DVD Review Of The End Of Summer
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/1/10
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, in its own right, is looked upon with a lesser eye by critics and audiences alike. Not that this is not a natural development, for once treated to fancy cuisine, even a good steak can seem a comedown to most palates, but it 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 film The End Of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke No Aki, or, literally, The Fall Of The Kohayagawa Family).
In fairness, and to be up front, it simply is not an unassailably great film, like his great Noriko Trilogy films (Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story) are, but it is an excellent film, in its own right, which knows when to not let a scene play out, and which, at 103 minutes, never goes on too long itself. And sometimes there is a small thing in a film that serves as a fractal for the larger film. In the case of The End Of Summer it is the appearance of a character named Noriko, but one not played by the great actress Setsuko Hara- who played the Noriko characters in the earlier trilogy. perhaps it was some god of cinema’s karmic hand, but the fact that Hara is called Akiko shows how just slightly off from greatness this whole film is. Another thing that augurs the slight fall from grace of this film is its musical score by Toshiro Mayuzumi. Whereas all aspects of the earlier film were in perfect harmony, Mayuzumi’s score is often light and comic in inappropriate moments. When it is needed to be comic it serves well, but a listener almost feels like the scorer fell asleep during editing, and let the same whimsical tunes play on too long her, or too much in places it should not be at all.
This color film (in contrast to the black and white trilogy) is a visual feast, and the penultimate film in the director’s career before a premature death. The famed tatami mat shot style of Ozu defines the spaces of the interiors of the homes of the characters, but, for some reason, the use of color heightens the flattening effect of the static shots, making them even more resemble the two dimensional art of Classical Japan; likely because the colors mute the shadows that are heightened in black and white, which thus add definition and seeming solidity to objects that, in color, flatten out. The screenplay, written by Ozu and longtime collaborator Kôgo Noda, is very good, deftly mixing comedy (although not as sitcom level as the farting in Good Morning) and drama (although not as sublime as that in the Noriko Trilogy) to produce a film which uses the contrasts to great effect- the comedy leavening the black subject matter of death and the disposition of a life’s remnants, at film’s end, and the drama never letting the comedy get too silly nor cartoony, and stay within the realm of the real workaday experience that all people, be they the Japanese of half a century ago or the modern Westerner of today, can relate to. This, of course, being the essence of universal art.
The narrative of the film 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 who claims her venal daughter Yuriko (Reiko Dan) was sired by him. The ‘daughter’ has no real interest in him, save for what he can provide for her financially, and 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.’ He has three daughters of his own, and two of them, Akiko and Noriko (Yôko Tsukasa), are in the process of being wooed for marriage. Akiko’s suitor is a business friend, Isomura (Hisaya Morishige)- a widowed steel mill owner of her father’s brother, Kitagawa (Daisuke Katô), and she is not so interested, while Noriko’s wooer is never seen onscreen, while the man she loves, Teramoto Tadashi (Akira Takarada, veteran of many Godzilla films)- a business acquaintance, is, but soon moves to Sapporo, where she will, by film’s end join him. The patriarch wants to see them succeed in landing husbands, but also resents one daughter’s, married Fumiko’s (Michiyo Aratama), anger over his dalliance with the woman who caused her mother so much pain. She is constantly badgering her father and her own husband, Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi).
Then, the patriarch has a heart attack, and his children, brother and sister, all gather to see him off. But, he survives, prospers for a while, then, while visiting his mistress, has a second heart attack and dies. It is the mistress who must inform the family, and tells them the dying man’s last words were ‘Is this it? Is this really it?’ A delicate situation plays out- personally and professionally, as the rest of the family bonds in differing ways, lifts The End Of Summer out of standard soap opera fare. Another way this is achieved is by having the whole of the family attend a funeral that is observed by outsiders, people who have not been in the film before, but who, upon seeing the smoke from the crematorium, discuss life and the death of a man they did not know well, if at all- the same patriarch we’ve spent the film learning about. It’s a simple yet jarring technique that puts to lie the claim if Ozu detractors who say he was a conventional director.
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 family’s portrayers also have their moments to shine, including some terrific cameos from one of Ozu’s great regulars, Chishu Ryu, as one of the peasants commenting on the old man’s death, Haruko Sugimura, another regular, as Manbei’s sister Katou- although this time in a cheerier role, and even Manbei’s grandson, Fumiko’s son, 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 DVD is part of The Criterion Collection’s third affordable Eclipse Series called Late Ozu, and also includes Early Spring, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, and Tokyo Twilight, but has no extra features, save a small essay on the inside of the DVD case. The film 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 five or ten minute Making Of featurette is de rigueur in even B film DVD releases these days.
Nonetheless, this is a film that gets a hardy recommendation. Is it the best that the Master ever offered? No. Has it familiar elements? Yes. Does it have a few moments that clunk, which would not have made the cut in his masterpieces? Yes. But it is still a fabulous film, leagues above 99.9% or more of films ever made, and 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 its main character’s and creator’s lives, but it shows that Yasujiro Ozu was still fertile creatively, and his untimely and early death impoverished the world, art in general, and cinema of a voice and eye that centuries hence will still have relevance. Not bad for a second tier work of art, eh?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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