秋刀魚の味 (Sanma no aji in romaji) is a warm, gentle film. That in itself was enough to win me over as I found ageing father and widower Hirayama Shuhei quite a nice, honourable man, and one I’d happily tag along with for more wanderings through everyday life.

The English name for the film is ordinary: An Autumn Afternoon. Paradoxically, it’s its ordinariness that sets it apart, as Hirayama-san’s adventures could hardly be described as such. Subtlety is another of its strengths. It’s difficult to make typical blunt observations about Sanma no aji’s thrust because there really aren’t many to be made. The need for companionship and the necessity to do right by our companions even if it means seeing less of them are some of its themes as far as I can make out.

Most of the time the relationships shown are husband-wife ones. Seeing as 1962 was quite a while ago and it’s set in Japan, the wife’s role often doesn’t look too appealing. They give up their jobs and their husbands expect them to do everything for them. This extends to all other dependant men in her family. Where wives and mothers aren’t available, sisters and daughters take on these unwanted tasks. Things are changing, however, and some of the younger women seem more inclined to fight their corner.

Arranged marriages seem quite normal in this picture of sixties Japan. “Well, be happy. Be a good wife.”, says Hirayama-san to a young lady leaving work to get married. From what we see in the film these two things can often seem mutually exclusive, but there’s such a mix of situations between the various couples that it isn’t that simple. In one marriage, the young wife is more than capable of ordering her husband around and getting her own way… but, of course, this does not result in happiness. There has to be give and take. Ultimately, over the course of the film, this and other observations could be rubbished as having little significance, as they may be just some things that happened in what is a snapshot of life going on. Whatever their troubles, each couple has each other. Perhaps their companionship isn’t ideal, but those who wait for perfection may end up letting it all go by. It doesn’t matter how great we are – we can’t exist outside society and bend it to our will. Even if we could shape society as we wished, biology and ageing cannot be bargained with. As Roger Waters wrote:

“And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again”

Sanma no aji is a film about life and it seems to understand it well. Perhaps it’s important to push our children out of their comfort zones sometimes. Perhaps we’ll be alone in our twilight years when our loved ones have passed on or moved away. Who knows? What’s important is to do right by those who are special to us or our relationships may end up dysfunctional.

It’s not the perfect companion to this film, but I couldn’t help thinking of Pink Floyd’s Time while watching and thinking about it afterwards. It’s an excellently-written song, simple in its observations, but summing them up almost perfectly. I especially like the progression of the singer to forgetful old age.

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