It's the anti-Lear, but not in a particularly good way. It bored the arse off Tomoko. However it's also revered by cineastes, albeit not necessarily regarded as the best of Ozu.
It's late Ozu. It's his penultimate film, in fact. He died two years later. By this point he's working in colour and his visual style has fossilised, albeit into striking cinematography that makes his work immediately recognisable. It's like looking at a painting. The plot is slight and you've got to be prepared to meet Ozu halfway in order not to be bored by it, so it's largely an exercise in appreciating Ozu's usual actors, themes and visual sense.
To be honest, when discussing this film afterwards, it's the visuals we mostly talked about. The plot? Only in passing. The characters? A bit, maybe. However there's something incredibly Japanese in the way Ozu presents his film as a sequence of pure, simple images with almost no music. There's not much movement and none whatsoever from the camera. There's a lot of visual repetition. Everything's carefully composed and minimalist, as you'd expect from the man who practically reinvented ellipses in cinema, but furthermore there's that Ozu style that can get incredibly distracting if you let it. He breaks the 180 degree rule. He makes his camera stare straight into his actors' faces, instead of using over-the-shoulder shots. (This is particularly disorientating in two-handed conversations.) He doesn't care about eyelines. He uses low-angle and "tatami" shots.
Admittedly none of this is new in Ozu, but this time there's little elsewhere in the film to distract you from it. What's more, by now he's in his final evolutionary stage as a director. There are no tracking shots at all. It's undiluted Ozu-ism. You can see why we were talking about it.
I suppose I should address the plot. As usual, it's about marriage, family and the relationships between the generations. Like King Lear (a loopy comparison), it's about a patriarch (Ganjiro Nakamura) who's lost his wife and has three daughters (in descending order of age, Setsuko Hara, Michiyo Aratama, Yoko Tsukasa). However Nakamura is the head of a small brewing company, not a king, and he has no intention of acknowledging his age or doing anything so responsible as sharing out his property. He's a disreputable old bugger with a history of woman-chasing and a habit of winding up his family. He's also by far the film's most entertaining character. Look at the scene where he's being tailed, in which Ozu allows us plinky-plonky comedy xylophone music. Nakamura's a little pottering gnome. He's charming. It's also interesting to note that he gets on best with: (a) people his own age, or (b) small boys, who are the closest to him in primitive childishness.
In some ways, this is an old man's film. The older a character is, the more sympathetic they are. Nakamura lets it all hang out. His daughters need to sort their lives out, or perhaps reach a decision on whether or not this is necessary. It's funny to see the uptight younger generation being so disapproving of their elders, but at least that's showing a sense of responsibility. Even worse is a possible illegitimate daughter who's a superficial bimbo, dates Americans who can't speak Japanese and whose brain never travels far from the possibility of getting dad to buy her a mink stole.
The differences between this and Lear include:
(a) Nakamura is arguably a Shakespearian Fool, not a king. Everyone in this film is somewhere between "low-status" and "ordinary", with their semi-impenetrable accents going on a bus tour of Japan's cities. It took me a while to get my ears around Kyoto and Osaka, although fortunately I was at home with Mrs Nagoya. Similarly the tone is intermittently comedic, with everyone being gently mocked.
(b) This is a film in which things keep not happening. In that sense, it's more like Chekhov than Shakespeare. People arrange wedding meetings for Nakamura's daughters, only for the ladies in question to have second thoughts. (It would be quite easy for Westerners not to get from the film that the marriage of daughters is a big deal.) The only real plot beat at first might possibly have happened, then didn't happen after all. People talk a lot. This will be why Tomoko got bored.
(c) In the end, it doesn't really add up to much. Something natural happened and some people reach decisions. You could see it as expressing a theme of "be true to yourself", but I think it's mostly another Ozu study of Japanese families and generations.
As for the acting, to be honest this isn't one of the greats. There's a phone call so bad that it's almost funny, while I was convinced by almost none of the crying. (The exception was Mrs Nagoya.) Everything's so mannered and controlled that it's relatively unusual for the actresses in particular to seem to break out of Ozu's straitjacket. In one shot, they look like clones. Michiyo Aratama fares the best, being the one who keeps biting Nakamura's head off. However the great Setsuko Hara (inspiration for Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress) comes across as mannish, bland and simpering. The men are better served and Nakamura's fun, but then again he's got by far the most entertaining role. Oh, and that Greek Chorus farmer at the end is Chishu Ryu, who was a favourite of Ozu's and was in 52 of his 54 films.
There are also two Americans who hardly seem capable of speaking English, which even for Japanese cinema has to be some kind of anti-achievement. However in context it fits and they're only on-screen for about thirty seconds each.
Is this a bad film? Of course not. However it's all-important to be on its wavelength, preferably by already being a fan of Ozu's many other similar films. Me, I don't think it ever managed to have a point. It feels mildly improvisational, as if they've made so many of these that they can do them on auto-pilot and it doesn't matter that much if, underneath, this time they're running on empty. Its pleasures are all delicate surface ones: the style, the visuals, the understated story and the exploration of repeated themes. There's also some likeable and even charming characterisation, even if Ozu isn't sharing this equally among the cast.
It's amusing, but way too intermittently to seem like a comedy. It merely feels inconsequential. It's a refined work of art about an unrefined man and his family. Cinematography so precise in its composition that it could almost cut. Easy to settle into. I can see why it's admired, but I'd never say it's one of Ozu's greats.