I’ve been glancing over images from Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). His compositions tell all these terse, self-contained stories through line, color, and lighting—stories about middle-class life in postwar Japan, about all the pain (and incidental comedy) inherent in the very concept of “family.” Stories about disappointment, and the impossibility of happiness without first some compromise and heartbreak.
Between the placidity of Ozu’s frames and the frustrations of his characters, An Autumn Afternoon started reminding me of American painter Edward Hopper. As with Ozu, much of Hopper’s work consists of understated tragedy. Both men situate their characters in low-key milieux: modest rooms, taverns, street corners. And despite their gloomy implications, both Ozu’s swan song and Hopper’s paintings (like Chop Suey, above) abound with visual playfulness, never giving in entirely to misery.
“In the end, we spend our lives alone,” opines this drunken old man, a former schoolteacher from An Autumn Afternoon. “All alone.” Both of these artists, separated by decades and the Pacific Ocean, single out solitude as a constant of the human condition. Their figures are enshrouded by darkness, and that darkness is offset by harsh lighting elsewhere in these frames. This old man—in the twilight of his life, left with nothing but a noodle shop and a resentful daughter—is downcast, wistful, at rest. Same goes for this lonely woman in cloche and coat, pausing over a cup of coffee in Hopper’s Automat. They’ve turned their emotions inward and resigned themselves to loneliness.
Each of these shots is a study of body language, of the gestures and poses through which melancholy manifests itself. Poor Michiko (Shima Iwashita), informed that her would-be beau is already engaged, slouches silently just like the half-dressed traveler in Hopper’s Hotel Room. Their contexts are totally different: Michiko’s suppressing a wave of emotions in front of her father and brother, whereas Hopper’s subject is in the thrall of a more abstract lethargy. But they share the same hands-down, head-down posture and inscrutably blank face. Both Ozu and Hopper integrate these physical expressions of sadness into the mise-en-scène, letting the disappointment of their characters ripple out across the frame.
[Hopper paintings courtesy of “Bert Christensen’s Cyberspace Gallery.”]