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​Culture and karma in two Japanese classics

Cinema | May 7th, 2015

Earlier this year the Criterion Collection released Blu-ray editions of two Japanese classics from the 1960s: Yasujiro Ozu’s intimate family comedy-drama “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962) and Kihachi Okamoto’s samurai epic “The Sword of Doom” (1966).

Both appear at first glance to revolve heavily around specific elements of Japanese culture and history, yet each transcends time and culture to depict universal realities of human nature.

“An Autumn Afternoon” was Ozu’s final film, as he died of cancer the following year while planning his next project. It serves as a masterful summation of his career in its gentle and touching approach to recurring character types and thematic elements in his work, and in his distinctive, if somewhat peculiar cinematic style of staging action, framing and editing.

The simple plot follows a widowed middle-aged businessman’s gradual realization that time has been passing and things around him have been changing in ways he should think about dealing with, instead of continuing his comfortable routine.

His 24-year-old daughter has been taking care of him and her younger brother for years, but she is reaching an age when women are expected to marry, a fact noted by friends and colleagues but driven home when his secretary, the same age as his daughter, leaves to get married.

Meanwhile, his older son and his wife are struggling to get ahead, balancing purchases like a refrigerator and vacuum cleaner with luxuries like golf clubs and a leather purse.

A parallel plot has a class reunion where the father and his friends see what has become of an old respected teacher, now an alcoholic reduced to running a noodle shop with his unmarried daughter.

Another intersecting plot thread has a former sailor who served under him on a World War II battleship enthusiastically reminiscing about the glory days of the war and musing over what would have happened if Japan had won, while other bar patrons laugh off the militaristic past and are glad Japan was defeated.

Ozu’s careful use of color, setting, props and camera placement focuses attention on the characters while helping tie together seemingly minor details. Very much a record of post-war Japanese life, cultural traditions, economic growth, consumerism and increasing Americanization, “An Autumn Afternoon” is also a moving portrait of family relationships and believable personalities from any time and place.

Criterion’s Blu-ray has a sharp image with rich colors, and decent audio quality. Bonus features include a leaflet with credits, two worthwhile essays, two different original trailers and excerpts from a French TV retrospective on Ozu’s films (in SD). Also included is a nice, in-depth audio commentary by film scholar David Bordwell on the ways the film repeats and departs from Ozu’s typical themes, characters and formal visual style.

“AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON” on Blu-ray – Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: B

Made during the mid-1960s, but set during the 1860s, “The Sword of Doom” adapts its epic novel source (written as a newspaper serial from 1913-1941) by focusing on one central character with a few overlapping peripheral subplots.

The result conveys some of the nihilism of 1960s protest movements, but the film remains a still-timely portrait of an anti-heroic self-interested loner who takes mercenary advantage of the political climate to feed his personal obsession and skill with the samurai sword. This leads to his dark descent into psychopathic violence, paranoia and a spectacular, maniacal final confrontation (a planned sequel was never filmed).

Tatsuya Nakadai gives a brilliant performance as the ruthless but troubled samurai, an unusual and disturbing character type for its time that seems eerily modern with today’s frequent news reports of apparently random mass-murders and movies about psycho killers. Dominating the screen during his brief scenes is samurai-movie icon Toshiro Mifune as master of a sword-fighting school, and the only person who seems to intimidate Nakadai’s character. Both actors had appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Yojimbo” five years earlier, and “The Sword of Doom” makes several, often ironic, references to that samurai masterpiece.

Striking black-and-white widescreen cinematography intensifies the drama and characterizations. Overall the film is an obvious parable on “those who live by the sword…,” but it incorporates implicit commentary on government and politically-sanctioned assassinations vs. individual vendettas of honor vs. the simple love of killing.

Picture quality on Criterion’s Blu-ray is quite good overall, but it sometimes seems overly contrasty and has sections that are much grainier than others.

Audio, on the other hand, is excellent, with a very wide frequency response and wide dynamic range. Bonus features are sparse but quite good. There’s an enclosed leaflet with credits and an interesting essay.

On the disc is a trailer (in HD) and an excellent audio commentary recorded last year by scholar Stephen Prince that skips over a few disc chapters dealing with minor subplots. However, it does a fine job setting the film in historical context, explaining backstory that was in the original novel, as well as carefully analyzing how the script and cinematic techniques bring out various themes and psychological character aspects.

“THE SWORD OF DOOM” on Blu-ray – Movie: A- / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: B-

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