His first film in colour was Equinox Flower (1958), which is a contender for being his best work. It is about a family in which the father likes to see himself as a liberal, and with the times, but when his daughter wants to marry her boyfriend, and will not accept an arranged marriage, he forgets all about his enlightened talk and becomes implacable. He refuses to give his consent to this marriage, and the family becomes increasingly strained, or rather, he becomes estranged from the women, his wife and daughters.
But that is just the plot summary, and with Ozu plot summaries are usually beside the point. It is the style with which they are told that is the point, and the feelings expressed.
The father is played by Shin Saburi, who acted in many of Ozu's films. In the earlier The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) he plays a man who is married without children but who is supporting his niece against her having to be forced into an arranged marriage. "Don't let her have the kind of marriage we are having." he says to his wife in a moment of heartbreaking honesty. That is really the theme of that film, the unhappy marriage between two people with nothing in common. In Equinox Flower the marriage is happy, the focus is elsewhere; on the gap between two different generations. And Ozu, despite the claim that he was conservative and backward looking, is clearly on the side of the younger ones, they are in the right and their ideas are where the future of Japan lies. Ozu is however also sympathetic to the father; he is not a villain, he is just struggling with the societal changes. Or maybe he just does not want to lose his daughter. Maybe he just cannot accept that she has grown up. In one scene he angrily asks the daughter "Have you slept with him?" which she refuses to answer. It is not clear whether he has problems with her wanting to marry a man of her own choosing, or if it is that he cannot accept that she has grown up and become a person who has sex. It is possibly both.
The alienated salaryman.
And then there is the style. It might be Ozu's most perfectly shot and designed film. Every frame a marvel of precision and clarity, yet simultaneously brimming with beauty and wit. Ozu's images talk to each other, one might counteract another, or a shot might appear which is almost identical to an earlier shot, there is just one slight alternation, or there might be an insignificant object which has a disproportionately strong presence in several shots. Like this red tea pot.
Just two examples.
So the richness of Equinox Flower is incredible. It is perhaps a little bit narrow, compared to its companion piece The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, which also has that class aspect which is rarely mentioned when discussing Ozu (it is for example suggested, in a few sweet and understated scenes, that the husband in the unhappy marriage would be happier if he had been married to their maid, but that was of course not an option), and there is more humour in Green Tea, but visually Equinox Flower is a work of perfection, and that helps balance the more streamlined plot. The warmth and humanity is equal in both. This brief scene below captures all of this. The wife is played by Kinuyo Tanaka and here she and her husband is contemplating life and the passing of time.
Two earlier posts about Ozu:
For those interested in Ozu and class, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) is good place to start.
Ozu followed Equinox Flower with the equally exquisite Good Morning (1959), which is also required viewing. The cinematographer on them was an Ozu regular, Yuharu Atsuta, who shot all films mentioned in this post.