With more than one hundred movies and forty television productions to her credit, the first film Iwashita landed a role was the 1960 The River Fuefuki, a movie directed by renowned Japanese filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita. She became widely known, though, after starring in the acclaimed 1962 movie An Autumn Afternoon, a masterpiece made by legendary Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. Previously, Iwashita had a very small part in Ozu’s 1960 film Late Autumn.
In this movie – An Autumn Afternoon –, Iwashita plays Michiko Hirayama, a twenty-four years old, that is fully devoted to her family, which consists only of her father Shūhei Hirayama (portrayed by renowned veteran Japanese actor and regular Ozu collaborator Chishū Ryū) and her twenty-one years old brother Kazuo (portrayed by Shin'ichirō Mikami). She also has an older brother, Kōichi (portrayed by Keiji Sada), who is thirty-two years old, and is married. He lives in another home with his wife. Michiko is the typical Japanese girl. She is subservient, diligent and very helpful, and takes care of basically everything at home.
As the story revolves, and Shūhei starts to frequent the restaurant of his former teacher, one day Sakuma laments that because of his selfishness, his daughter is condemned to a life of solitude, as she is too old to marry now, and is destined to an existence of solitary confinement and permanent hard work, having to take care of the restaurant mostly by herself, since he is too old. Eventually, Shūhei realizes that he is doing exactly the same thing with his daughter, Michiko. If she not marries soon, she will be condemned to a life of loneliness.
Shūhei realizes that, by maintaining Michiko at home, he is being selfish and negligent; like all other women, she probably wants to marry and to have children. So Shūhei talks to her daughter about a prospective marriage; at first she completely denies the possibility, but Shūhei decides to look for a potential husband for Michiko anyway.
Eventually, Shūhei discovers that Michiko has feelings for a man named Miura, a friend of Kōichi, and he asks his son to talk to him. Eventually, Kōichi discovers that Miura is already engaged. He confesses to Kōichi that he was smitten for Michiko in the past, but at the time, Kōichi didn’t give any attention to the possibility of a romantic relationship between the two. Miura reveals that if he was single, he wouldn’t disregard the opportunity, but since he is committed to someone, he does not want to break off the engagement.
Her father then proposes to her to go to a matchmaking session someone has arranged for her. Michiko agrees. Then the movie cuts directly to the wedding day. In the final moments, Michiko is seen in a traditional Japanese ceremonial dress, though the groom is never seen, and the marriage is never shown. She does not appear to be happy, but does not appear to be sad either. She looks like a woman perfectly resigned to her fate.
A formidable, sensational and spectacular movie, full of a genuine and colorful vitality, its fundamental elements decipher the sincere and graceful density that emphasizes the most subtle and discreet aspects of the human existence; most specifically, how they are intrinsically felt and dealt with in Japanese culture. An Autumn Afternoon is a majestic state of the art work, a poetic and exceedingly harmonious motion picture, whose greatest virtues rely on the fearless combination of a cohesive storyline, the wonderful and realistic acting skills of the cast – especially on the parts of Chishū Ryū as Shūhei Hirayama and Shima Iwashita as Michiko Hirayama – and the formidable direction of Yasujirō Ozu, that definitely knew how to express a genuine drama in an exceedingly sober and proverbial perspective. An Autumn Afternoon was Ozu’ last film, before he died, in December 1963.
Beginning in the early sixties, Shima Iwashita rose to be an exponent of her generation in Japanese cinema, as she performed relevant roles in several major movies throughout a brilliant career, that grew to achieve iconic status in her country. Considered one of the greatest actresses of her generation – with a remarkable legacy in the big screen – Iwashita, seventy-eight years old now, is semi-retired since the early 2000’s, acting only in a sporadic basis.
Undoubtedly having a charisma, a charm, a graceful beauty, a sincere, latent, tempestuous and vivacious disposition of soul and a natural talent that enabled her to display her formidable acting skills, one of the triumphs of Iwashita was the opportunity she had throughout her career to work with some of the greatest directors of her country, whose fame and reputation eventually grew, to achieve worldwide status. Definitely, the combination of a cohesive drama, skilful acting and sagacious directing – virtues that were always perfectly arranged together in the Japanese motion picture industry – inadvertently produced some of the greatest treasures of twentieth century cinema in Japan. Shima Iwashita is part of this legacy, since her contributions to the artistic development of the arts certainly deserves all recognitions.