Monday, July 22, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Equinox Flower (1958)

Last Saturday night's film, THREE STRIPES IN THE SUN (1955), focused on an American soldier finding love and putting aside prejudices in postwar Japan. Tonight I returned to that country with EQUINOX FLOWER (1958), a Japanese film about love and changing traditions in 1950s Japan.

When I recently read about the films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu I was quite intrigued, as his stories of Japanese family life sounded interesting from both a dramatic and a cultural perspective. I purchased Criterion's 5-film Eclipse set Late Ozu in this month's half-price sale at Barnes & Noble. Based on how much I enjoyed EQUINOX FLOWER, I think this set was a great deal.

EQUINOX FLOWER, originally known as HIGANBANA in Japan, concerns the Hirayama family, particularly Mr. Hirayama (Shin Saburi) and his attempts to navigate his way through changing times.

Hirayama and his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) have two lovely daughters, Setsuko (Ineko Arima) and Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano). Though Mr. Hirayama praises the love match of a friend's daughter at a wedding and later counsels another friend's daughter to follow her heart, he is shocked when Mr. Taniguchi (Keiji Sada) approaches him and asks to marry Setsuko -- all the more so when he learns that Setsuko has already agreed to marry Mr. Taniguchi.

Mr. Hirayama had planned to arrange a marriage for Setsuko, just as his own marriage to Kiyoko was arranged, and he struggles with the idea that Setsuko has fallen in love and made her own plans. Ultimately it becomes clear that Mr. Hirayama's real issue is feeling a loss of control and especially losing his beloved daughter to marriage.

This is a very enjoyable, richly detailed movie which I thoroughly enjoyed. To start with, the color is exquisite. This was the director's first color film, photographed by Yuharu Atsuta, and some of the colors simply pop off the screen, from the ever-present red teapot in the Hirayama home to the green phone in the Luna bar to the orange soda bottles at the celebratory dinner preceding Setsuko's wedding.

The film's style is quite interesting, almost like art waking to life in some scenes. The director often starts a new sequence by setting the camera in place to watch people in the area walking back and forth, in and out of doorways, till the main characters finally sit down in front of the camera and have long talks -- sometimes looking right toward the camera. (I think the director of JUNEBUG may have been influenced by Ozu, but he didn't carry off the empty rooms nearly as well.) It's a leisurely pace, to be sure, but there are so many subtle character nuances, sprinkled with bits of humor, as well as so many visual and musical pleasures, that the 118-minute movie went quite quickly for me.

I loved the poetry of the film starting with a train station coming to life, and then the "bookend" conclusion as a train speeds off toward its destination. Some of the scenes are quite lyrical, such as the sequence where the Hirayamas take their daughters for a day at a lake. As the daughters enjoy a rowboat, the Hirayamas reflect back on the war years when the children were small, and Mrs. Hirayama remembers that though times were difficult then, they were glad to all be together.

The Hirayamas' relationship is quite fascinating. In an initial wedding sequence, as Mr. Hirayama makes a speech about how wonderful it is the young couple fell in love and didn't have an arranged marriage, one feels sorry for Mrs. Hirayama, who sits next to him staring down at the table. While others at the wedding also look down modestly at the table in front of them, Mrs. Hirayama must have felt embarrassed that her husband was so happy the young couple weren't following in his footsteps. At the same time, the Hirayamas seem to have a very solid relationship and get on well together, so it seems that things worked out for them.

For an American, the cultural nuances are fascinating, watching the characters interact with a mixture of formal traditions -- lots of bowing, of course -- and modern slang. Some of the characters can be quite cheeky and bold at times! The peeks at the partial Americanization of Japan in the '50s are interesting as well; for instance, I was fascinated by a huge neon RCA Victor sign.

I was curious that the movie skips right over the central event, Setsuko's wedding; that was the one time I had a couple minutes of uncertainty where the story was timewise. I then realized the movie had skipped past it to continue to focus on how her father was adjusting to the marriage. I found the ending of this quiet film very satisfying, and indeed, I really enjoyed the entire movie.

Highly recommended.


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I know this was an adventurous choice for you, Laura (even on the Barnes & Noble half price sale) and I believe you won't be sorry about getting this Eclipse set. This is one I also bought at the first of these B & N Criterion sales I got in on (in 2010) and it's just a beautiful, wonderful group of movies.

The parent and older child (typically a daughter) getting married is the main line of Ozu's mature phase, with the initating movie LATE SPRING (1949) remaining perhaps the greatest--and if you like these five I'd recommend going for this and TOKYO STORY (1953) among his other movies over the next few Criterion sales--they are both stand alone DVDs and I have both and would say they are his two greatest movies.

The other two color films in the Eclipse set follow that main theme as I've described it but the two black and white ones do not, so it's worth saying that they too are extraordinary. TOKYO TWILIGHT also concerns a family--parents and adult children--but it is a broken family and a melancholy but brave story Ozu does beautifully. EARLY SPRING involves infidelity in the marriage of a young couple, with all characters rendered sympathetically and sensitively and I don't think I've ever seen a better treatment of this subject, especially its moving final scene.

So I think you'll like these too. I enjoyed your remarks about EQUINOX FLOWER, a movie I once wrote a long piece about myself (in Magill's Survey of Cinema--Foreign-Language).

I'll add that classical cinema lovers who want to get away from the riches of American movies in their best days now and then will do best, in my view, with Japanese cinema. These two cinemas are a lot alike in that filmmakers work comfortably in genres and enjoy storytelling and the movies can be very artistic without being at all pretentious. Ozu is a great example of this, also Mizoguchi and Naruse (not too much Region 1 of the latter so far but hopefully that will change).

I want to belatedly thank you, Laura, for calling attention to this year's B&N Criterion sale. That's how I knew it was on, made it out and got quite a few movies as I usually do. I always go kind of mad with it, but these are movies I want to live with all my life so it's really a great deal.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake!

I so appreciated your detailed notes and recommendations. This was definitely an adventurous "buy" for me! I have some interest in Japanese culture/lifestyle and really liked my first Japanese movie, THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, so it seemed as though these are movies that will be an interesting change of pace for me. I'm happy that I've succeeded in broadening my viewing just a bit this year by dipping into silents and foreign films. (The French BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is on my list too!)

Would love to read your piece on EQUINOX FLOWER if you can track it down, that was a really substantive movie with both big themes and tiny details which made it very interesting. I'd love to read more of your thoughts on it.

Looking forward to trying the other films in the set -- I have picked out one of the other color ones as my likely next choice, kind of easing in with the more upbeat and modern titles -- I have made note of the other titles you mentioned. EARLY SPRING especially intrigues me.

Very interesting thoughts that Japanese cinema may be the most accessible, so to speak, for those who love American classical cinema.

So glad you also made some good purchases in this year's B&N sale! Love this: "these are movies I want to live with all my life." Yes!

Best wishes,

10:45 PM  

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