The quietude and lack of pretense in Yasujiro Ozu's idiosyncratic films continue to draw me to his impressive body of work, which gratefully continues to be restored by the Criterion Collection. From the stationary, tatami-level camera angles to the selective re-use of his familiar ensemble cast, Ozu displays an unforced cinematic style unique in its deliberate pacing and elliptical narrative structures. As it should be, his most acclaimed work is the "Noriko" trilogy - Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the extraordinary Tokyo Story (1953) - which has been given deluxe DVD treatments by Criterion in individual packages in the past few years. His career continued until his death in 1962, and this box set from Criterion's subsidiary Eclipse celebrates five of the films he made after "Tokyo Story". Because there are none of the extras to be found in the previously released DVDs, neither an informative commentary from a film scholar nor a historical documentary, the films are left to stand on their own albeit with English subtitles. They represent a solid collection from a master, but I also think they are best appreciated after seeing the "Noriko" trilogy or his other masterpiece, 1959's Floating Weeds where you get in-depth orientations into Ozu's filmmaking style.
The set begins with 1956's "Early Spring" (****), a penetrating, unusually mature study in infidelity in post-WWII Japan. Ozu places his focus on Shoji, a young, inconsequential white collar worker suffering from weariness about his job and childless marriage to Masako. He starts to spend more time with his colleagues and less with his pragmatic wife. One of his co-workers is an independent-minded stenographer who has been affectionately named "Goldfish". A seemingly innocent flirtation leads inevitably to a full-blown affair. Even more than his more famous films, Ozu spends a lot of time on establishing shots to highlight Shoji's mundane existence, and the net effect is more insinuating in terms of defining his boredom and dead-end career. Ryo Ikebe and Chikage Awashima (the feisty best friend regaling in her freedom to be single in "Early Summer") play the young couple affectingly, though Keiko Kishi easily steals her scenes as the ambitious Goldfish.
The darkest of the five films is 1957's "Tokyo Twilight" (****1/2), which showcases Ozu's craftsmanship encased in a Douglas Sirk-like melodrama about two sisters leading lives of quiet desperation in spite of the earnest though clueless efforts of their father. With her baby daughter in tow, patient older sister Takako has just left her errant, self-absorbed husband. Petulant younger sister Akiko keeps searching for a boyfriend amid her social circle, a group of sarcastic slackers who spend all their time playing mah jong and gossiping. The sisters' bad choice in men can be sourced to not only a guilt-ridden father but a mother who deserted them long ago. She comes back to town followed in quick order by the inevitable consequences. Shorn of her usually sunny exterior, the legendary Setsuko Hara lends intense, complex melancholy to Takako, while Ineko Arima portrays Akiko with a hedonistic fury worthy of Louise Brooks. As the absentee mother, Isuzu Yamada has a few powerful scenes, while Ozu regular Chishu Ryu plays the father in his typically poker-faced manner.
A comparatively lighter tone can be found in Ozu's first color film, 1958's "Equinox Flower" (****1/2), which explores a favorite theme of the filmmaker's, the bond between a father named Hirayama and his daughter Setsuko. True to her contemporary nature, she makes an impulsive decision to marry, even though Hirayama had always expected that she would seek his approval beforehand. Reflective of prevailing customs, he is presumptuous enough to think he would choose her husband. At the same time, in contrast, he provides advice to others to follow their own hearts. The hypocrisy gradually dawns on the well-intentioned father in slow, uninterrupted takes, as Setsuko quietly rebels. Shin Saburi effectively manages to convey both the comic confusion and dawning revelation of a man caught in a generational transition, while Ineko Arima returns with a sunnier persona as Setsuko.
1960's "Late Autumn" (****) is really a variation on his classic 1949 father-daughter drama, "Late Spring". He goes further with this parallel by having Setsuko Hara, who played the daughter in the original film, play the mother Akiko in this one. This time, the character of Akiko has such an easy sisterly bond with her daughter Ayako that neither has an interest in dating or marriage. While Akiko's situation is accepted by society, Ayako's single status is a point of consternation, especially for three friends of Akiko's late husband, all of whom express feelings of unrequited love for the unavailable Akiko. Lending her remarkable sense of pathos, Hara provides her trademark stillness and quiet warmth as Akiko. Y˘ko Tsukasa is pretty and affecting as Ayako, while Mariko Okada provides an uninhibited spirit as Ayako's friend and colleague Yuriko. Shin Saburi, Nabuo Nakamura and Ryuji Kita play the matchmaking trio almost like a Shakespearean comedy troupe.
The last film of the set, 1961's "End of Summer" (****) has Setsuko Hara and Y˘ko Tsukasa of "Late Autumn" return as sisters Akiko and Noriko, both in search of husbands. They are the daughters of Manbei Kohayakawa, who seems to be going through his second childhood as his sake brewery flounders into a financial abyss. When Manbei takes up with his old mistress, the family is thrown into chaos as Ozu melds both comic and tragic elements into the deliberately paced story. Fittingly, the story's rueful last act echoes the poignant ending of "Tokyo Story". The rubric of change and resistance within a family is explored in depth and within the elliptical structure that is the filmmaker's trademark. Ganjiro Nakamura (the aging kabuki actor in Ozu's "Floating Weeds") plays Manbei with surprising subtlety, while Hara and the rest of the ensemble cast complement him impeccably.