Yasujiro Ozu was one of the three or four most important Japanese directors of the 20th century. He’s more austere, more spiritually oriented, than Kurosawa, and consequently isn’t as well known in the West. Critics rightly point to Tokyo Story, from 1953, as his masterpiece, but today I’m going off the beaten track to recommend Ozu’s first color film, 1958’s Equinox Flower.
Equinox Flower is an intriguing study of double standards. It begins with a wedding, where a distinguished businessman (played by Shin Saburi), a friend of the bride’s, makes a speech in which he praises the modern practice of marrying for love instead of by the parents’ arrangement. But later, when he discovers that his older daughter (Ineko Arima) has gotten engaged without his consent, he is outraged and refuses to allow the marriage.
The unique style of the director’s postwar work is in full display here: single shots for each character’s dialogue, stationary camera at sitting level, meditative establishing shots, low-key performances with gentle coordination of movement. The warm, naturalistic color scheme adds to the sense of balance. This aesthetic approach creates a feeling of reassurance, as if to offset the challenging nature of the story.
Although critics have labeled the film a comedy, stressing its themes of reconciliation, the film never takes the easy route. The father pouts self-righteously throughout the movie. When he is asked by a friend (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) to talk to his daughter (Yoshiko Kuga) who has become estranged from her father because of his refusal to recognize her marriage, you might expect him to see how the situation could apply to his own case. But Ozu’s insight into human intractability is finer than that—the father simply doesn’t make the connection. Similarly, a subplot in which a foolish woman from Kyoto tries to get her daughter married off, only highlights the blindness of the father, who advises the girl (a friend of his daughter) to disregard her mother’s advice and marry for love.
A subtler theme is the transformation of traditional Japanese values through western influence. The young people in the film are breaking with the old ways, and believe in freedom of choice. The difficulties of the older generation in adjusting to this change are treated with humor, but sensitively, letting the viewer observe the conflicts involved without being preached at or otherwise persuaded. The main character’s wife, for instance, understands her daughter’s motives better than her husband, but this is shown rather than told. Resolutions, when they occur, are not painless or all-encompassing, but fraught with contradictory feelings, and in this Ozu, as always, is remarkably true to life.
The title, Equinox Flower, refers to a delicate red lily symbolizing loss and longing. The film beautifully conveys the fragility of human connection.