Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)
As I've said, the titles of Ozu's films make it hard for even his admirers to recall which is which, and sometimes even the capsule synopses that appear with film listings aren't much help. With some filmmakers, those who depend on suspense and plot twists for effect, this kind of vagueness about what happens in any given film could be a flaw. You'd feel cheated if you found yourself watching one of their films again by mistake. But with Ozu, it's as if what happens doesn't matter so much as how it happens. For those of you who are unsure which one is Early Spring, it's the one in which Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe), a "salaryman" for a fire-brick manufacturing company, and his wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima), are having marital problems. They have grown apart after the death of a child: He throws himself into his work, into concern over the illness of a friend, into after-hours drinking with old war buddies, and finally into a brief affair with a young woman (Keiko Kishi) he has met on the commuter train. She's called "Goldfish" because of her large eyes, and she's a rather giddy and flirtatious woman who likes to pal around with the guys. After Shoji and Goldfish are seen together on a weekend hike put together by some of their co-workers -- Masako, who is reserved and rather traditional in manner, declined to accompany him -- gossip begins to spread. Eventually it comes back to Masako, and after several incidents -- he spends the night with Goldfish and claims he was with his sick friend, he forgets to observe the anniversary of the death of their son, and he brings home two very drunk war buddies -- she leaves him. Meanwhile, Shoji has been offered a transfer to a distant manufacturing branch of his company, where he will have to spend three years in the hope that he can return to Tokyo and a promotion. Finally, he accepts the offer, and at the end Masako has joined him, thinking they can work things out. At the conclusion they watch a train go by and reflect that Tokyo -- as symbolic for them as Moscow is for Chekhov's three sisters -- is only three hours away. In their case, of course, it's three hours and three years. Characteristically, Ozu and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda tell this story in a strictly linear fashion. Another director might have been tempted to insert expository flashbacks to, for example, the death of the child. (I've noted before how in many Japanese films of the 1930s, including Ozu's 1933 Passing Fancy, the plots hinge on the illness of children. Ozu has clearly gone beyond that motif in Early Spring.) But by letting the story play out as it happens -- beginning with a "typical" day in the life of the Sugiyamas -- Ozu builds a special kind of intimacy with his characters, as we gather the clues to their behavior and sometimes their relationships along the way. This intimacy is reinforced by Ozu's signature low-angle camera, in which we build our acquaintance with the characters from the ground up, as it were. It's a film pregnant with all sorts of larger significance: the dreariness of corporate office work, the nostalgia for wartime adventure and camaraderie, the tension between tradition and modernization, none of which is allowed to overwhelm the simple human story it tells. For that reason, and many others, Early Spring bears re-watching, even unawares.