Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Writer: Kogo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu
Cinematographer: Yūharu Atsuta
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
by Jon Cvack
I figured it was safe to assume that Early Summer would follow the style of Ozu’s other seasonal titles, focusing on a family as one of the members dealt with a woman who was reluctant to leave home. Late Spring (1949) follows an aging widower whose aging daughter refused to leave his care, The End of Summer (1961) flips the narrative, focusing on a widow who recruits her friends to match up her daughter, with Early Summer removing the more interesting co-stars, replacing them with a pair of matchmakers, creating a rom com structure with a melancholic romance.
It involves 28-year old secretary Noriko Mamiya (Setsuko Hara) whose boss Satake (Shūji Sano) recommends as a match for his forty old friend and businessman. Not too interested, Noriko delays the decision as most of the members from her extensive family begin pushing her to accept. Soon she meets a childhood friend Kenkichi Yabe (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi), a doctor and recent widower, whose wife died a few years and brother was killed in WWII. Soon he’s called to a remote village for work, bringing Noriko along and the two soon get engaged, devastating her family. In the end they accept the decision, happy that she’s happy, watching her off as she travels off to start her new life, walking off through the barley fields.
It’s this last point that someone on Wikipedia really lays into, editorializing that this closing image represents the “impermanent nature of life.” I personally just saw it as an art house version of a fairly classic romance. A girl is told to marry a successful businessman versus an impecunious doctor who’s dedicated his life to serving others and the family eventually comes around.
Most of Ozu’s “seasonal” work I’ve seen has masterfully integrated these ideas into the narrative, combining older and younger characters that fully capture the finality of life and universality of what it means to be human. Early Summer was the first time I was bored with the filmmaker, as considering this story anything more profound than a 30s/40s American rom com is stretching the praise. What Ozu did so well with his other films (and I’m only about halfway through his filmography) is taking ridiculously simple stories and providing characters that create volumes of insight. Early Summer almost feels incomplete; as though failing to ever getting the full polish included on all his other work. It’s worth checking out, if nothing more than for realizing that he can repeat the same story for a third time, and with only minute differences, and make it feel far more empty.
BELOW: Those closing barley fields - beautiful image or profound meditation on the impermanence of life?
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