Yasujiro Ozu clearly had a lot on his mind as he wrote The End of Summer, his penultimate film: the old vs. the new, generational shifts, family loyalty, death. It's all in there in this wonderfully elegiac film. Leave it to Ozu to make the smoke from a crematorium chimney look positively poetic. "It's the cycle of life," someone watching the smoke comments. Indeed.
Ozu introduces us to a widowed family patriarch Mr. Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura) who is enjoying his merry widowerhood much to the consternation of his three adult daughters, each of whom has a few issues of her own to work out. One daughter, Noriko (Yôko Tsukasa), is trying to fight off an arranged marriage while worrying that her boyfriend is moving all the way to Sapporo. Another daughter, Fumiko (Michiro Aratama), is married but concerned about the family's sake brewing business. And widowed daughter Akiko (Setsuko Hara) is trying to decide if she should seek another husband.
It's Fumiko who becomes outraged when she figures out that her father has been venturing out to meet his former mistress Tsune (Chieko Naniwa), who has a 21-year-old daughter who may or may not be his. (Interestingly, the girl dates Western boys, and the two blonde Americans who come around are a shocking sight in Ozu's insular world. "Sometimes she brings home strange things," her mother says.)
Fumiko's petty concerns about her father's adventures fade quickly when he suffers a heart attack and his possible death galvanizes the family into a quick round of reflection and forgiveness. Luckily Dad recovers quickly and is soon back in the company of Tsune, only this time his adventure has sad results.
Ozu's fascination with generational changes comes through loud and clear. The film opens on a neon advertising sign proclaiming "New Japan," and there are static shots of pagodas framed by TV antennas and temples side by side with office blocks. "It's not much of a world anymore," laments Tsune, who, like Mr. Kohayagawa misses the good old days before the war came along and changed everything. Still, he has clearly enjoyed his life right up to the literal last minute, and that lesson is not lost on his grieving daughters, each of whom will have to choose wisely to guarantee an old age and rich and happy as their father's.
As Ozu's career winds down (he died of cancer on his 63rd birthday, two years after The End of Summer was released), he is more in touch than ever with that cycle of life. He leaves us with the image of ravens perched on tombstones, a sad vision but one that reminds us to make the most of the time we have, just like Mr. Kohayagawa did.
DVD Note: The End of Summer is one of five films included in Late Ozu, a Criterion Collection box set of Ozu's best final films that's worth seeking out.
Aka Kohayagawa-ke no Aki.
No more surfing.