The Approach of Autumn

One of Naruse’s most rewarding films, disguised as a throwaway project. The very good script is by veteran Ryozo Kasahara, whose odd career begins with some of Tomotaka Tasaka’s best-known films in the 30s, then accelerates in the 50s into a twenty-year run of busy commercial work. Naruse took his first producer’s credit here: I’ve seen no mention of his having worked on the script, but the indirection of the dialogue feels a lot like his writing.

A smallish production in black-and-white Tohoscope with no big stars, THE APPROACH OF AUTUMN[1] first appears to be a children’s film centering on eleven-year-old Hideo (Kenzaburo Osawa, later in juvenile roles in AS A WIFE, AS A WOMAN and A WOMAN’S STATUS), who arrives in Tokyo with his widowed mother Shige (Nobuko Otawa, Kaneto Shindo’s frequent collaborator) from rural Nagano Prefecture. Surprised when his mother deposits him with her brother’s family while she takes a live-in job in a hotel across town, Hideo quickly gets the hang of city life and of work in his uncle’s produce store. (As per the worst fears of the nurse in WOMEN’S WAYS, family meals are largely made from the store’s old unsold vegetables.) While Shige becomes intimate with a pearl salesman (Daisuke Kato) who frequents the hotel, Hideo is befriended by his teenage cousin Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who takes him on motorcycle rides and urban outings; and he finds a boon companion in nine-year-old Junko (Futaba Ichiki), the daughter of the hotel’s manager.

The film’s conspicuous defect, that Ichiki isn’t a natural actor, ceased to bother me on a second viewing. Naruse presents the story as a light entertainment, propelled by music cues and bold editing with interludes of broad comedy: Hideo’s misadventures with a pack of city boys, who are fortunately no match for his strength, are playfully choreographed like dances. Though autumn does indeed approach by film’s end, the ambience is for the most part palpably summery and idyllic, and Naruse’s widescreen, airy compositions pleasingly document the Ginza neighborhood that is Hideo’s new playground. But the light comedy is coextensive with an exceedingly bleak story. Without the least foreshadowing, Naruse and Kasahara gradually reveal Hideo’s stereotypical diligent mom as completely amoral, and the boy is essentially orphaned by mid-film, in the care of unpleasant and unloving (albeit comically presented) foster parents. As for Junko, the absentee dad whose photo she venerates has a second, legitimized family in Osaka, and casually sells the hotel out from under Junko’s protesting mom (Kin Sugai).

The prevailing tone of joyous adventure and the children’s awareness of their precarious future come to a peak simultaneously in the remarkable scenes in which Hideo and Junko take an unauthorized day trip to the soon-to-be-developed Tokyo harbor. Naruse’s beautiful long-shot widescreen pans across the desolate landfilled terrain take their impetus from the children’s kinetic freedom while at the same time suspending them in a lunar, transitory environment. The tonal complexity of this section crystallizes the duality between idyll and despair that is sustained from the film’s opening scenes through its melancholy ending. Like other great children’s films such as Mackendrick’s A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA and Hermosillo’s MATINEE, THE APPROACH OF AUTUMN makes one wonder what age group could possibly be its intended audience.

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[1] I’m told that the film’s Japanese title is old-fashioned language: not quite archaic enough to translate as AUTUMN COMETH, but with a hint of formality.