An Appreciation – Late Spring
“Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu.” – Roger Ebert
How true, and what an amazing experience it is to discover him. Yasujiro Ozu, the master director from Japan, is one of the great storytellers, on par with all the great names that have come and gone. But unlike his native contemporaries (Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, and so on), Ozu reached his distinction in a much more subtle way. He did not tell epic stories of samurai battles, mysterious ghost stories, or grand struggles for survival. Instead, his films were much more intimate, quieter, focusing on lives we see everyday, or perhaps lives we live ourselves. And yet, the power and emotion that they evoke resonate just as strongly (or even more so). He examines the inner workings of the human soul with a touch as light as a feather, and as a result we come away startled by how well he managed to make us feel with as little as he actually gives us.
Late Spring (1949) is arguably one of the top three films Ozu ever made, a story that is so heartbreaking and yet so perfect in every decision made and every word spoken. What makes Ozu so effective to me is that he had a supreme understanding of human relationships. He was able to tap into what makes us connect to our friends, family, and lovers, and then test those bonds with obstacles that are all too reasonable. Very often, there are no true “villains” in his movies, but rather situations and social expectations that force characters to go against what they truly wish for. He would routinely visit the same kind of theme regarding family. That is the main topic in his other two masterpieces, Tokyo Story (1953) and Floating Weeds (1959). Tokyo Story involves the regret that a couple’s children have for not spending enough time with them, and in Floating Weeds, the head of a traveling performance group faces his past in the forms of his old lover and illegitimate child. Both are similar in the idea of what a “normal” family is, yet different in their execution, and both are equally moving.
Post-war Japan is the setting for this film. We meet an old professor named Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu), and his daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Noriko’s mother died many years ago, and since then the father and daughter have been living together, with Noriko helping take care of Mr. Somiya. Their bond is clear; they truly love one another and enjoy each other’s company, but things are starting to change. Mr. Somiya is getting older, and he realizes that his time is running short. Noriko is now 27 years old, still single, seemingly content to remain by her father’s side. In post-war Japan, 27 is an age where women were already expected to be married and have a family, and that is what dominates nearly all the conversation that happens here. Apparently, being married and having children is what constitutes being “happy” in the Japan of this era. But throughout the story, Shukichi refuses to acknowledge that idea, stating continuously that being with her father is what makes her happy. Unfortunately, Mr. Somiya worries that after he passes, Noriko will become lonely. We learn that Noriko had worked in a labor camp during the war, and was just recovering from a serious illness. At the urging of Noriko’s Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura), Mr. Somiya reluctantly agrees that Noriko should find a husband, even if that isn’t what he or she truly wants.
And that is the main crisis at stake here: the tension between what others believe Noriko needs, versus what she desires for herself. This is a fascinating dynamic, where we have a father and a daughter who both want the same thing, but with one pushing against it because of what society deems to be the right path. Their relationship is strong, but not inappropriate. We wonder why Noriko would rather spend time with her father than with men her own age, but luckily Ozu never crosses that line. The situation they deal with is more emotional/psychological than it is physical. Noriko, in a way, detests physicality and sexuality. When she hears that Mr. Somiya’s friend Onodera (Masao Mishima) married a much younger woman, she describes it as “filthy.” After a bike ride and moment of flirtation with Mr. Somiya’s assistant Hattori (Jun Usami), Noriko removes herself before things have a chance to develop. No, the bond and affection that Mr. Somiya and Noriko share has more to do with the ordeal they had to go through during the war and the loss of Noriko’s mother than anything else. They understand what the other has experienced, and for them to separate (through Noriko’s marriage) would be to cut that bond. But Mr. Somiya urges her to do that, because that is what’s expected.
I learned that Yasujiro Ozu dealt with this very story in his own life. Ozu never married himself and lived with his mother until she passed in 1961; he would die of cancer two years later. While the genders are different, the issue is the same. It’s apparent that the character of Noriko represents Ozu himself, and how he dealt with living with a parent his entire life. The fact that the character was switched to a female helps combine both his personal experience and his feelings toward gender roles during that time. That is why the film has such an effect, because of how closely it touched its maker’s heart. While this movie can certainly be described in any number of different ways, and analyzed through many different lenses, it’s hard to detail just how powerful it truly is. It is one of those films that is best understood when watched. To see Noriko try to resist the constant badgering of her friends and family, and for Mr. Somiya to join with them even though inside he feels differently, is an affecting exploration that builds ever so slightly. This could have fallen off the edge into bad melodrama, but Ozu never allowed it to go there. It is so nuanced, so tender and introspective with its storytelling, that by the very end the slightest action or word spoken can provoke an immense emotional reaction.
Ozu never goes over the top with this film. Everything, from the acting to the writing to the direction, is subdued and understated. In terms of direction and cinematography, Ozu may not be the first person you would think of when naming a “visual” director. I would argue that Ozu is one of the most visually accomplished of all directors; his work with cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta has given us a film with stunning photography. Even more amazing is the fact that Ozu and his collaborators often did this while very rarely even moving the camera. Routinely, the camera would simply sit, allowing Ozu to work more with composition within the frame. If we were to examine the placement of objects within the sight of the camera, we would notice numerous moments where light sources barely find their way below the top of the frame, and at the bottom sits a teakettle or some other mundane item. This does not necessarily mean much in the grand scheme of the story, but it does add a unique texture to the visuals, a stylistic choice that Ozu would use again and again in his career.