The End of Summer - Kohayagawa-ke no aki - Yasujiro Ozu - Ganjiro Nakamura - Manbei Kohayagawa - garden - flowers

The End of Summer
1961, directed by Yasujiro Ozu

There’s a strange cut in the last four minutes of The End of Summer that should be jarring but may just as easily pass unnoticed. Viewers who catch it will probably wonder what happened for a second, then forget about it. The cut is from Noriko, framed against the sky in her black mourning costume, to a nearly identical shot of her elder sister Akiko, framed the same way in the same uniform. This cut effectively sutures the two women as boldly as Ingmar Bergman does five years later when he stitches the faces of two actresses together in the most famous shot of Persona. In Persona at least there’s an obvious artistic intent. Here the viewer has no time to examine the suture, and anyone might wonder whether it’s a mistake.

It’s not a mistake – in fact the cut gives emotional weight to the movie’s argument, helping us to feel the reality of a radical claim about the passage of time.

The End of Summer opens with the neon lights of Osaka, among which the most prominent is the English sign for a hotel, “New Japan”. No one can doubt that the movie itself is a portrait of a new Japan, given not only how many signs of modernization and globalization it shows, but also how pointedly it contrasts those with signs of traditional Japanese culture. In the first scene Akiko walks into a chic modern bar wearing traditional clothing. The opening is distinctly modern with its city lights and nightlife, and the ending at the cremation ceremony is distinctly traditional. The architecture of the Kohayagawa family home and old Kyoto contrasts with modern office buildings and Akiko’s apartment. We’re constantly reminded that the family’s traditional sake brewery must yield to modern corporate breweries. Tsune’s daughter Yuriko is conspicuously modern, dressing stylishly and dating American men. Noriko is pressed over the question of whether to marry the man her family wishes for her or the man she loves – a choice between traditional arranged marriage and modern freedom.

The End of Summer - Kohayagawa-ke no aki - Yasujiro Ozu - neon lights - Osaka - New Japan Hotel

The biggest event in The End of Summer is the death of the family’s patriarch, Manbei Kohayagawa. It represents the death of the old order… the family business will be sold, and the extended family will no longer live together. Manbei dies of a heart attack while visiting his old mistress in Kyoto, but he is symbolically killed off by the youngest generation when his grandson fires imaginary pistols at him as he leaves home for the last time. The boy might also have killed him literally, wearing him out with sports and games.

It’s common for people to misread Ozu, assuming that he takes a wistful view of the new order in Japan or that he’s nostalgic for the nation’s eroding traditions. This is simply projection. His films recognize the difficulty of change, but they also recognize its benefits. If the precise attitude to change in his films is difficult to pin down, that’s only because it’s not one of the usual familiar attitudes that define liberalism or conservatism. In short, Ozu’s films – and especially The End of Summer – argue for an innate harmony between old and new.

Although Akiko and Noriko are sisters, they personify tradition and modernity respectively. Their age gap is unspecified, but the actresses are 14 years apart, and there’s a running joke that the elder Akiko must pay Noriko 100 yen each time she calls herself “old” – thus perpetually reminding us of what she’s not supposed to utter. She’s already a widow, yet Noriko has barely entered adulthood. Akiko always dresses traditionally, while except at the cremation Noriko always wears modern clothes. Without exaggerating their ages or dispositions, the movie characterizes them as representatives of the old and new Japan – yet in spite of their differences, the two are about as close as any two characters can be. Like a few other intimate pairs in Ozu’s films, their movements are synchronized in a kind of slow dance to emphasize the harmony between them. Their footsteps match, they crouch down and stand up simultaneously, and they get along without the slightest disturbance. Together they form a metaphor for the harmony Ozu sees between tradition and modernity, and when the movie cuts between them so invisibly near the end, it drives home the feeling that the two women are fundamentally similar.

The End of Summer - Kohayagawa-ke no aki - Yasujiro Ozu - Yoko Tsukasa - Setsuko Hara - Noriko - Akiko - Arashiyama - Kyoto - river

It would be understandable to regard the old man, Manbei, as the movie’s protagonist, but Akiko and Noriko are introduced earlier and get the privilege of closing the film. At the cremation supper Fumiko laments that Manbei “was the only thing keeping the Kohayagawas afloat”, but right after saying that, as if gently refuting her, the movie cuts outside to Akiko and Noriko. In their own way these sisters have been keeping the family afloat, just as the harmonious pairing of tradition and modernity will keep Japan afloat even after the old order dissolves.

Right after the cut that sutures Akiko and Noriko, the film returns to a cameo of Ozu’s regular leading man Chishu Ryu as a farmer washing his tools near the crematorium. Seeing smoke rising from the chimney, the farmer says to his wife, “No matter how many die, new lives will be born to take their place.” “You’re right,” says his wife, “it’s the cycle of life.” Looking at time as a cycle is one way to reconcile the pros and cons of the old way of life giving way to the new. We all know intuitively, at least if we reflect on it, that the process of modernization is part of an unending process of change that recurs in every generation.

Reinforcing this cyclical view of time, The End of Summer is full of echoes and parallels, reminding us that both life and history are full of repetitions. The old man’s hide and seek game with his grandson mirrors his cat and mouse chase through old Kyoto with his employee Roku. The wake by the crematorium at the end matches the outing to Arashiyama in the middle, where the family had also gathered at a traditional restaurant surrounded by nature. The family stands up in surprise when Manbei recovers, then again when the smoke rises at his cremation. Twice Yuriko heads out with her American boyfriends, each time quickly doubling back to salute Manbei or his dead body. (Her dates are George and Harry, like the first U.S. president and the one who ended World War II.) There are two scenes at the bar with Mr. Isomura, and two daughters being encouraged to marry.

The End of Summer - Kohayagawa-ke no aki - Yasujiro Ozu - Chishu Ryu - farmer - cycle of life

Describing a “cycle of life” however can sound banal. It’s an old and familiar way of reframing linear time, and Western viewers may be tempted to exoticize it as an “Eastern” view of time. Ozu’s films almost always introduce both linear and cyclical time, presenting the difference as a paradox to be wondered at. The End of Summer, for instance, is full of clocks, which measure linear time. Instead of comforting us with platitudes about unending cycles of renewal, Ozu’s best movies aim for the broadest possible perspective on time. He is neither shaking his head sentimentally over the loss of a golden past nor celebrating its replacement by some glorious future. Nor, for that matter, is he taking an insipidly stoic view that whatever happens is inevitable. Rather, The End of Summer asserts a balance between old and new that overturns the common idea that historical change must be a series of rebellions or revolutions. History may be turbulent, but it needn’t be so unbearably disruptive if people understood the potential harmony between old and new that Akiko and Noriko personify.

Just as the movie sutures the two sisters in those two almost identical shots, it also sutures Ozu’s two most acclaimed films, synthesizing the plots of Late Spring and Tokyo Story. The former is about a father marrying off his daughter, the latter is about the death of a parent, and The End of Summer blends both stories into one. It recycles Late Spring‘s reference to baseball and its Coca-Cola sign, and instead of merely suggesting that the young woman’s fiancé looks like Gary Cooper, it shows Yumiko actually dating multiple Americans. Whereas Kyoto in Late Spring was a virtual museum city representing the past, and Osaka in Tokyo Story was an important stopover on a train journey representing the encroachment of linear time, both cities in The End of Summer are real everyday locations, yet they preserve their previous meanings – Manbei revisits his past in Kyoto, and Osaka represents time moving forward. The End of Summer rephrases the two key lines that cap off Tokyo Story so memorably – instead of Kyoko’s line “Isn’t life disappointing?” Tsune says “Life is so fragile”, and instead of Shukichi saying “If only I had known she would die, I would have been kinder to her” Yumiko says that if only she knew her father would die, she would have gotten him to buy her a mink stole. These differences reveal a movie that’s not exactly more jaded than its two predecessors, but which purposefully dampens the emotional force of both plots. That doubtless explains why The End of Summer has never been as popular as the other two, but by deflating the emotional effect of its story it opens greater space for understanding and wonder.

The End of Summer - Kohayagawa-ke no aki - Yasujiro Ozu - bridge - ending

Instead of the exquisite melancholy at the endings of Late Spring and Tokyo Story, The End of Summer aims for a broader vision, enabling us to see life and time from multiple angles at once. It’s full of ironies. Manbei represents the family’s or the nation’s dying traditions, yet he’s the most youthful character, always sneaking around and getting into mischief. In a movie about change, it’s ironic that the camera always remains fixed. Likewise, it’s ironic that a story about Japan’s modernization begins with neon lights and a jazz bar, and ends with farmers, rice fields, an old wooden bridge, and a teahouse where everyone wears traditional costumes. The greatest irony though is at the very end. As the mourners walk in stately procession across the long bridge outside the crematorium, Akiko and Noriko linger behind to discuss their futures. In the last line, Akiko – the embodiment of tradition – says, “Let’s catch up. We shouldn’t be too late.” If the past itself can say such a thing to the present, then we needn’t cling to the past as if it wants to remain fixed forever.

CONNECTIONS:

Late Spring – Story of a father marrying off his daughter; synthesis of tradition and modernity; baseball allusion; Coca-Cola advertisements; idea of dating a foreigner; use of Kyoto to represent the past

Tokyo Story – Story about parents; two lines near the end restated; Setsuko Hara plays a widow; reach for the ineffable at the end

Persona – Two women who are close to each other are sutured in a cut or split-screen that emphasizes their similarity

Weekend – Argument against the Hegelian dialectic