Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 37: Equinox Flower (1958)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Equinox Flower (1958) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes the passage, “In Equinox Flower, a Japanese film by the old master Yasujirō Ozu, there is this sequence of shots: a room with a read teapot in the foreground. Another view of the room. The mother folding clothes. A shot down a corridor with the mother crossing it at an angle, and then a daughter crossing at the back. A reverse shot in a hallway as the arriving father is greeted by the mother and daughter. A shot as the father leaves the frame, then the mother, then the daughter. A shot as the mother and father enter the room, as in the background the daughter picks up the red teapot and leaves the frame. This sequence of timed movement and cutting is as perfect as any music any written, any dance, any poem.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his salute to Ozu as “A Master of the Cinema.” He writes, “To love movies without loving Ozu is an impossibility. When I see his films, I am struck by his presence behind every line, every gesture. Like Shakespeare, he breathes through his characters, and when you have seen several of his films you feel as if you must have known him. What is strange, considering that his films were once considered too Japanese to even be shown in the West, is that you also feel you have known his characters–some of them for all of your life.”

I am beginning to accept that, like Andrei Tarkovsky & Terence Mallick, Yasujirō Ozu is one of those incredibly talented filmmakers I’ll never emotionally connect with. I’m too impatient, too scatterbrained to work my way up to Ozu’s quietly reflective, well-mannered wavelength, no matter how much I admire his attention to craft. With long, pensive features stitched together through meticulously arranged static shots, consciously avoiding camera movement, Ozu’s catalog is diabolically designed to make me feel like an unappreciative dolt in well-versed, patient film nerd circles. The delicate dialogue and stoic architecture that fascinates the filmmaker leave me feeling stubbornly stuck in a slow-sinking mud, praying that I don’t give up and fall asleep. This is especially true in Equinox Flower, a film that’s explicitly about stubbornness and inaction. In Ozu’s more devastating dramas like Tokyo Story, there’s at least a heart-wrenching central conflict with an undeniable emotional hook (in that particular case, the way the elderly are left behind by uncaring, selfish youth). Equinox Flower is a much tougher vibe to engage with, as its own conflict is a pensive shift towards enlightenment & understanding, something that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama.

Marking a shift in sympathies from valuing the elderly & tradition over the new-fangled youth to a more modern perspective, Ozu’s first color film wrings its hands for two full hours over the dissolution of the arranged marriage as a social institution. Our central character is a middle-aged father fretting over his conflicting feelings on modern marriage. He’s introduced giving a speech in favor of romantic marriage at a colleague’s daughter’s wedding, disparaging the result of the practical, arranged marriage he has with his own spouse. He then later advises a family friend to disobey her mother’s wishes and marry the man she loves. These expressions are explained to be hypocrisies as his own daughter is revealed to be planning marriage with a coworker, without seeking her parents’ counsel. The father apparently prefers the tradition of arranged marriage in his own household, finding it to be a more stable foundation for a partnership, whereas passion fades. He doubles down on his opposition to his daughter’s choice by essentially imprisoning her in their home, fighting off an encroaching modernity that looks increasingly inevitable. The audience knows this impulse to be toxic, and the movie tracks his stubborn drift towards empathy for his adult daughter’s autonomous decision.

My disconnect with Ozu might boil down to just how stubbornly well-behaved he is as a filmmaker and a persona. It’s how I imagine Scorsese & Bergman’s crises-of-Faith films appear to people who weren’t raised Christian. Ozu tells this story of young women leaving home to choose their own professions & lovers with great empathy for the old men who wish to control & stifle them. Arranged marriages are explained to be in opposition to passionate ones, but here “passion” is expressed through polite & mannered conversation, never physical desire. Much like how his protagonist fights the dissolution of arranged marriage traditions, Ozu fought the transition from silent film to talkies in the 1930s and the transition to color that started with Equinox Flower. In both cases he found that new-fangled way of doing things wasn’t so bad (he never returned to black & white filmmaking), despite his stubborn, teeth-grinding resistance. It’s clear he identified with the mental anguish this film’s patriarch goes through as he comes to terms with is adult daughter’s entitlement to romantic freedom. I never shared in that fretting for one minute, so the film mostly played like watching a stubborn bully gradually decide to not be such a rigidly traditionalist brute. It’s an admirable personality shift, but also one that doesn’t earn the long, self-reflective journey it’s afforded.

I do greatly appreciate the visual arrangements of Ozu’s framing. His biggest fans fawn over how his editing room cuts find a peculiar sense of movement within that beautiful stillness. Ebert gushed in particular about a sequence in Equinox Flower that establishes a poetic domesticity through these cuts, which he describes a being one of the most joyous sequences in all of cinema. I’ve been guilty of finding that same poetic joy in the artificial domesticity of a Douglas Sirk picture or two, but Sirk’s melodramas were informed by an emotional passion Ozu had no interest in exploring. It’s likely this feeling of a well-mannered, well-behaved emotional remove is a culturally-informed one, something I should strive to look past in my appreciation for the director’s formalist achievements. I can’t deny though, that I would have been much more enthusiastic about Equinox Flower if it paired its technical craft with genuinely passionate melodrama. It could have at least told its story through the daughter’s POV instead of her stubborn, traditionalist father’s. That might be the crux of where Ozu & I differ in sensibility & temperament.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Young at Heart (1954)

-Brandon Ledet

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