by Dan Schneider
Late Spring by Yasujiro Ozu
If one were to think of an equivalent to the film style of director Yasujiro Ozu it would have to be long novels suffused with detail, but never superfluous detail. Books such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—with its descriptions of the whaling industry and vessels; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath—with its detailed rendering of the lives of migrant workers; and especially Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn—with its child-like view of a world that overwhelms fresh senses, come to mind, even though the film checks in at a mid-length range of an hour and forty-eight minutes. Ozu’s cinema is utterly shorn of melodrama, for all that occurs within its frames advances some aspect of narrative, character development, or social commentary. Yet some of the most affecting scenes in the whole of his 1949 film, Late Spring (Banshun), are realistic shots of toenail clippings or apple peels, designed to allow viewers to feel they are intruding on the reality of the characters. Then there are seemingly throwaway details that also lend authenticity, such as when a meter reader from the electric company comes and requires a stool to read the meter. It has nothing to do with the tale or symbolism, but immediately ‘realizes’ the situation for most viewers, especially when a more important character has to get the stool for the ephemeral character.
This film not only was a change in technique and tenor for Ozu, from more socially blunt works, but marked the beginning of the final phase of Ozu’s long career, where his focus became almost exclusively the Japanese family unit in the post-war transition years, and his camera movement started to become more and more static with every film released. The film was penned by Ozu and longtime collaborator Kôgo Noda, from a novel called Father And Daughter, by Kazuo Hirotsu. The very naturalistic screenplay and camera work lends an air of realism to Ozu’s style that has often been compared to Italian Neo-Realism of the same era, although Ozu’s work from this era was never as overtly political as that of the Italian filmmakers. The film follows the life of an aging father, a professor, Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu), and his twenty-seven year old daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who still lives at home. Worried over her ending up alone, and prodded on by Noriko’s aunt Masa Taguchi (Haruko Sugimura), sister of Shukichi or his wife (it’s never delineated), he tries to push his daughter out of the nest and into marital bliss. We never learn what happened to the wife and mother of the household, but we can guess she was killed in the war. We do learn that Noriko was in a labor camp and was very ill and skinny, but has now gotten healthy and plump, according to one of Shukichi’s Academic colleagues, Jo Onodera (Masao Mishima), whose remarriage Noriko deems distasteful and filthy. Onodera is a jovial man, and merely one of many who seems to obsess on Noriko’s marital status.
Eventually, her aunt sets her up with a young man, Satake, who ‘looks like Gary Cooper,’ although we never see the man onscreen. Instead, the film offers us a possible romance between Noriko and her father’s research assistant, the handsome Shuichi Hattori (Jun Usami), yet it’s merely a typical Ozu feint, for when her father inquires into their possible relationship, Noriko reveals that he is engaged. Later, Hattori asks Notiko out to a concert, and we sense that he would drop his fiancée in a moment for a chance with Noriko, but she refuses him out of decorum. There are other such feints in the film, such as a possible remarriage for Shukichi to a widow from Noriko’s and her aunt’s tea club, but we later learn that this ‘romance’ was merely a ruse the father employed to push Noriko into her new life.
Ozu’s films have often been damned for not having much action, but it depends on what sort of ‘action’ the viewer is seeking. Yes, there are no melodramatic moments—no car chases, no grand love scenes—but still one senses that one is right there with the characters. Whether or not the film represents the reality of mid-Twentieth Century Japan is also beside the point, for the viewer accepts the ‘reality’ as presented. In the end, Noriko is married, even though we never see the ceremony, much less the groom, and Shukichi is left alone in a bar with Noriko’s stenographer girlfriend, Aya Kitagawa (Yumeji Tsukioka), who has taken advantage of the new Constitution ratified a year earlier that allowed women to instigate divorces. Aya lives in a Western style home and makes bold sexual double entendres regarding pickles and baseball, yet she has also been obsessed with marrying off Noriko. But she urges Shukichi not to remarry, and this is when Shukichi admits he told his daughter ‘the biggest lie’ of his life. Aya is ecstatic over his sacrifice and kisses the old man in public—a no-no in contemporaneous Japanese culture—then vows to visit the old man as a surrogate daughter. He then returns home to be alone, much as a similar character does in Ozu’s later Tokyo Story. Yet, here, the old widower is an even sadder case, for the widower that Chishu Ryu plays has chosen his loneliness in sacrifice for his daughter, whereas the widower at the end of Tokyo Story is alone by happenstance. When Shukichi starts peeling an apple, we get a sense of the rest of his life being detailed by such minutiae, and so does he, for midway through skinning it, he deliberately cuts the peel, and when it drops to the floor, the viewer senses that more than an apple peel has been shed. The final shot is of waves rolling in at the nearby beach.
Ozu’s film has many little details that take one beyond the father-daughter axis, such as Noriko’s and Hattori’s bike trip into the country, where a Coca-Cola sign seems to pollute the natural splendor, and Noriko’s equivocal approach to her marriage to ‘Gary Cooper’—is she doing it to please her father or has she learned something deeper? Her character also seems to regress in the film, from being a near equal of her father, and more of a spousal figure, to being a bit of a petulant brat, unappreciative of others’ concerns for her and jealous of her father’s interest in the widow Miwa, especially at a Noh theater performance. Of course, those concerns are hardly without their own problems. Yet it is the rich characterization of even minor characters, like Hattori, that lend a novelistic feel to the film—a thing difficult to achieve in a speed-of-light medium radically different from the word-based and abstract medium of language. After Noriko turns him down, Hattori goes to the concert alone, and allows no one else in the seat he wanted occupied by Noriko, for he has placed his hat and briefcase in it—a deft bit of symbolism regarding his true feelings that is followed by a quick cut of Noriko walking home alone at night. In a Hollywood film, or bad Chick Lit novel, Hattori would doubtlessly call off his wedding and pursue Noriko in a ripoff ending similar to The Graduate, but here life moves on, he marries his fiancée and eventually attends Noriko’s wedding with her father. Then there is the joy that the aunt feels when Noriko tells her she has accepted the marriage proposal from ‘Gary Cooper.’ This says all one needs to know of the older woman’s relationship with Noriko’s mother. Though, narratively speaking, it is utterly superfluous to the tale, that moment enriches the canvas the tale plays out on with its realism and extra threaded touch.
This film was the first pairing of the trio of Ozu, Ryu, and Hara, and Hara became Japan’s answer to Julia Roberts with this film. She is positively spectacular in the role of Noriko, the first of three films of Ozu’s where she would play a character with that name, although all three characters were different people. Hara is not only beautiful, and seductive in her reticence, but also one of those actors who can act with any part of her body, even when her character wears a forced smile. Ryu is also excellent, as he crafts a character similar to his later one in Tokyo Story, and is able to convey emotion with the mere intonation of a grunted ‘hmmm,’ something he does throughout both films with a surprising range of emotion. Sugimura, as Aunt Masa, is also great in another pushy female role. Here, she plays a contemporary of Ryu’s character, whereas in Tokyo Story she would play a contemporary of Hara’s character, as daughter of Ryu’s character. That alone bespeaks her diversity, which is all the more astounding since, in this role, she radiates warmth, however pushy, whereas in Tokyo Story, her nearly identically emotionally detailed character comes across as nasty and venal.
What makes Late Spring a great film is that, like great classic novels, it is never preachy or condescending, but involving. Think of the great novels I compared it to, and then think of the crap put out in recent years by big name authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, or Toni Morrison, and then think of this film and preachy PC films like Brokeback Mountain or Crash, and the comparative difference is manifest. Late Spring can be political when a character takes up an empty seat with his belongings or when Hara forces a smile. One need not have a character stick his tongue down another male character’s throat, nor his fingers between a female characters’ legs, to denote the political stance of the film and filmmaker.
Then there are the terrific technical aspects of the film by cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta, such as Ozu’s patented low-angle shots; eyeline mismatches; limited camera movement—such as when Noriko and Hattori go biking and it seems as if the world moves by them, not the other way around; the lack of interstitial fades and dissolves; as well as narrative devices such as ellipses—as when we see Noriko’s devastation at her father’s supposed remarriage and then transition to her seemingly positive and happy reaction to meeting ‘Gary Cooper’; and transition shots of unidentified locations to link themes and elided time intervals. In many ways, the camera of Ozu frames life in the manner of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, or of the great Dutch painting masters, where space, the tension built by spare movement, and the relative positioning of characters is all important. As example, when Noriko tells her aunt that she will marry Satake, we only see a portion of her turned but beautifully dour face, indicating that she is not fully enthused with her decision.
The Criterion Collection DVD comes in two disks, but this is merely a marketing ploy for disk one has only the film, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and is not cleaned up at all. There are scratches and ghosts in many scenes, especially in the later scene of Shukichi and Aya at the bar. It is one of the worst Criterion transfers of the dozens of films of theirs I’ve seen. What a disgrace. Even worse, as usual, there are only English subtitles, and again only in white, which makes them hard to read against such a starkly black and white film. A dubbed soundtrack, or at least some golden subtitles for easier reading, would have been great added features. There is an audio commentary by Richard Peña, program director of New York’s Film Society Of Lincoln Center, and it’s a better than average commentary—short on critical fellatio and trivia, and chock with detailed and informative explanations of scenes. Disk Two has only one ‘bonus’—Wim Wenders’ 92 minute quasi-documentary tribute to Ozu, Tokyo-Ga. I call it a quasi-documentary because there is little of Ozu in the film, either in terms of biographical details or selections from the films. Instead, Wenders densely and self-hagiographically prattles on about almost everything in Tokyo aside from Ozu, including pointless asides about people making plastic food for restaurant window displays or playing parlor games obsessively. His documentaries are never as deep, compelling, or well made as that of his rival and contemporary filmmaker from Germany, Werner Herzog. This is manifested in a scene where Wenders actually encounters Herzog in Tokyo and Herzog’s brilliant few minutes sum up his artistic superiority to Wenders’ inanities over the course of this whole film. Perhaps the only thing this documentary adds to the experience is knowing that Ryu was only a few years older than Hara, who played his daughter in several films. If this ‘bonus’ was the best Criterion could do, especially in a two disk set, I say they need to rethink their pricing, and stop ripping people off—especially considering the poor print quality of this great film. There are no trailers included, and the insert booklet contains only a few spare and predictable essays by film critic Michael Atkinson and Japanese film historian Donald Richie.
Ozu has tritely been labeled the most Japanese of all directors by lazy critics, as opposed to his two great contemporaries, Kenji Mizoguchi and the far more famous Akira Kurosawa, both of whose reputations were made with historical dramas. In fact, Ozu is actually the more modern of all the directors from Japan, and probably the most Western, if not in approach then in attitude. Late Spring shows this to be true, and considering that the film was a distinct reinvention of the man’s art, its success is all the more noteworthy. It’s akin to a minor dime store novelist from the late 19th Century all of a sudden morphing into Mark Twain. Were most midlife crises handled as ably—nay, greatly—as this, the work of such an artist as Yasujiro Ozu would not be needed to illumine the problem. It almost makes one wish for the human race to be continued to be plagued with ills, for only then will the relevance of such artistic rendering still be appreciated, right along with the greatest of novels and novelists.
And the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago….