Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 28 July 2006
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews: Early Summer
A minor debate has arisen in the pages of Sight & Sound over critic Brad Stevens’ reading of Yasujiro Ozu’s conception of the family as a social institution. For Stevens, Ozu depicts the family as an institution of family oppression (that was his take when reviewing a UK DVD release of the Setsuko Hara-starring “Noriko Trilogy” of Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story; note that Criterion’s splendid release of Late Spring is much superior), and he has recently rachetted up his interpretation by talking of Ozu’s view of the family as that of an “impersonal patriarchal institution.”
For the record, I think Stevens is wrong, for he falls into the Ozu enthusiast’s trap of reading radical content out of radical form. The stylistic features of Ozu’s filmmaking that we can see here in Late Spring — the standard low-angle shooting style; the consistent eyeline mismatching; the very limited camera movement; the complete lack of fades and dissolves; the visual and narrative ellipses; the use of transition shots of often unidentified locations to bridge sequences — are the source of what makes watching an Ozu film fascinating, exciting and inspiring. They are also a radical challenge to the established norms of narrative cinema.
And yet Ozu’s world-view is one of quietist conservatism, an acceptance of the way things are. His stories may take note of the unhappiness the social order may bring to individuals — in Late Spring, the state of loneliness and abandonment that the father is left in at the end — but there is never the sense that this is the basis for a challenge to the institutions of society and the family. Ozu never produced anything like the cri de coeur against society that you get at the end of Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both from 1936!). Moreover, male characters are consistently favoured or indulged over female ones—the “other woman” in Early Spring would have been treated far more sympathetically in the hands of Mizoguchi or Naruse. Still, his conservatism was never a rigid one and you can see him over the course of his career shifting and adjusting in relation to the changes in Japanese society: the nature of the family unit; the status of women; questions of individual freedom reflected in issues like divorce and the use or non-use of matchmaking; and the evolving, lessening authority of the patriarchal father-figure.
Late Spring marks a change in direction for Ozu and the establishment of themes and setting that will be consistently explored — with the exception of the remake Floating Weeds — until his last film, An Autumn Afternoon, namely the dynamics of middle- and upper-middle-class families. It’s clear that reuniting with scriptwriter Kogo Noda (who had last worked with Ozu in 1936 and who had come out with profound criticisms of Ozu’s immediately preceding film, the flawed A Hen in the Wind) was essential to this, and in fact Noda would work with Ozu on the screenplays of all his subsequent films.
Late Spring is almost like a sketch for the subsequent films. So, the solo parent figure will reappear in Tokyo Twilight, Late Autumn, The End of Autumn, and An Autumn Afternoon; and the subject of the marriage of a young daughter will be the issue at the centre of Early Summer, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, The End of Autumn, and An Autumn Afternoon. But above all what makes Late Spring the quintessential Ozu film (even if it doesn’t quite attain Tokyo Story’s perfection of balance) is the first-time pairing of actors Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara: Ryu as the father, a modest, sympathetic figure of great integrity, whose love for his daughter can lead him to the greatest personal self-sacrifice; Hara, in a simply luminous performance, as the daughter who has established an unusually profound relationship with her father.
The two central protagonists of Late Spring are Professor Somiya and his daughter Noriko, and the story is very simple. Somiya’s sister makes him aware that Noriko at twenty-seven is rapidly passing the marriageable age for Japanese women. A match is found for her and Noriko’s made to believe that her father intends to remarry. Noriko’s initial extreme opposition is abandoned, but at the end of the film Somiya comes to realise the extreme loneliness and loss he has brought upon himself.
In the early part of the film Somiya and Noriko’s relationship appears to be ideal, and certainly hardly a traditional Japanese one. Theirs is a loose, humorous, playful relationship of equals, with little of the feel of that of a father-and-daughter. But there are intimations that something here may not be entirely right. Surely Ozu wants us to feel that something is awry with Noriko in her rather obsessive reaction to the remarriage of her father’s friend Onodera—with the typical and unique Setsuko Hara smile, Noriko tells him to his face that first his remarriage is “distasteful,” then “indecent,” and finally “filthy.”
Also, her fit of the giggles when Somiya suggests his younger colleague Hattori as a potential match seems too forced and overdone, revealing an emotional turmoil beneath her calm, good-tempered exterior. Yes, she’s laughing because she knows, as her father does not, that Hattori is already engaged, but there’s clearly something more happening here. There’s already been a suggestion of a romantic attraction between the two with the famous scene of their bike ride along the seashore (the scene that Hou Hsiao-Hsien included in Good Men, Good Women), intimated by the shot of their two bikes parked together. And later, after she turns down Hattori’s invitation to attend a concert, we’re invited to read much more beneath their blank expressions in the separate scenes of them that follow: he sitting alone in the concert hall beside “her” empty seat; she walking alone down an empty street at night.
This is symptomatic of the emotional force that we get from Ozu’s work through his characteristic restraint and control; here, it’s all the more effective that Hattori and Noriko’s feelings are not mirrored directly in facial expression. In Late Spring as elsewhere in Ozu, simple, restricted, limited actions — placing a teacup on a table, picking something off the floor, peeling an apple — are expressive of deep emotional states, as are ways of talking: think of the clipped, repeated yeses Somiya gives Noriko when he concedes his “intention” to marry Mrs. Miwa.
So, we do get intimations that there may be something not quite right with this special father-daughter relationship, and Noriko’s reactions to the sight of Mrs. Miwa at the Noh performance cross the line into the near-pathological. Earlier, when her aunt first mentioned the idea of her father remarrying, Noriko had reacted like a hurt, pouting little girl. Now, when she sees Mrs. Miwa, she first throws her father a hurt look, and then lowers her head in misery. Upset as she is, her subsequent actions can’t be meant to be viewed in a positive light. There’s an immature petulance to the way she literally runs away from her father on their walk home, which is emphasised both by the lack of sympathy her modern-minded, divorced friend Aya offers her, and by the great modesty and integrity that Somiya projects when confronted by her.
Narrative and visual ellipses are a characteristic feature of Ozu’s mature style. A primary example in Late Spring is the way we are never given a single glimpse of the bridegroom at any stage of the plot, whether at the initial matchmaking or at the time of the wedding (we are likewise never shown anything of the ceremony). Within a single scene the narrative information that would “normally” be given us is often withheld or delayed. So, when Mrs. Miwa visits the aunt’s home, we see Noriko and her aunt at the end of the hall greeting and conversing with Mrs. Miwa with our view of the visitor blocked by a section of wall. Even after Ozu gives us a shot of Mrs. Miwa, he then returns us to the original “blocked” shot.
Similarly, we are never shown how Noriko changes her mind, accepts the situation of her father remarrying, and agrees to the arranged marriage. We are simply given first the extreme and obsessive emotionality of Noriko in crisis and then, at some later and undetermined date, a different Noriko, calm, smiling, reconciled to the situation. Here is the real radicalism of Ozu’s narrative structure: the interim stage, however much conventional storytelling would dictate that it be included for narrative clarity and audience comfort, is simply omitted, because we don’t need it.
The trip that father and daughter take to Kyoto is a farewell to their life together and an apology on Noriko’s part for her behaviour before, both to her father and to the maligned Onodera. However much sympathy the film shows towards Noriko, it still makes clear that her behaviour is wrong; in this sense, Late Spring is less “with” its Setsuko Hara character than, say, Early Summer or Tokyo Story. Somiya is the “voice” of the film, infused with sadness at the loss that change brings about, but at the same time acknowledging that change as necessary.
We can see the vase with which Ozu ends the scene in the hotel room of father and daughter falling asleep as being a repository for these feelings of loss and loneliness; and the following shot of the empty spaces of the stone garden reinforces this, adding a contemplative note as Somiya and Onodera discuss the inevitable way a daughter will be “lost” to her father.
Now comes the moment in the film where Noriko reveals her truest feelings, that her life with her father has been of the greatest satisfaction. “Why can’t we stay just as we are?” she asks. “I know marriage won’t make me happier.” But as moving as this is, isn’t there also something disturbing and unhealthy about this infantilised figure of an adult woman locked into a relationship with her father that seems a perverse mixture of the filial and the marital? Somiya is surely the voice of Ozu when he tells her that “all the love you’ve shown me must now be given to Satake [the bridegroom]”. It’s a voice that speaks of renunciation and self-sacrifice on his part for the sake of leading Noriko to what life will offer outside the family.
That this brings with it inevitable sadness and regret for both of them but especially for Somiya is shown in the final scene in the quiet, empty house, after Noriko’s marriage. The camera holds on Somiya’s hand slowly peeling an apple until he stops and the peel falls to the ground. In a sense, it is too obvious a symbol, with a certain heavy-handedness and obviousness that can occur elsewhere in the film. For example, the shot of the trees swinging in the breeze after the Noh theatre sequence is too clearly a symbol of Noriko’s emotional turmoil; and the final shot of the waves coming in on the beach too directly states “And life goes on…” It’s a sign that, as great a film as Late Spring is, it still doesn’t quite match the precise and subtle mastery and control of later Ozu films. But for all that, the falling apple peel tells everything of the inevitable sadness, resignation and loneliness that Late Spring ends in.