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“The End of Summer” (1961) is a fascinating film. Like so many of director Yasujiro Ozu’s other films, it explores the textured generational shiftings of a contemporaneous Japan: The melancholic ripening of old age and the unrelenting depersonalization of a corporatizing world. Yet, “The End of Summer” is also a marked divergence. Perhaps it wasn’t originally intended to, but the film would go on to be Ozu’s second-to-last one before his death of cancer a year later. In all, Ozu directed some fifty-four films. He started his career in the burgeoning silent era, eventually transitioning to sound, and then finally, with his last six works, moving on to color.
In addition to technical evolutions, his career charted the transition between many different Japans. From his first to his last film, Japan shifted from not yet having invaded Manchuria, China, to being a post-war site of imported westernization. Beyond any strife, change or turmoil, though, the unifying chemical agent in his work is love: Love for his country and for its future, but also love for cinema as an art and humans as beings. “The End of Summer” is no different. Yet, it is for this same reason that it is a film about the fear of death.
Many of Ozu’s films follow a similar seasonal naming and structural pattern, with the title referring to the corresponding segment of human life the film would explore. “Early Spring” (1956), for example, tackles one’s entrance into an independent adult world, whereas “Late Autumn” (1960) does so with a parent’s loss of control over their maturing children. “The End of Summer,” then, is about the almost unfathomable sensation that comes from standing face-to-face with oncoming oblivion — staring inertly as death permeates everything that you once called your own. The film doesn’t so much adhere to a singular narrative voice as orbit around a central progression: The fast-approaching death of the Kohayagawa family's last remaining elder, Manbei Kohayagawa. Through this journey, the film becomes just as much about the death of one man as about the death of his equally aging generation.
This metonymy, it turns out, is central to the film’s methodology. “The End of Summer” is about the end of a life in that it is about the end of a way of life. It is a film about death, yet in another light, it is a film about reframing. The most literal address of reframing is the subplot about a man’s quest to court a woman by purchasing a western painting from her. When he visits her gallery, the film’s stark frame composition immediately clashes with the curated landscape of the paintings. “The End of Summer,” like almost all Ozu films, is marked stylistically by its rigid shot compositions. Camera movement is absent, and cuts are almost mechanized. This stark mold, then, is at odds with the imported — but equally framed — western images. The coexistence of distinct cultures necessitates a reassessment of their respective compositions, at least insofar as it draws attention to the framed nature of culture in any form. In another light too, the moment suggests that the quest for love is one of the many things that can recalibrate how one sees the world.
Framing takes on a different figure in the film’s confrontations with genre. The question of genre and its malleability is breached both within the film’s construction and in its characters’ concerns. On one hand, it is a movie about the gravest thing possible in life – death – yet, the principal subject of that death is the one who seems least fazed by it. About halfway through the film, Manbei suffers a shocking heart attack. His family from all over the area gathers to wish him support. However, instead of thanking them for their efforts, he nonchalantly walks outside and comments on how restful his ‘nap’ was. In fact, this encounter with death only launches him further into joviality. He spends more and more time playing with his grandson and exchanging playful gossip with his former mistress. And with him, the film bounces from a drab drama to an almost-cheerful comedy.
Yet, this development is not fueled by delusion as much a radical kindness. Manbei knows he is going to die; he knows that his values aren’t shared by his children and that his memories and connections will soon be annihilated. His family business is quickly failing, and his family unit is migrating away, but his hope and love for life remain. Manbei chooses humor and happiness over heartache because that’s the last choice he has the option to make.
“The End of Summer” is a film about death, but the characters most expressly afraid of it are some of the ones least in danger of it. That is because as much as the movie tracks the struggles with mortal, palpable death, it is also necessarily steeped in death’s smaller, yet equally inevitable, iterations. The death of being young or being single. The death of having a father. The death that comes from living in a world where every summer comes to an end.
The fear of death is valid and overwhelming, but letting it debilitate oneself is to give in to its temptations. All cultures, people and moments will eventually die — to move through time is to become numb to a million different deaths every day — but just as much as these deaths are negations, they are also nodes for possible construction. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is brush yourself off and chuckle about how good a nap you’ve just had.
Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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