worried his dad will want to live with them and that would inconvenient for everyone. When it comes to Akiko’s marriage, there seems to be more wiggle room. Everyone wants her to be “happy” and so there’s a greater freedom to explore various options while completely ignoring her preference to remain a widow. As we see from Akiko’s life, she is already financially independent and really has no “need” to remarry unless she happened to fall in love though she remains attached to her husband’s memory. As she later confesses to Ayako, she has no desire to “climb that mountain” again, and in fact will be happier living in freedom as an independent woman. 

As so often, however, while remarriage is optional marriage is not. Ayako has to marry, she never really has the option to remain single even that was what she wanted. She falls in love with Goto and indeed wants to marry him if perhaps worried about leaving her mother behind, making the three old men partially correct in their conviction that her reluctance was more anxiety than it was opposition. Unfortunately, their “success” emboldens them towards the next match and possibly more unhelpful meddling, complicating what should be simple with their increasingly outdated ideas fuelled by a desire to rebel against their sense of impending obsolescence. “In marriage you just give up” an exasperated wife admits, but wouldn’t it be something if you didn’t have to?


Late Autumn is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Catch (飼育, Nagisa Oshima, 1961)

The Catch poster1960 was a turbulent year for many, not least among them Nagisa Oshima who dramatically broke his contract with Shochiku after the studio withdrew Night and Fog in Japan on grounds of sensitivity after the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party was murdered by a right-wing assassin live on TV. 1961’s The Catch (飼育, Shiiku), an adaptation of a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, was Oshima’s first post-studio picture and as uncompromising as anything else he’d worked on up to that point. Unlike many other filmmakers of the post-war generation who had been keen to use the corruption of the war as an excuse for a failure of humanity they now thought could be repaired, Oshima suggests that the rot was there long before and all the war did was give it justification.

In the summer of 1945, a small village captures a black American airman (Hugh Hurd) shot down over a nearby forest. They are originally quite jubilant about their act of heroism, believing that they will eventually be rewarded by the authorities, but are then irritated by their new responsibility. They are already low on food, and now they’ll have to feed this full grown man or risk being branded as amoral war criminals. Predictably, nobody wants to be saddled with looking after him until the authorities arrive with further instructions or knows what to do now, so in time-honoured fashion they tie him up in a shed and hope for the best. Only latterly when one of the children points it out do they realise that they should probably remove the bear trap attached to the airman’s foot which may already be infected seeing as he seems to be in a considerable amount of pain and is running a high fever.

It goes without saying that villagers are extremely racist, using quite pointed racial slurs and dehumanising language to describe their captive, even when others stop to remind them that he is after all human too even if he’s an enemy. Just as their sons and husbands are overseas fighting, and dying, bravely for the emperor so was this man valiantly risking his life for his country. Shouldn’t he be accorded some respect just for that? Wouldn’t they want that for their sons too?

Sadly thoughts are thin on the ground, as is food. Jiro (Toshiro Ishido), a young man shortly to enlist, wants a bag of rice off his dad to take into town to buy a woman, but his dad doesn’t have any because he’s already in debt to the immensely corrupt village chief (Rentaro Mikuni). Jiro eventually satisfies himself with a sexually liberated high school girl evacuated from the city and thereafter disappears – the first of many negative events to be randomly blamed on the captive airman. Meanwhile the village chief is responsible for a series of problems because of his out of control need for sexual dominance which sees him apparently abusing his daughter-in-law (Masako Nakamura) and attempting to assault a young widow (Akiko Koyama) with two children evacuated from the city and otherwise undefended in the village.

The rot here is feudalism, the idea that gives free rein to the village chief to misuse his position for his own satisfaction – extracting sexual favours from the women and controlling the men economically. Because he’s the village chief no one really questions his authority or his orders, so when he says all the problems are new and caused by the “black monster” they’ve brought into the village then everyone believes it to be true. The airman, who cannot be responsible for any of these crimes because he is still recovering and locked up in the shed, becomes a scapegoat for every bad thing that has ever happened in the village. More than an embodiment of the war, he is a symbol of all the external pressures that the village would like to pretend are the reasons it has turned in on itself.

Yet the airman is only one kind, the deepest kind, of other. The village hasn’t quite even integrated its evacuees who also constitute a secondary community. The young woman’s two starving children are repeatedly caught with their fingers in other people’s rice jars and receive little sympathy from the villagers, but their crimes only expose the fact that the man who has sheltered them, and also owns the shed where the airman is kept, has been keeping quiet about people thieving his potatoes. He knows it’s not the widow because there are simply too many taken to feed a small family of three, which means that there are probably several “thieves” among the villagers, content to betray their neighbours in thinking that the wealthy farmer won’t miss a measly few root vegetables.

Predictably, rather than deal with the problem, everyone obsesses over the idea that the corruption is born only of the airman and if they could just eliminate him everything would go back to “normal” – i.e. the feudal past in which everyone does what the village chief says and lives in superficial harmony without complaining about their reduced status as lowly peasants forced to live in penury by an unfair and essentially corrupt system. To cure the discord between them, they decide that the airman must be killed, no longer caring about the censure they may face from the authorities. Only two young boys stick up for him, remaining sane amid the madness all around them in insisting that the airman is a person too, is unrelated to the village drama, and deserves his dignity and respect. Sadly, however, the madness has already taken hold.

On learning that the war is over, the villagers refuse to reflect on their behaviour and seek only to bury the past, superficially smoothing over their barbarity with convenient justification. They receive the news that the American authorities do not trust the Japanese with surprise and hurt, despite the fact they are living proof of the reasons why they would be foolish to do so. We gave him white rice while we ate potatoes, he had goats milk, they say, what more could he have wanted? The answer is self evident, but it’s already been forgotten. The villagers start blaming each other, and eventually settle on another scapegoat – a deserter, as if another death could tie all of this into a neat bundle to be burned away on a funeral pyre as if it never existed at all. The evacuees are invited to leave, and the villagers start thinking about the harvest festival, as if the evil has been excised and everything is returning to the way it’s supposed to be, but this “peace” is brokered on the back of secrecy and an abnegation of responsibility. A grim exposé of man’s essential cruelty and selfishness, The Catch rejects the tenets of post-war humanism to suggest that the corruption of feudalism has not and may never be eliminated at least as long as a nation remains content to bury its past along with its shame.


Short clip (English subtitles)