Late Spring (1949)
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Writer: Kogo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu; based on Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu
Cinematographer: Yuuharu Atsuta
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
by Jon Cvack
While I love Ozu’s films, a mixture of their title and content leave many of them to get confused with one another. Early Summer, The End of Summer, Early Spring, An Autumn Afternoon, Late Spring, and you get the idea. As I work my way through his filmography I’m wondering why he chose such similar titles, which in many ways, are absolutely fitting and perfect, and perhaps it’s my own laziness that’s causing me to get so confused (yet I doubt I’m in the minority on this). All of these seasonal stories are intimate portraits of friends and family, living simple middle-class lives, often with a maturing woman on the verge of leaving home. American dramas from the period often fall into the melo category, with Douglas Sirk being the closest example beyond some westerns. Ozu’s films embody the spirit of film as history - appearing to capture life taking place, with no bells or whistles to punch them up; no extravagant plot devices, camera work, set pieces, of performances. The first Ozu film I ever saw was Floating Weeds whose title I think describes all the films; providing simple portraits of life going by, allowing us a view into these characters lives for a little while. It’s for this reason that I think many, more casual viewer find the stories boring, as people fail to understand that the beauty and excitement is being able to witness such intimate stories about a period long gone.
Late Autumn follows widowed Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) and his only, unmarried twenty-seven year old daughter Noriko (Setsuko Harris) who cares for him - cooking, cleaning, and providing all the duties that her mother no longer can. Contrary to most of the men she’s introduced to, Noriko eventually meets Satake who she thinks looks like Gary Cooper. She grows increasingly conflicted, feeling a responsibility to continue caring for her father. Eventually Shukichi implores her to marry Stake, professing that he’s been selfish by expecting him to continue her life. In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, we watch as the father accepts that he must live the rest of his life alone in order for Noriko to begin hers. It’s this conclusion that makes me realize the purpose of “Late/Early [Insert Season]” titles that Ozu is committed to. Many of these films are about the journey of life, and Noriko is about to enter the summer of her own.
At the time American forces still occupied Japan and had a significant role in censoring material they considered anti-western. In this case, the movie’s exploration of arranged marriages initially met this definition, requiring Ozu to have to limit or revise parts of the plot in order to honor their expectations. Nevertheless, the film possesses various suggestions of America’s occupation, such as a massive Coca-Cola in one of the shots before the characters ride their bicycles over the bridge - a bridge whose 30-ton weight capacity is mentioned, referring to the needs of the American caravans that frequently the rode.
Additionally, is that Ozu’s focus on intimate family relationships was actually part of a genre developed by a studio president Shiro Kido of Shoihku Company’s Kamata Film Studios called the shomingeki genre, in which it was hope that urban females would be the primary audience. With Ozu hired early in the studio’s development, working his way up the ladder, he allegedly never left the company, embracing the new genre and adding his own social commentary within it. In some ways it’s kind of a disappointment to learn that this distinct narrative wasn’t Ozu’s creation; in others it’s impressive to think what he did with it. Similar to melodramas back in the States, this genre was embraced by various other filmmakers, but - like Douglas Sirk - it was Ozu who pushed the genre its very limits.
In Sight and Sounds 2012 poll, the film placed 15th as the greatest ever made since the dawn of cinema. Although the film is great, Autumn Afternoon I think is more deserving of the praise, but overall, I think it’s difficult to divide up any of these seasonal films; at least the ones I’ve seen thus far. I assume by the end what I’ll have experienced is an exploration ranging from birth through death, and everything in between. Ozu has the rare gift where, at least with most of his films, if you like one, you will like most, as they’re all so similar in style and tone that to begin ranking them is to diminish the journey they take you on. Each provides a bittersweet conclusion, making you see how quick and frail life is, allowing you to remember that often it’s the small things in life that provide the most meaning. There are very few filmmakers that can profess such seemingly simple things with such depth so powerfully.
BELOW: Hits you right in the heart
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