A masterful distillation of themes its director would return to again and again for the remainder of his career, Late Spring (Banshun, 1949) is archetypal postwar Ozu. Setsuko Hara plays the adult daughter who wants to stay single, Chishu Ryu is the aging father ready to set aside his own comfort and happiness for the natural progression of things, and Haruko Sugimura once again plays the well-meaning but intrusive relative upsetting the cart. There are better Ozu films, but Late Spring impressively boils the director's concerns down to their most basic elements.
Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is the only child of 56-year-old widower Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu). The two contently live together, Noriko happily looking after her father's needs, though Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), Noriko's divorced friend from high school, urges her to find a husband, especially since Noriko's the only one among their friends not yet married. (The war and illness put such plans on hold.) Shukichi's sister, Masa (Haruko Sugimura), also believes it's time for Noriko to get married, and presses him to let her act as a go-between and set up a meeting with prospective husband Satake, a respected chemist.
For his part, Shukichi believes his daughter might find happiness with protegee Hattori (Jun Usami), whose company Noriko clearly enjoys. It seems like an obvious match, but when Shukichi's mentions it to Noriko she bursts out laughing: he's already engaged and they're merely good friends. Noriko again expresses her desire to keep things the way they are, but how much longer can she resist the pressures from her friends, relatives, and eventually her own father?
The cliche is that Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa are at opposite ends of the Japanese cinema spectrum, Kurosawa being the "most-Westernized," Ozu the most purely "Japanese." Though Ozu's signature style was and is all his own, the two filmmakers weren't all that different in other respects. Like Kurosawa, one of the most impressive things about Ozu here is his ability to trim all the fat, to boil everything down to a form that's deceptively simple and unadorned yet monumentally expressive.
Minor Spoilers Ahead
There are many impressive scenes that accomplish this. There's a long, silent close-up of Setsuko Hara (then 29 and at the peak of her great beauty) with no dialogue at all, yet one reads in her face the innermost concerns about her life and her father's future. Near the end there's a similar close-up of Chishu Ryu (only 45 but already playing old men), home alone and silently peeling an apple with a pocketknife. And it's entirely clear what's going on in his heart and mind, too.
Throughout the film characters come and go through a sliding door that makes a loud doorbell-type ring each time. The reason for this becomes clear at the very end. After finally marrying off his daughter, Shukichi comes home from the wedding late that night and there's that doorbell - but now no one's around to hear that he's returned home.
Conversely, Ozu cleverly tells us about a prospective husband, Satake, a chemist who looks just like Gary Cooper (in Pride of the Yankees). A meeting is an arranged and a wedding eventually takes place, the film ending the night of the reception - and yet through all this we never once meet the groom because it's simply not necessary.
The film is all about setting things right, putting things in their proper place as things and people should be. The film opens with Noriko and Masa attending a traditional tea ceremony, as extreme an exercise in formality anywhere in the world.
As with all good foreign films of this vintage, it's captivating to look at postwar life captured in the film's exteriors. Ozu (like Kurosawa) loved shooting trains, and a long train ride from Kita-Kamakura to Tokyo is filmed in exquisite detail, and probably was photographed aboard a regularly-scheduled run. There are amazing shots of Tokyo's Ginza early in its reconstruction (contrasting a largely unchanged Kyoto) with reminders - though not criticism, especially - of the Occupation in the form of a giant sign advertising Coca-Cola and road signs incongruously in English.
If the film makes a statement about encroaching American influence comes in the presentation of best friend Aya, whose very westernized home (where she bakes a cake, something uncommon in Japanese kitchens even today), clothes and hairstyle and makeup contrast the very traditional Noriko.
Video & Audio
Late Spring is presented in what's become a controversial full-frame window-boxing presentation that adds a noticeable black frame around the outer edges of the image. The purpose of this is to allow viewers using standard 4:3 televisions, especially on sets with a tendency to overscan, to see the entire frame. Critics argue that this consideration penalizes those with current widescreen TVs that don't overscan by adding these distracting and unneeded black bars while reducing the overall size of the image. (Another concern I've not seen mentioned is whether the long-term use of these black bars will eventually "burn-in" on plasma TVs.) This reviewer definitely found the framing very distracting on his 16:9 TV, though eventually got used to it.
The movie itself, transferred from a fine-grain master positive and 35mm print, looks very good for an early postwar film. It shows its age, and there are strange, diagonal shadows that appear intermittently, possibly inherent to the original release, as if someone accidentally walked into the dark room as the film was being processed. Overall though the image is sharp and clear and the blacks and contrast are very strong. The optional English subtitles are fine.
Included is an entire second feature, Wim Wenders' mediation on Japan and Ozu, Tokyo-ga (1985). ("Why Tokyo-ga?" my Japanese wife asked. After the film was over we still didn't know the answer.) The 92-minute film, presented in an excellent full-frame transfer.**
A great admirer of the Japanese director, Wenders' aim was to visit Japan in search of the Japan seen in Ozu's films, and includes two revealing interviews: one with actor Chishu Ryu, the other with Ozu's longtime cameraman, Yuharu Atsuta. The interviews take up only about 25% of the running time, and the rest of the picture consists of pretty aimless wandering by Wenders: watching businessmen enjoy a hanami ("cherry blossom viewing & drinking party") at a cemetery, visiting a factory manufacturing the uncannily realistic imitation food used in the display windows of Japanese restaurants, a driving range for amateur golfers unable to pay the exorbitant membership fees charged at 18-hole courses, etc.
Though it's fun in a home movie way to watch Wenders' footage of a Japan of 20 years ago, his thesis has all the subtlety of Gallagher's sledgehammer act and the originality of Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon: Japan has become a dehumanized nation with a technology fixation. Of course, why Wenders ever thought he'd find Ozu's world in a cramped, bustling Tokyo pachinko parlor or among a group of high school kids in Harajuku Hoko-ten dressed in 1950s fashions is a mystery. Wouldn't it have been better to find an old widower and his daughter in Kita-Kamamura and spend a few days with them?
The two interviews compensate for this somewhat, especially the segment with Atsuta, whose nuts and bolts conversation about Ozu's technical requirements gives way to a moving, intimate discussion about loyalty and the relationship between artist and collaborator.
Richard Pena, program director of New York's Film Society of Lincon Center, provides an informed, mostly literary Audio Commentary.
A 21-page Booklet includes useful essays by Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson ("Home with Ozu") and the great Ozu scholar Donald Richie ("Ozu and Setsuko Hara," "Ozu and Kogo Noda").
Though some might accuse Late Spring of embracing (or criticizing) singularly Japanese traditions of marriage and family that have little relevance in the west, in fact like all of Ozu's best films Late Spring deals with universal concerns about the sad but inevitable break-up between parents and their children.
** Unlike Late Spring, it's not windowboxed, but does have one weird flaw. Wenders' film opens with the first several minutes, credits and all, of Ozu's Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953). It appears that Criterion, wanting to make the film clips look as good as possible, went back to their own master for these excerpts. Unfortunately, these include all the subtitled movie credits as well, so that as Tokyo Story unfolds, "Produced by..." "Starring," etc. all appear onscreen.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.