Shukichi (Ryu) is a professor and a widower. He lives alone with his only child, daughter Noriko (Hara), who is unmarried at the age of 27. Noriko keeps house for her father while he goes about his academic work. 27 years old is considered verging on Old Maid status in Japan, but Noriko has no real urge to get married and is content to live at home and look after her father. Noriko's Aunt Masa, however, wants her niece to get married before its too late. Masa approaches Shukichi and he agrees to get Noriko married off, even at the cost of his own happiness.
Compare another Ozu film, Early Summer (1951), which also starred Setsuko Hara as a character named Noriko (but not the same character), and has very similar story elements, with the Noriko character being pressured by her family into an undesired Arranged Marriage. And then there was Late Autumn (1960)—seriously, Ozu was into Theme Naming—which also starred Setsuko Hara, and was a remake of this film, but with Hara playing the role of the parent instead. And then there was An Autumn Afternoon—we weren't kidding about the Theme Naming—which had a similar premise but wasn't so negative about the idea of the marriage.
- Arranged Marriage: Shukichi and Masa make one for Noriko.
- Both Sides Have a Point: Noriko's traditional values align the most with Ozu's, and it's hard to watch her get pushed into a marriage she doesn't want because her relatives are worried about her becoming a spinster when she's perfectly happy living with her father. On the other hand, she is completely dependent on him financially, her frustration often resembles childishness at being told to grow up, and Shukichi has a point that she needs to seek her own happiness, as he's getting older and she can't stay with him forever.
- Bumbling Dad: Downplayed. Shukichi is an intelligent academic, but he's basically useless around the household and needs Noriko to take care of everything. Notably, one of the reasons Noriko doesn't want to marry is that she wants to take care of him because she knows he'll suffer without her, though there's never a suggestion that he hires help or learns how to take care of himself.
- Celebrity Resemblance: Noriko's proposed match Satake is said to look like Gary Cooper, "the man from that baseball movie."
- Christmas Cake: The peculiar and more extreme Japanese variant of Old Maid, in which a woman older than 25 is thought to be past marriageable age. Shukichi and Masa are motivated to find Noriko a husband before it's too late.
- Downer Ending: Noriko is basically badgered into a marriage she doesn't want by her father and aunt. Shukichi for his part is left at home alone, in despair.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Ozu was generally thought to be a conservative who valued Japanese tradition and old-style values, which is why his films are so typically "Japanese", as opposed to Akira Kurosawa who made more West-friendly movies. Critics have observed that this film, made in 1949 when the United States was occupying Japan and American censors were controlling Japanese films, seems to have a carefully hidden message decrying Western values. Note the scene where Noriko and a friend cross a bridge on bicycles, while a sign saying "Drink Coca-Cola" in English is prominent in the foreground. This is often cited as a dig at Western commercialism.
- The Ghost: Satake, the man Noriko is matched up with who is said to resemble Gary Cooper, is never seen.
- Hollywood Darkness: Noriko and Shukichi retire for the evening and she turns out the light, but a beam coming from somewhere is still artfully lighting her face as she talks to her father.
- Incest Subtext: Due to differences in cultural values, some western critics have suggested repressed incest between Noriko and her father; she acts as something of a wife to him, sleeps close beside him when they travel together, and cannot imagine any possibility of married life making her happier than she is with her father. Her jealousy when her father shares a smile with another woman also comes off as unusually strong, and she's depressed for the rest of the movie.
- Japanese Politeness:
- Noriko still manages to be smiling and cheerful as she tells Prof. Onodera that she finds it "distasteful" and "filthy" that he got remarried after his wife died.
- She is also grinning broadly when she tells her divorced friend Aya "Who are you to lecture me about marriage?"
- Noriko finally drops the Stepford Smiler routine is when she's told that Masa might match up her father with a new wife. She's actually quite upset for most of the rest of the movie.
- Kitchen Sink Drama: A man in late middle age worries about getting his only daughter married.
- Nice Guy: Shukichi. He's affable and easygoing, and everybody seems to like him.
- Leave the Camera Running: In one scene Masa is at her tatami mat on the floor when the bell rings on the door. The camera continues to point, fixed, at the tatami mat while Masa walks to the door, going out of focus, and greets her caller. Then the camera still stays on the mat as she walks back and crosses the frame to the right, and only then is there a cut.
- The Matchmaker: Aunt Masa is positively pushy about it."Well, will you marry him? Answer me."
- Parents as People: Shukichi truly loves Noriko and doesn't want her to get married just because her being Christmas Cake is an embarrassment to him; he acknowledges that he's getting older and knows that he can't take care of her forever, as she has no job or other marriage prospects and is completely dependent on him. However, his insistence even as she pleads with him to reconsider leads to her being miserable in a marriage she doesn't want while he's stuck alone at home.
- Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Subverted. Noriko seems happy with Satake at first, but it becomes clear as time goes on that she's just putting up a charade so she won't worry her father.
- Signature Shot: Features multiple examples of the Signature Shot of Ozu's career: conversations between two characters framed as shot-reverse shot exchanges in which each character is in the center of the frame.
- Slice of Life: A man in late middle age worries about his daughter getting married before it's too late.
- Stepford Smiler: See Japanese Politeness above. Noriko wears that smile plastered over her face for most of the movie—when she's calling Onodura "filthy", when she's insulting Aya, when she begs her father not to make her get married, and on the day of the marriage she doesn't want.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Shukichi eventually has to go out of his way to almost force an arranged marriage for his daughter, Noriko. However, he is merely doing it so she can move on and not have to worry so much about him. He loves his daughter like good father would and this makes the forceful choice all the more difficult on him.
"If I left home, Father would be lost."
- Noriko's aunt even more so. She also cares about Noriko's and her growth to maturity. She does seem to be a normal person but she will go even farther and be more controlling than Shukichi will be.
- Yamato Nadeshiko: Noriko, loyal, loving, gentle, devoted to her father.