Equinox Flower (1958 Japan 118mins)
Source: NLA/CAC Prod Co: Shochiku Dir: Yasujiro Ozu Scr: Ozu, Kogo Noda from the novel by Ton Satomi Phot: Yuharu Atsuta Ed: Yoshiyasu Hamamura Art Dir: Tatsuo Hamada Mus: Takanobu Saito
Cast: Shin Saburi, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ineko Arima, Keiji Sata.
Watching a film directed by Yasujiro Ozu is a reassuring experience. You know, from the beginning, that now matter what ills may befall the characters, what problems threaten their harmonious existence – death of loved ones, potential disintegration of the family – the natural and moral equilibrium of the world will be restored by the end of the film. All of the components in Ozu’s films enforce this sense of tranquillity. For example, the colour scheme (Equinox Flower was Ozu’s first colour film) is vibrant and warm, the music often has a lullaby quality and the composition of his images is perfectly balanced. And his performers are restrained; they move slowly and gently within the frame, rarely obstructing each other (watch for the two or three times this does occur in Equinox Flower) and almost never, in 54 films, resort to violent movements or actions (apparently there are only two violent moments in his films, once a husband pushes his wife down a flight of stairs, and another time a husband beats his wife).
Often Ozu’s performers move in unison. In a remarkable scene in Equinox Flower, Shin Saburi as Watari Hirayama, the central character and a father of two girls, meets with Chishu Ryu, portraying the father of a wayward daughter. Their bodies are identically angled and before they speak, their eyes move across the screen and then upward in a totally synchronised movement. Ozu rehearsed his actors tirelessly so that they knew every nuance in gesture that was required at exactly the correct moment. Ozu’s films provide examples of ensemble acting in its purest form. No one performer is allowed to dominate a film. It is stated that Ozu rejected takes of scenes because an individual’s performance drew attention to their acting at the expense of the others in the film. In Ozu’s films, actors almost look into the camera lens as they talk, a taboo in conventional filmmaking. Their voices are steady, they never shout, and the phrasing of the dialogue is consistent throughout.
This is mirrored in the editing of Ozu’s films. There are no long takes or are there any very brief shots in his films. Each character’s contribution to a dialogue is delivered in a single shot. This technique is not however, to be confused with television dialogue where one actor looks left to the other actor looking right. Ozu’s performers are centrally placed, looking at the listener, and, at the audience. Between each dialogue scene, there is an establishing shot. These are held longer than establishing shots are in other filmmaker’s works, and they contain very little movement, or if movement is present, it occurs in the distance, often at the junction in a long corridor framed either side by the walls.
The tone of Ozu’s films is very measured. Although his characters may be confronted by extremely tumultuous moments in their lives, they respond with an inner calm. It is Ozu’s unique aesthetic that allowed him to be listed alongside Bresson and Dreyer in Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film. Whereas Bresson and Dreyer are Christian filmmakers, exploring themes of Christianity, Ozu’s style, his philosophical acceptance of the human faults and his Japanese birth, produces a Zen-like resignation in his films. The languid, apparently relaxed appearance of his films evolved over a lifetime of filmmaking, and may seem simple, yet it is predicated on a rigid adherence to the director’s schema.
Ozu’s films must not to be mistaken for Japanese versions of American ’50s and ’60s family sitcoms, reinforcing middle-class values without confronting real issues. They deal realistically with social concerns such as unemployment, juvenile delinquency, sex outside of marriage (dealt with by two families in Equinox Flower) and family breakup (confronting the same two families in Equinox Flower). Ozu’s world, that of a post-feudal ’40s and ’50s Japan, was regimented according to a strict code of behaviour, which during the immediate post-war period, was rapidly disintegrating. Equinox Flower is replete with references to Japanese culture being subsumed. Watari Hirayama’s daughters, although conservative in many respects, have Western attitudes to relationships which are at odds to those of their parents. Western adverts and names (in English) appear in the film, for example, an English language poster for Black and White scotch whisky features prominently in La Luna, the bar frequented by several of the film’s characters.
The harmony in Ozu’s films is further tested by tensions between the sexes, in particular, the challenge to traditional gender roles. The husband/father may be the wise patriarch but his status is often threatened by the females surrounding him. In Equinox Flower, Mr. Hirayama is capable of tendering liberal advice to the youngsters around him, yet when his older daughter chooses her husband before obtaining her father’s consent the central tension in the film is initiated. For much of the duration of Equinox Flower the stubborn father sulks like a petulant child. He must come to terms with the decision his daughter has made. Frequently Ozu uses a gentle, derogatory humour to introduce the discordant elements of life into his films. The social tension between men and women, husbands and wives manifests itself in The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) when a wife callously compares her husband to a carp, and in Equinox Flower, in the alumni meeting discussion on the prerequisite conditions for determining the sex of a child.
Social tensions also surface humorously in Equinox Flower when Mr. Hirayama takes one of his subordinates to the bar not realising it is his subordinate’s regular haunt, and when the Osaka mother demonstrates her scheming social aspirations for her daughter. The Osaka mother is endured by the Hirayama family, a point clearly made through the ‘toilet’ humour associated with the woman. This is not the only film in which Ozu uses bodily function humour. Both I was Born But… (1932) and There was a Father (1942) contain fart and shit jokes that highlight the children’s social standing which defers to the social hierarchy of their parents. Ultimately Ozu’s films are observational. The Osaka woman may be the most annoying and irritating individual in Equinox Flower, yet she is not judged by the film. Hirayama, in his stubbornness towards his daughter and in excusing himself to escape another conversation with the Osaka woman demonstrates his human fallibility. Ozu easily identifies his characters faults, but he readily understands and forgives their foibles. Along with Renoir, he is one of the great humanists of the cinema.