Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Production: Schochiku; Agfacolor, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Released 1958.
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu, from a novel by Ton Satomi; photography: Yushun Atsuta; editing: Yoshiyasu Hamamura; sound: Yoshisaburo Seno; art direction: Tatsuo Hamada; lighting: Akira Aomatsu; music: Takayori Saito.
Cast: Shin Saburi (Watara Hirayama); Kinoyo Tanaka (Kiyoko Hirayama); Ineko Arima (Setsuko Hirayama); Miyuki Kuwano (Hisako Hirayama); Keiji Sada (Masahiko Taniguchi); Chieko Naniwa (Hajime Sasaki); Fujiko Yamamo (Yukiko Sasaki); Nobuo Nakamu (Toshihiko Kawai); Chishu Ryu (Shukichi Mikami); Yoshiko Kuga (Fumiko Mikami); Teiji Takahashi (Shotaro Kondo); Fumio Watanab (Ichiro Naganuma).
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* * *
Though one can agree with Noel Burch (To the Distant Observer) that Ozu's work declined into academicism, it is possible to date the decline much later, restricting it to his last few films: it seems significant that two of them (Ohayo and Floating Weeds) are remakes of much earlier works and inferior to the originals, giving an impression of fatigue. It may also be significant that, when he began to work in colour, Ozu abandoned camera movement altogether, thereby relinquishing an expressive and/or formal potential the more effective for being used so sparingly. There is not a single camera movement in Ozu's last six films: his obsession with precise composition seems to have intensified, and he refused to disturb the constructed image by moving the camera. One can analyse in most of Ozu's films a tension between conservative and radical impulses; towards the end, the conservatism dominates, as one can see if one compares Late Autumn to Late Spring.
Equinox Flower, the first of the six colour films, stands quite apart from its successors, retaining a wonderful freshness of invention, a sense of energy and playfulness; it is also (and this is surely no coincidence) the closest Ozu came to making an explicitly feminist film (one might borrow a title from Mizoguchi and rename it Victory of Women). Here, the radical impulse triumphs, and the film's consistent vivacity comes across as a celebration of this. It can be read as a coda to what can be called Ozu's Setsuko Hara trilogy. Hara was clearly too old to play "her" character (resisting, here, not marriage per se, but arranged marriage); accordingly, the character is named not Noriko but Setsuko. Here, as in Early Summer and unlike in Late Spring, the young woman wins the right to decide her own destiny. This is essentially why Late Spring had to be a tragedy and Equinox Flower a comedy.
There has been very little critical discussion of the question of identification in Ozu's films. Understandably: Western critics have been preoccupied with the uniqueness of Ozu's methodology, and every component of it seems calculated to preclude the possibility of identification. "Seems" but isn't: identification is a complex phenomenon and the achievement of a contemplative distance does not preclude it but merely redefines its nature. Ozu totally rejects the technical apparatus of identification, most obviously the point-of-view shot. Early Summer actually contains what (given Ozu's well-documented knowledge of and fondness for the Hollywood cinema) we must take as a Hitchcock joke: Two characters walk down a corridor, the camera tracking back before them; cut to a forward point-of-view tracking shot. But then we realize that this is a different corridor in a different building, unconnected with the characters whose point-of-view we thought we were sharing. Ozu's camera is never judgmental: the most unsympathetic characters are filmed in exactly the same way as the most sympathetic. Our judgement of them, unprejudiced by camera angle, lighting, "significant" music, must therefore be truly ours: we are left free to assess their behaviour, actions, values, virtues, limitations. This does not so much preclude identification as set it free: the play of our sympathies can shift from character to character, or be divided between two or more characters at the same time. The films can be argued to be (often) about the complexity of point of view, though they are certainly not reducible to "Everyone has his reasons" or "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner." Ozu's judgement is always firm and clear, but it is defined in the movement of the scenario, not imposed by cinematic rhetoric.
Two conflicting levels of sympathy/identification are always present in Ozu's work, the conflict becoming central to the later, post-World War II films: identification with the figure of the threatened or displaced patriarch, identification with the female characters. Equinox Flower enacts this conflict most vividly. The theme of the film is the education by women of the traditional Japanese patriarch (Michael Uno's The Wash contains so many thematic and structural parallels that one wonders whether there was a direct connection between the two films). The strong feminist thrust of Ozu's films (which few seem to have perceived, though the last 15 minutes of Tokyo Story alone should be enough to make it obvious) is strengthened, not weakened, by the empathy he evidently feels for his patriarchs: he understands their position completely, he knows how they feel because a part of him feels the same way, and he knows that their position has become untenable. The logical climax of Equinox Flower, absolutely demanded by narrative convention, is the wedding of the patriarch's daughter to the man that she, not her father, has chosen. Ozu declines to show it, substituting the reunion of the father with his aging ex-fellow students, which culminates in a communal expression of nostalgia for values that they all recognize to be obsolete. After it, the "victory of women"—to which all the female characters variously contribute (the film is magnificent on the subject of female solidarity)—can be completed, and the father is led to accept his daughter's right to her own judgement and choice. The film never sentimentalizes love matches by suggesting that they are likely to be any more successful than arranged ones, but it is quite unambiguous on the woman's right to reach her own decision.
The celebratory effect of the film's ending is underlined by Ozu's use of colour. He was fascinated by bright red, and in his first colour film he allowed this predilection free play. Especially, a red chair in the family's hallway figures prominently in shot after shot, yet it is always empty. Then, when the women's victory is confirmed by the phone-call in which the father finally agrees to visit his daughter and her husband, the wife at last sits in it in triumph, as on a throne. Ozu cuts to a line of washing on which a scarlet shirt stands out: a fireworks display could not have been more eloquent.
Finally, note the exactness of the film's title: "Equinox Flower," the flower that blossoms out of a time of change.