American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Two middle-aged students take their old teacher out to dinner, and he gets thoroughly drunk and is overtaken by sadness. We are alone in life, he tells them. Always alone. He lives with his daughter, who takes care of him, who has never married, who will be left all alone when he dies. He tells Hirayama, the hero of "An Autumn Afternoon," to avoid the same mistake: Marry his daughter now, before she is too old.
"Ummm," responds Hirayama. He reveals no apparent emotion. He lives at home with a son and daughter, and she waits on both of them. Another son is married. He considers his teacher's sorrowful advice. At his office, a young women his daughter's age is getting married. Perhaps the old man is correct. The night of the dinner, the students take their teacher home. They find he and his daughter now run a noodle shop, and she is fed up with him for getting drunk again. She cares for her father, but is trapped and unhappy.
The more you learn about Yasujiro Ozu, the director of "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), the more you realize how very deep the waters reach beneath his serene surfaces. Ozu is one of the greatest artists to ever make a film. This was his last one. He never married. He lived for 60 years with his mother, and when she died, he was dead a few months later. Over and over again, in almost all of his films, he turned to the same central themes, of loneliness, of family, of dependence, of marriage, of parents and children. He holds these themes to the light and their prisms cast variations on each screenplay. His films are all made within the emotional space of his life, in which he finds not melodramatic joy or tragedy, but mono no aware, which is how the Japanese refer to the bittersweet transience of all things.
From time to time I return to Ozu feeling a need to be calmed and restored. He is a man with a profound understanding of human nature, about which he makes no dramatic statements. We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on. He embodies this vision in a cinematic style so distinctive that you can tell an Ozu film almost from a single shot. He films mostly indoors. His camera is at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat. The camera never moves. His shots often begin before anyone enters the frame, and end after the frame is empty again. There is foreground framing, from doors or walls or objects. There is meticulous attention to the things within the shot.
Ozu arranged the props in a shot with obsessive care, his collaborators recalled. In particular there is a little teapot that occurs in film after film, almost as the maker's mark. The objects themselves are not as important as their compositional function; he often composes on a lateral within the unmoving frame, leading our eyes forward and backward. "An Autumn Afternoon" is one of his six color films, made between 1958 and 1962, and in it he makes particular use of the color red to draw our eyes deeper into the frame. In almost every shot there is something red or orange in the foreground, middle distance, and back. These are not obvious. They may involve a stool, a sign on a wall, an item of clothing hanging from a hook, a vase, some books. They mean nothing in particular, but because red is a dominant color, they lead our eyes through his usually pastel compositions and prevent us from reading a shot only in a flat pane. They give his films a depth of space that mocks the pretension of 3D.