Fall is in the air. The days are growing shorter and the shadows longer, and the island feels a bit melancholy, but in a nice way. There’s a wistful cast to people’s conversations at the post office. The lake is almost too cold to swim in now, which is just as well, since I'm recovering from a case of swimmer's itch, a nasty rash caused by microscopic lake-dwelling larvae that burrow into the skin and die, leaving red bumps behind. Not pleasant, but I got the itch one afternoon when my friend Dennison and I were swimming around in the sandy shallows of the lake, pretending to be crocodiles, so I didn’t mind. We were having fun. Summer is fun.
Last night Oliver and I screened a movie called The End of Summer, by one of our favorite Japanese film directors, Yasujiro Ozu. It’s one of Ozu's late films, made just two years before he died, and it’s a classic. The title in Japanese is Kohayagawa-ke no Aki, which translates as The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family, and the story, set in the late 1950s, is about just that. The family, who owns a small, saké-brewing company, has been struggling to keep the business going and is on the verge of selling out to a large corporation. The youngest daughter is unmarried and unsure whether to settle for an arranged marriage, which might benefit the family business, or to follow her heart. The eldest daughter is a widow, who is being gently pressured to remarry. The elderly father has taken up with a former mistress and is causing his family no end of worry.
Not much really happens in the film. There are no special effects and the camera never moves. There are few exteriors, and most of the action, if you can call it that, feels decidedly interior. Ozu is famous for his wide, low-angle, static framing of traditional Japanese houses and narrow streets. His shots look like paintings or woodblock prints through which people come and go. They talk with each other. They drink cold barley tea and comment on the weather. They share a little joke or cry quietly. Sometimes they die.
The End of Summer is a melancholy film, and so understated it makes the word “melancholy” sound too strong. Wistful? Nostalgic? In Japanese, there’s an ancient expression, mono no awaré, which describes the feeling, although it’s hard to translate. Mono is the word for “thing,” but awaré is less a word than a sigh, which leads some to translate the phrase, “the ahh-ness of things” but I think that sounds awkward. I prefer “the wistfulness of things” or “the pathos of things,” which describes a sensibility that is deeply connected with the Buddhist aesthetics of impermanence. Existence is ephemeral. All things in this floating world are transient and fleeting. Beauty is inextricably bound up with sadness. Life is but a dream. All of this is expressed in mono no awaré, and performed with purity, understated elegance and gentle humor by Ozu in The End of Summer. It is perfect film for this time of year and an antidote for our times.