A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

The opening of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring is deceptively calm: the usual establishing shots of landscape and buildings and trains, the kind of images with which Ozu typically punctuates his narratives, and a group of women gathering for a tea ceremony. One of the women is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), whose brilliant smile is also deceptive. This is the first film in Ozu's so-called "Noriko trilogy," to be followed by Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), in each of which Hara plays a woman named Noriko. The three Norikos have nothing in common except that they are all unmarried. (In Tokyo Story she is a widow.)  The Noriko of Late Spring lives with her father, Shukichi, who is played by Chishu Ryu. (In Early Summer, Ryu plays her brother, and in Tokyo Story her father-in-law.) The deceptions of what might be called the "get-acquainted" section of Ozu's film, which establishes for us the relationships among the characters, lie in the apparent happiness and contentment of father and daughter and the untroubled world in which they live. But Late Spring was filmed only four years after the end of the war that devastated Japan, which was still under occupation by American forces. The wounds and pain of the country and its people are invisible in the film, partly because of occupation censorship, but they provide a kind of tension in the viewer who knows what the characters must have suffered. There is only a brief mention of this in Late Spring: Noriko has been to the doctor and reports that her health has improved. Another character's reference to "forced work during the war" sheds some light on what may have caused her illness. Later, Noriko and her father visit Kyoto, and he remarks how much nicer it is than "dusty" Tokyo, obliquely referencing wartime destruction. The central deception, however, lies in Noriko's apparent contentment with her unmarried state: She feels it is her duty to spend her life caring for her widowed father, and brushes off any suggestions that at 27 she should really be thinking about getting married -- or worse, that her father might choose to remarry. She calls the second marriage of one of her father's friends "filthy." We who have seen this situation before, however, realize that the deception Noriko is perpetrating is on herself. Perhaps it's because she has lived through so much change and upheaval, Noriko is trying to persuade herself that her current happiness serving her father can be made permanent. And so she suffers a shock when her father displays interest in a beautiful widow (Kuniko Miyake), and another when he suggests that she might meet the young man her Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) thinks would be a suitable husband for Noriko. What Ozu and his frequent collaborator Kogo Noda establish here, working from a novel called Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu, is worthy of Henry James or Jane Austen -- I think particularly of Austen's Emma Woodhouse and her self-deluding attachment to her father. Eventually, Noriko is persuaded into marriage -- in a masterstroke of direction we never even see the groom -- by her father's lie: He claims that he has been planning to remarry, thereby eliminating any objection Noriko could have to seeking her own path to fulfillment. The film ends with a melancholy image of Shukichi alone, peeling an apple -- a kind of Jamesian twist on an Austenian situation. This magisterial example of Ozu's late style -- low camera angles, absence of pans and dissolves, emphasis on the somewhat claustrophobic interiors of the Japanese home -- is reinforced by Tatsuo Hamada's art direction and Yuharu Atsuta's cinematography, but most of all by the superb performances of Hara and Ryu.

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