Friday, 15 January 2016

Equinox Flower (1958)

What is said about directors, regarding their style or themes or message or some such, is frequently wrong, partly because most directors are a lot more eclectic and flexible than the popular view of them can account for. This is also true of course for Yasujiro Ozu, even though he might appear to be the most consistent and rigid filmmaker of them all. But too many seem to base their view of Ozu on just one film, Tokyo Story (1953), and suggesting that he was conservative, that there is no camera movements, that the camera is always placed at the height of somebody sitting down and that they are all about the family. But there is much more to Ozu's style and themes than this. Explicitly so if you consider both his pre-war films and his post-war films, and less obvious but still indubitably if you only consider the post-war films. And the post-war films should be considered, most of them. Those who have only seen Tokyo Story have but a partial view of Ozu. His humour, irony, visual wit, discussions about class and allusions to the war, and his exquisite use of colour; these are things that are not necessarily present in Tokyo Story, which, although a very fine film, should only be considered a starting point.

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.


  1. Ozu's silent films completely contradict the received wisdom about his style, and at least in the U.S, many of them are available on DVD, so there's really no excuse for acting like TOKYO STORY is the only film he ever made anymore.

  2. I now need to re-watch EQUINOX FLOWER soon.
    Yes, the pre war films, especially the silents, show Qzu in a different light.
    How much of what is generally thought about Ozu is influenced by Donald Richie?
    He had blind spots like any normal person. (He under rated Kinoshita in my book.)
    And was Kinuyo Tanaka the greatest film actress of the 20th century?

    Foster Grimm

    1. Those are hard questions! But I don't think it's fair to blame Richie, but rather the fact that Tokyo Story is the one people have seen, if they have seen any. That, and maybe Late Spring.