Family is where we learn everything, including the sweeping urge to be done with family. Family is a basis of every narrative art, even if it offers us the humbling insight that our lives are all so ordinary and alike as to be worthless or without lofty significance. For most of us, family determines who will be at our funeral, and with what mixed feelings. Family asserts that we are higher than animals, and is the undertone and the consideration that leaves every one of us, if not afraid, then stilled, as we go to bed at night.
You see, this is an unusual essay for a newspaper, for it deals with subject matter (not opinion or artists' biographies). It begins with a new film from Japan, Still Walking, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It is a film about a family, set largely within one house, and it has many scenes of people sitting at their low table, drinking tea, talking or yielding to the silence that can seem merciful after so much inane talk. It is a film in which people recognise that though still walking they are not getting anywhere. Depending on how you feel, it is sad, wistful, ironic, or devastating, nihilistic and scarcely endurable.
We think of such films – family films – as essentially Japanese in origin, and I daresay in our oceanic ignorance and indifference we reach the conclusion that in Japan's very modern but archaic society family still counts for something as it did in the era of family dramas such as The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina or The Three Sisters – those family stories of over 100 years ago.
The master of this type of Japanese cinema is Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63), who made films about the family in set interiors with a very still, withdrawn camera-style that is now called "Ozu-like". That is a shorthand for saying that as you race along to keep up with modern cinema and all its busy doings, you do not need to see Ozu's films. You can register what he did.
This is not true. Ozu is one of the greatest masters of world film, as compelling as Rembrandt. He is unrivalled in his capacity to show us our ordinary bliss and everyday tragedy. Still Walking is worth seeing; and yes, in the baldest way it is Ozu-like, but it is only a fraction of Ozu's great films – A Story of Floating Weeds, A Hen in the Wind, Late Spring, The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, Tokyo Story, Late Autumn, An Autumn Afternoon – and many others.
The style in Ozu is very important and it is so still or distilled that it can strike western eyes as exotic, or philosophically brave and radical. So there is a fashion in some film circles for regarding with great reverence the style (or the simplicity) evident in Ozu but discernible sometimes in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien and even Béla Tarr, where sometimes absolutely static camera shots record or endure events of modest eventfulness. Still Walking clearly fits into that scheme, and it can hardly be reviewed in these times without the code tag "Ozu-like".
This matter is all the more important at this moment as we all suffer the aftershocks of the disaster known as Avatar, which is being defended by notable film critics as not just the return of, but the redemption of, "spectacle" cinema. I will not dispute the level of spectacle in Avatar. And I am nostalgic enough about the engineering of prolonged battle scenes to concede that James Cameron has not lost the touch with armed struggle that he displayed in Aliens and the Terminator films. But Avatar is garbage, too, and that can only be pinpointed by stressing its abject subject matter and its inability to see that the most spectacular thing the movies ever had to offer (see Renoir, Ophüls, Ozu, Bresson … well, just keep seeing) is the human face as its mind alters or saddens.
You may say, don't be so solemn, don't pose the history of the movies as that blunt choice – Ozu or Avatar – when clearly there is room for so much more. But I think the cultural dilemma is as acute as this awkward choice suggests, and I fear that a culture – especially a culture of the young – will forget the existence of Ozu, and those whose films were always the fullest engagement of movies with this awkward but irresistible subject matter.
There's a very interesting test case in film history that illustrates this problem. In 1972, Paul Schrader wrote a book called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. This was written as Schrader, a fine critic, waited to become a film-maker. It was a conscientious appreciation of three spiritual directors (Schrader was an intense Calvinist at the time) as the author got ready to be the co-film-maker of Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, Raging Bull, Cat People and Mishima. Schrader's work is fascinating, but it is driven by a sense of subject matter nearly opposite to that in Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. In other words, "transcendental style" was wishful thinking. As I write, Schrader is 63 and his career as an American film-maker is close to an end. Quite simply, he cannot get funding for even the action-filled, violent, fiercely melodramatic films he makes – let alone the spiritual material he aspired to.
There's tragedy in the way that has worked out – for Schrader and for the rest of us. But I think it's important to spell out the exact nature of the loss. More and more of our movies – I am thinking of mainstream, English-speaking cinema – bear very little reference to life as lived. Avatar, for instance, does touch on fear, revenge, paranoia, and altruism, but it is a film in which nature and action have been superseded by things that cannot be found in life: the forest, the machines, the Na'vi and so on.
The Na'vi, the blue forest people, are a family – in that they are like the leaves on a tree. But they do not have a sensibility that recognises family kinship and the issues of family experience I was talking about at the beginning of this essay. We are a species that reproduces in terms of family. Beyond that, we are an organism that has elected to root much of our legal and social system in family ties (or bonds). And we have made family the lifeblood of great art. At the same time, philosophically or metaphysically, we have pushed ourselves into a state of existence where almost the only sane conclusion is that the family has become dysfunctional.
You can argue that we have expected so much of family that it is bound to betray us – just as so many individuals have disgraced and damaged family. To this day, family is the material of gruesome comedy. And we deserve it. The many open wounds in our society and our ongoing history are the symptoms of the way our arrogant loneliness has beaten at family. If you go to the films of Ozu, this is what you will see, and what you will have to carry away in your mind. But the same warriors who are brave enough to live in Avatar's forest, go weak when faced with the monster that is family.
• The Ozu season continues at the BFI Southbank until 28 February
For the 2014 South Korean film, see Late Spring (2014 film).
Late Spring(晩春,Banshun) is a 1949 Japanese drama film, directed by Yasujirō Ozu and produced by the Shochiku studio. It is based on the short novel Father and Daughter (Chichi to musume) by the 20th-century novelist and critic Kazuo Hirotsu, and was adapted for the screen by Ozu and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Kogo Noda. The film was written and shot during the Allied Powers'Occupation of Japan and was subject to the Occupation's official censorship requirements. It stars Chishū Ryū, who was featured in almost all of the director’s films, and Setsuko Hara, making her first of six appearances in Ozu’s work. It is the first installment of Ozu’s so-called “Noriko trilogy”—the others are Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951) and Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953)—in each of which Hara portrays a young woman named Noriko, though the three Norikos are distinct, unrelated characters, linked primarily by their status as single women in postwar Japan.[note 1]
Late Spring belongs to the type of Japanese film known as shomingeki, a genre that deals with the ordinary daily lives of working class and middle class people of modern times. The film is frequently regarded as the first in the director’s final creative period, "the major prototype of the [director's] 1950s and 1960s work." These films are characterized by, among other traits, an exclusive focus on stories about families during Japan's immediate postwar era, a tendency towards very simple plots and the use of a generally static camera.
Late Spring was released in September 1949 to critical acclaim in the Japanese press. In the following year, it was awarded the prestigious Kinema Junpo critics' award as the best Japanese production released in 1949. In 1972, the film was commercially released in the United States, again to very positive reviews. Late Spring has been referred to as the director's "most perfect" work, as "the definitive film of Ozu's master filmmaking approach and language" and has been called "one of the most perfect, most complete, and most successful studies of character ever achieved in Japanese cinema." In the 2012 version of Sight & Sound's decennial poll of "The Greatest Films of All Time", published by the British Film Institute (BFI), Late Spring appears as number 15, behind Ozu's own Tokyo Story at number 3.
Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu), a widower, has only one child, a twenty-seven-year-old unmarried daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who takes care of the household and the everyday needs—cooking, cleaning, mending, etc.—of her father. On a shopping trip to Tokyo, Noriko encounters one of her father's friends, Professor Jo Onodera (Masao Mishima), who lives in Kyoto. Noriko knows that Onodera, who had been a widower like her father, has recently remarried, and she tells him that she finds the very idea of his remarriage distasteful, even "filthy." Onodera, and later her father, tease her for having such thoughts.
Shukichi's sister, Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura), convinces him that it is high time his daughter got married. Noriko is friendly with her father’s assistant, Hattori (Jun Usami), and Aunt Masa suggests that her brother ask Noriko if she might be interested in Hattori. When he does bring up the subject, however, Noriko laughs: Hattori has been engaged to another young woman for quite some time.
Undaunted, Masa pressures Noriko to meet with a marriageable young man, a Tokyo University graduate named Satake who, Masa believes, bears a strong resemblance to Gary Cooper. Noriko declines, explaining that she doesn't wish to marry anyone, because to do so would leave her father alone and helpless. Masa surprises Noriko by claiming that she is also trying to arrange a match between Shukichi and Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake), an attractive young widow known to Noriko. If Masa succeeds, Noriko would have no excuse.
At a Noh performance attended by Noriko and her father, the latter smilingly greets Mrs. Miwa, which triggers Noriko's jealousy. When her father later tries to talk her into going to meet Satake, he tells her that he intends to marry Mrs. Miwa. Devastated, Noriko reluctantly decides to meet the young man and, to her surprise, has a very favorable impression of him. Under pressure from all sides, Noriko consents to the arranged marriage.
The Somiyas go on one last trip together before the wedding, visiting Kyoto. There they meet Professor Onodera and his family. Noriko changes her opinion of Onodera's remarriage when she discovers that his new wife is a nice person. While packing their luggage for the trip home, Noriko asks her father why they cannot simply stay as they are now, even if he does remarry – she cannot imagine herself any happier than living with and taking care of him. Shukichi admonishes her, saying that she must embrace the new life she will build with Satake, one in which he, Shukichi, will have no part, because "that’s the order of human life and history." Noriko asks her father’s forgiveness for her "selfishness" and agrees to go ahead with the marriage.
Noriko’s wedding day arrives. At home just before the ceremony, both Shukichi and Masa admire Noriko, who is dressed in a traditional wedding costume. Noriko thanks her father for the care he has taken of her throughout her life and leaves in a hired car for the wedding. Afterwards, Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), a divorced friend of Noriko’s, goes with Shukichi to a bar, where he confesses that his claim that he was going to marry Mrs. Miwa was a ruse to persuade Noriko to get married herself. Aya, touched by his sacrifice, promises to visit him often. Shukichi returns home alone.
|Actor||Character name (English)||Character name (Japanese)||Rōmaji (Japanese order)|
|Chishū Ryū||Shukichi Somiya||曾宮 周吉||Somiya Shūkichi|
|Setsuko Hara||Noriko Somiya||曾宮 紀子||Somiya Noriko|
|Yumeji Tsukioka||Aya Kitagawa||北川 アヤ||Kitagawa Aya|
|Haruko Sugimura||Masa Taguchi||田口 マサ||Taguchi Masa|
|Hohi Aoki||Katsuyoshi Taguchi||田口 勝義||Taguchi Katsuyoshi|
|Jun Usami||Shuichi Hattori||服部 昌一||Hattori Shūichi|
|Kuniko Miyake||Akiko Miwa||三輪 秋子||Miwa Akiko|
|Masao Mishima||Jo Onodera||小野寺 譲||Onodera Jō|
|Yoshiko Tsubouchi||Kiku Onodera||小野寺 きく||Onodera Kiku|
|Jun Tanizaki||Seizo Hayashi|
|Youko Benisawa||a teahouse proprietress|
Historical and biographical background
Although the best-known master of the shomingeki genre, Ozu was not its inventor, nor did his approach to the genre remain unchanged over time. The purpose of the following account is to provide context for the achievement of Late Spring, both within Japanese film tradition and practice and within Ozu's creative development up to 1949.
Shochiku and shomingeki
Shortly after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, Shiro Kido, barely thirty years old, became manager of Shochiku Company’s Kamata film studios. He transformed the Japanese film industry by developing a new genre. This type of film was later to be called the shomingeki genre, also sometimes known as shoshimin eiga or home drama (in Japanese: "homu dorama"): films centered around the family in contemporary life. According to film scholar David Bordwell, "Mixing laughter and tears, the 'Kamata-flavor' film was aimed at an urban female audience. Kido wanted films that, in his words, 'looked at the reality of human nature through the everyday activities of society.' The films might be socially critical, but their criticism was based on the hope that human nature was basically good. People struggle to better their lot, Kido believed, and this aspiration should be treated in 'a positive, warm-hearted, approving way.'" The pioneer Shochiku director Yasujirō Shimazu made the early film Sunday (Nichiyobi, 1924), which helped establish the typical "Kamata flavor" film. Shimazu personally trained other notable directors, including Heinosuke Gosho, Shiro Toyoda and Keisuke Kinoshita, who all helped make the shomingeki type of film into Shochiku’s "house style."
Ozu's early work
Main article: Yasujirō Ozu
Yasujirō Ozu, after growing up in Tokyo and in Mie Prefecture and engaging in a very brief career as a schoolteacher, was hired by Shochiku, through family connections, as an assistant cameraman in 1923. He became an assistant director in 1926 and a full director in 1927. He would remain an employee of the company for the rest of his life. His debut film was Sword of Penitence (Zange no Yaiba, 1927), which was to be the only film of his career in the jidaigeki (period film) genre.[note 2] (The work is today considered a lost film.) He later saw the film in a theatre and felt it was not truly his. From 1928 on, Ozu made only films of the gendaigeki type (that is, set in modern Japan rather than ancient times), generally within the already established shomingeki genre.
The 1931 silent film[note 3]Tokyo Chorus (Tokyo no Gassho)—about a young office worker with a family and a house in the suburbs who stands up for an unjustly fired office colleague and winds up getting fired himself—has been considered by some critics Ozu's breakthrough film in the shomingeki genre. As the Great Depression had hit Japan severely by this time, the hero’s predicament is no minor problem (one intertitle reads "Tokyo: Town of Unemployment"). In its movement from broad office comedy to the grim drama of (temporary) poverty, Ozu achieved in this depiction of the lives of ordinary people the synthesis of humor and pathos that Shiro Kido was urging his directors to strive for. It has been claimed that it was the influence of his co-screenwriter, Kogo Noda, ten years Ozu’s senior, that was instrumental in this change towards a tone darker than the director’s more lighthearted early works.
In the following three years, Ozu accomplished the (in the opinion of one scholar) “astonishing” feat of winning, three times in a row, the “Best Film” award in Kinema Junpo magazine's "Best Ten" critics’ prize, the most prestigious of Japanese film awards at that time. These three films were I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa Mita Keredo, 1932), Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 1933) and A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa Monogatari, 1934), respectively. Other films Ozu directed during the 1930s also won prizes in these annual awards.[note 4] One critic, Hideo Tsumura, wrote in 1938 that Japan had produced thus far only two great filmmakers: Ozu and his close friend Sadao Yamanaka. Since Yamanaka made films exclusively of the jidaigeki type, Tsumura's statement would seem to indicate that, to this critic and perhaps to others, Ozu had become the preeminent shomingeki director.
Many critics have tried to account for the apparent major change in Ozu's approach to filmmaking from the early films to the late (post-1948) films. It has been claimed, for example, that the 1920s and 1930s films tend to be livelier and more comic than the works of the last period. According to Kristin Thompson, the "inclusion of stylistic elements for their own aesthetic interest… in the early films… took a more consistently playful form, and the comedies and gangster films of the 1930s are full of flashy stylistic passages." This tendency has been partly attributed by Bordwell to a two-part structure that the director used in Tokyo Chorus and other films of the earlier period: "In the earliest films, the first part tends to be lively, often comic, and fairly tight causally, while the second part tends to modulate into greater melancholy and toward [a] somewhat more episodic structure." In the post-1949 films, Ozu retained the two-part structure, but with a very different emphasis: "The first part [now] consists of a quite leisurely exposition, a series of scenes in which chronology is more important than causality. The second part forms the bulk of the film, creating strongly defined causal lines... This is essentially the model that Ozu's films will follow from Late Spring onwards."
Ozu's wartime and early postwar work
As critically esteemed as they were, Ozu’s many pictures of the 1930s were not conspicuously successful at the box office. During the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1941) and the Pacific War (1941–1945), Ozu directed only two films—Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Toda-ke no Kyodai, 1941) and There Was a Father (Chichi Ariki, 1942)—but these became his most popular works up to that time. It has been surmised that the public embraced them because the family themes Ozu had always favored suddenly were in full accord with official government ideology. In his book about the Japanese film industry during wartime, Peter B. High writes that though There Was a Father was "made in strict accordance to the ideological requirements of the Pacific War era, [the film] is one of the few such films to be recognized as an artistic masterwork today."
For virtually all Japanese film professionals, the first years after the end of the Pacific War were a difficult and disorienting period, as they were forced to confront a new kind of film censorship from the victorious Americans,[note 5] one that seemed, with its alien values, in the words of Audie Bock, "to be trying to change the very fabric of Japanese daily life, from which they drew their subject matter." It was during this period that Ozu directed two films widely regarded as among his least typical:Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya no Shinshiroku, 1947), which portrays the plight of homeless children, and A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no Naka no Mendori, 1948), which deals with the problems of repatriated soldiers. These two works received, in Japan, much less popular and critical acceptance than his two wartime films.
There has been some speculation as to why Ozu concentrated exclusively on the problems of middle-class families in his post-1948 films. Bordwell, citing Japanese critic Tadao Sato, provides one possible explanation: "According to Sato, Ozu [after finishing A Hen in the Wind in 1948] was thereafter told by friends that he had reached the limits of his formal powers. He set out to find a stable subject through which he could refine his technique, and the life of the middle-class family was his choice."
The Occupation censorship
Censorship problems with Late Spring
The central event of Late Spring is the marriage of the heroine to a man she has met only once through a single arranged meeting. This immediately presented a problem for the censors of the American Occupation. According to film scholar Kyoko Hirano, these officials "considered feudalistic the Japanese custom of arranged meetings for prospective marriage partners, miai, because the custom seemed to them to downgrade the importance of the individual." Hirano notes that, had this policy against showing arranged marriages onscreen been rigidly enforced, Late Spring could never have been made. In the original synopsis (which the filmmakers were required to submit to the censorship before production could be approved), Noriko’s decision to marry was presented as a collective family decision, not an individual choice, and the censors apparently rejected this.
The synopsis explained that the trip to Kyoto by father and daughter, just prior to Noriko’s marriage, occurs so she can visit her dead mother’s grave. This motivation is absent from the finished film, possibly because the censors would have interpreted such a visit as “ancestor worship,” a practice they frowned upon.
Any reference in the script to the devastation caused by the Allied bombings was removed. In the script, Shukichi remarks to Onodera’s wife in Kyoto that her city is a very nice place, unlike Tokyo, with all its ruins. The censors deleted the reference to ruins (as an implied critique of the Allies) and, in the finished film, the word “hokorippoi” (“dusty”) was substituted as a description of Tokyo.
The censors at first automatically deleted a reference in the script to the Hollywood star Gary Cooper, but then reinstated it when they realized that the comparison was to Noriko’s (unseen) suitor Satake, who is described by the female characters as attractive, and was thus flattering to the American actor.
Sometimes, the censors’ demands seemed irrational. A line about Noriko’s health having been negatively affected by "her work after being conscripted by the [Japanese] Navy during the war" was changed to "the forced work during the war," as if even the very mention of the Japanese Navy was somehow suspect.
At the script phase of the censorship process, the censors demanded that the character of Aunt Masa, who at one point finds a lost change purse on the ground and keeps it as a kind of good-luck charm, should be shown handing over the purse to the police. Ozu responded by turning the situation, in the finished film, into a kind of running gag in which Shukichi repeatedly (and futilely) urges his sister to turn the purse in to the police. This change has been called "a mocking kind of partial compliance with the censorship."
Ozu's alleged "subversion" of censorship
One scholar, Lars-Martin Sorensen, has claimed that Ozu's partial aim in making the film was to present an ideal of Japan at odds with that which the Occupation wanted to promote, and that he successfully subverted the censorship in order to accomplish this. "The controversial and subversive politico-historical 'message' of the film is… that the beauty of tradition, and of subjugation of individual whims to tradition and history, by far outshines the imported and imposed western trends of occupied Japan."
Sorensen uses as an example the scene early in the film in which Noriko and her father's assistant Hattori are bicycling towards the beach. They pass a diamond-shaped Coca-Cola sign and another sign, in English, warning that the weight capacity of a bridge over which they are riding is 30 tons: quite irrelevant information for this young couple, but perfectly appropriate for American military vehicles that might pass along that road. (Neither the Coke sign nor the road warning are referred to in the script approved by the censors.) Sorensen argues that these objects are "obvious reference(s) to the presence of the occupying army."
On the other hand, Late Spring, more than any other film Ozu made, is suffused with the symbols of Japanese tradition: the tea ceremony that opens the film, the temples at Kamakura, the Noh performance that Noriko and Shukichi witness, and the landscape and Zen gardens of Kyoto. Sorensen argues that these images of historical landmarks "were intended to inspire awe and respect for the treasures of ancient Japan in contrast to the impurity of the present." Sorensen also claims that, to Ozu’s audience, "the exaltation of Japanese tradition and cultural and religious heritage must have brought remembrances of the good old days when Japan was still winning her battles abroad and nationalism reached its peak." To scholars such as Bordwell who assert that Ozu was promoting with this film an ideology that could be called liberal, Sorensen argues that contemporary reviews of the film "show that Ozu (the director and his personal convictions) was considered inseparable from his films, and that he was considered a conservative purist."
Sorensen concludes that such censorship may not necessarily be a bad thing. "One of the positive side effects of being prohibited from airing one's views openly and directly is that it forces artists to be creative and subtle in their ways of expression."
On Late Spring, Ozu worked with a number of old colleagues from his prewar days, such as actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. However, a long-deferred reunion with one artist and the beginning of a long collaboration with another—the screenwriter Kogo Noda and the actress Setsuko Hara, respectively—were to prove critical artistically, both to this work and to the direction of Ozu's subsequent career.
Main article: Kogo Noda
Kogo Noda, already an accomplished screenwriter, had collaborated with Ozu on the script of his debut film of 1927, Sword of Penitence. Noda had later written scripts with Ozu (while also collaborating with other directors) on many of his best silent pictures, including Tokyo Chorus. Yet by 1949, the director had not worked with his old friend for fourteen years. However, their reunion on Late Spring was so harmonious and successful that Ozu wrote exclusively with Noda for the rest of his career.
Ozu once said of Noda: "When a director works with a scriptwriter they must have some characteristics and habits in common; otherwise, they won't get along. My daily life—what time I get up, how much sake I drink and so on—is in almost complete agreement with that of [Noda]. When I work with Noda, we collaborate even on short bits of dialogue. Although we never discuss the details of the sets or costumes, his mental image of these things is always in accord with mine; our ideas never criss cross or go awry. We even agree on whether a dialogue should end with wa or yo." From Late Spring on, partly due to Noda's influence, all Ozu’s characters would be comfortably middle class and thus, unlike the characters in, for example, Record of a Tenement Gentleman or A Hen in the Wind, beyond immediate physical want and necessity.
Main article: Setsuko Hara
Setsuko Hara (born Masae Aida in Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture on June 17, 1920) had appeared in films since the mid-1930s, when she was in her teens. Her tall frame and strong facial features—including very large eyes and a prominent nose—were unusual among Japanese actresses at the time; it has been rumored, but not verified, that she has a German grandparent. She maintained her popularity throughout the war years, when she appeared in many films made for propaganda purposes by the military government, becoming "the perfect war-movie heroine." After the defeat of Japan, she was more popular than ever, so that by the time Ozu worked with her for the first time on Late Spring, she had already become "one of Japan's best-loved actresses."
Ozu had a very high regard for Hara's work. He said, "Every Japanese actor can play the role of a soldier and every Japanese actress can play the role of a prostitute to some extent. However, it is rare to find an actress [like Hara] who can play the role of a daughter from a good family." Speaking of her performance in Early Summer, he was quoted as saying, "Setsuko Hara is a really good actress. I wish I had four or five more like her."
In addition to the three "Noriko" films, Ozu directed her in three other roles: as an unhappily married wife in Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku 1957), as the mother of a marriageable daughter in Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960) and the daughter-in-law of a sake plant owner in the director's penultimate film, The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no Aki, 1961). Bordwell summed up the critical consensus of Hara's significance to the late work of Ozu when he wrote, "After 1948, Setsuko Hara becomes the archetypal Ozu woman, either the bride-to-be or the widow of middle years."
Narrative, themes and characterization
The films of Yasujirō Ozu are well known for their unusual approach to film narrative. Scenes that most filmmakers would consider obligatory (e.g., the wedding of Noriko) are often not shown at all, while apparently extraneous incidents (e.g., the concert attended by Hattori but not Noriko) are given seemingly inordinate prominence. Sometimes important narrative information is withheld not only from a major character, but from the viewer, such as the news of Hattori’s engagement, about which neither Noriko’s father nor the audience has any knowledge until Noriko, laughing, informs him. And at times, the filmmaker proceeds, within a scene, to jump from one time frame to another without transition, as when two establishing shots of some travelers waiting for a train on a platform lead to a third shot of the same train already on its way to Tokyo.
"Parametric" narrative theory
Bordwell refers to Ozu’s approach to narrative as "parametric narration." By this term, Bordwell means that Ozu’s "overunified" visual approach, characterized by its “stylistic rigor,” often provides the basis for "playful deviation," including narrative playfulness. As Bordwell puts it somewhat more plainly, Ozu "back[s] away from his own machinery in order to achieve humor and surprise." In his view, "in narrative poetry, rhythm and rhyme need not completely subordinate themselves to the demand of telling the story; in art song or opera, 'autonomous' musical structures may require that the story grind to a halt while particular harmonic or melodic patterns work themselves out. Similarly, in some films, temporal or spatial qualities can lure us with a patterning that is not wholly dependent on representing fabula [i.e., story] information."
Bordwell points out that the opening scene of Late Spring "begins at the railroad station, where the characters aren’t. A later scene will do exactly the same thing, showing the train station before showing [the characters] already hurtling towards Tokyo… In Tokyo, [Professor] Onodera and Noriko discuss going to an art exhibit; cut to a sign for the exhibit, then to the steps of the art gallery; cut to the two in a bar, after they’ve gone to the exhibit."
"Essentialist" narrative theory
To Kathe Geist, Ozu’s narrative methods reflect the artist's economy of means, not "playfulness." "His frequent use of repetition and [narrative] ellipsis do not 'impose their will' on Ozu’s plots; they are his plots. By paying attention to what has been left out and to what is repeated, one arrives at Ozu’s essential story."
As an example, Geist cites the scene in which Noriko and Hattori bicycle together to the beach and have a conversation there, an incident that appears to imply a budding romantic relationship between them. When Noriko slightly later reveals to her father that Hattori, before that bicycle trip, had already been engaged to another woman, "we wonder", writes Geist, "why Ozu has wasted so much time on the 'wrong man' [for Noriko]." However, the key to the beach scene’s importance to the plot, according to Geist, is the dialogue between Hattori and Noriko, in which the latter tells him that she is "the jealous type." This seemingly unlikely claim, given her affable nature, is later confirmed when she becomes bitterly jealous at her father’s apparent plan to remarry. "Her jealousy goads her into her own marriage and is thus the pivot on which the plot turns."
Geist sums up her analysis of several major Ozu films of the postwar period by asserting that "the narratives unfold with an astounding precision in which no shot and certainly no scene is wasted and all is overlayered with an intricate web of interlocking meaning."
The following represents what some critics regard as important themes in this film.
The main theme of Late Spring is marriage: specifically, the persistent attempts by several characters in the film to get Noriko married. The marriage theme was a topical one for Japanese of the late 1940s. On January 1, 1948, a new law had been issued which allowed young people over twenty to marry consensually without parental permission for the first time. The Japanese Constitution of 1947 had made it much easier for a wife to divorce her husband; up until that time, it had been "difficult, almost impossible" to do so. Several commentators have pointed out that one reason why Noriko is still unmarried at the relatively late age of 27 is that many of the young men of her generation had been killed in the Second World War, leaving far fewer eligible potential partners for single young women.
Marriage in this film, as well as many of Ozu’s late films, is strongly associated with death. Prof. Onodera's daughter, for example, refers to marriage as "life’s graveyard." Geist writes: "Ozu connects marriage and death in obvious and subtle ways in most of his late films… The comparison between weddings and funerals is not merely a clever device on Ozu’s part, but is so fundamental a concept in Japanese culture that these ceremonies as well as those surrounding births have built-in similarities… The elegiac melancholy Ozu evokes at the end of Late Spring, Late Autumn, and An Autumn Afternoon arises only partly because the parents have been left alone… The sadness arises because the marriage of the younger generation inevitably reflects on the mortality of the older generation." Robin Wood stresses the marriage-death connection in commenting on the scene that takes place in the Somiya home just before the wedding ceremony. "After everyone has left the room… [Ozu] ends the sequence with a shot of the empty mirror. Noriko is no longer even a reflection, she has disappeared from the narrative, she is no longer ‘Noriko’ but ‘wife.’ The effect is that of a death."
Tradition vs. modernity
The tension between tradition and modern pressures in relation to marriage—and, by extension, within Japanese culture as a whole—is one of the major conflicts Ozu portrays in the film. Sorensen indicates by several examples that what foods a character eats or even how he or she sits down (e.g., on tatami mats or Western-style chairs) reveals the relationship of that character to tradition. According to Peña, Noriko "is the quintessential moga—modan gaaru, 'modern girl'—that populates Japanese fiction, and really the Japanese imagination, beginning in the 1920s onward." Throughout most of the film, Noriko wears Western clothing rather than a kimono, and outwardly behaves in up-to-date ways. However, Bordwell asserts that "Noriko is more old-fashioned than her father, insisting that he could not get along without her and resenting the idea that a widower might remarry… she clings to an outmoded notion of propriety."
The other two important female characters in the film are also defined in terms of their relation to tradition. Noriko’s Aunt Masa appears in scenes in which she is associated with traditional Japan, such as the tea ceremony in one of the ancient temples of Kamakura. Noriko’s friend Aya, on the other hand, seems to reject tradition entirely. Aya had taken advantage of the new liberal divorce laws to end her recent marriage. Thus, she is presented as a new, Westernized phenomenon: the divorcee. She "takes English tea with milk from teacups with handles, [and] also bakes shortcake (shaato keeki)," a very un-Japanese type of food.
Like Noriko, her father has an ambiguous relation with modernity. Shukichi is first seen in the film checking the correct spelling of the name of the German-American economist Friedrich List—an important transitional figure during Japan’s Meiji era. (List’s theories helped stimulate the economic modernization of the country.) Prof. Somiya treats Aya, the divorcee, with unfailing courtesy and respect, implying a tolerant, "modern" attitude—though one critic suspects that a man of Shukichi's class and generation in the real-life Japan of that period might have been considerably less tolerant.
However, like Aunt Masa, Shukichi is also associated with the traditions of old Japan, such as the city of Kyoto with its ancient temples and Zen rock gardens, and the Noh play that he so clearly enjoys. Most importantly, he pressures Noriko to go through with the miai meeting with Satake, though he makes clear to her that she can reject her suitor without negative consequences.
Sorensen has summed up the ambiguous position of both father and daughter in relation to tradition as follows: "Noriko and [Professor] Somiya interpolate between the two extremes, between shortcake and Nara-pickles, between ritually prepared green tea and tea with milk, between love marriage/divorce and arranged marriage, between Tokyo and Nara. And this interpolation is what makes them complex characters, wonderfully human in all their internal inconsistencies, very Ozu-like and likable indeed."
Late Spring has been seen by some commentators as a transitional work in terms of the home as a recurring theme in Japanese cinema. Tadao Sato points out that Shochiku’s directors of the 1920s and 1930s—including Shimazu, Gosho, Mikio Naruse and Ozu himself—"presented the family in a tense confrontation with society." In A Brother and His Young Sister (Ani to sono imoto, 1939) by Shimazu, for example, "the home is sanctified as a place of warmth and generosity, feelings that were rapidly vanishing in society." By the early 1940s, however, in such films as Ozu’s There Was a Father, "the family [was] completely subordinate to the [wartime] state" and "society is now above criticism." But when the military state collapsed as a result of Japan’s defeat in the war, the idea of the home collapsed with it: "Neither the nation nor the household could dictate morality any more."
Sato considers Late Spring to be "the next major development in the home drama genre," because it "initiated a series of Ozu films with the theme: there is no society, only the home. While family members had their own places of activity—office, school, family business—there was no tension between the outside world and the home. As a consequence, the home itself lost its source of moral strength." Yet despite the fact that these home dramas by Ozu "tend to lack social relevance," they "came to occupy the mainstream of the genre and can be considered perfect expressions of 'my home-ism,' whereby one’s family is cherished to the exclusion of everything else."
The season and sexuality
Late Spring is the first of several extant Ozu films with a "seasonal" title.[note 6] (Later films with seasonal titles are Early Summer, Early Spring (Soshun, 1956), Late Autumn and The End of Summer (literally, "Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family")).[note 7] The "late spring" of the title refers on the most obvious level to Noriko who, at 27, is in the "late spring" of her life, and approaching the age at which she would no longer be considered marriageable.
However, there may be another meaning to Ozu's title derived from ancient Japanese culture. When Noriko and Shukichi attend the Noh play, the work performed is called Kakitsubata or "The Water Iris." (The water iris in Japan is a plant which blooms, usually in marshland or other moist soil, in mid-to-late-spring.) In this play, a traveling monk arrives at a place called Yatsuhashi, famous for its water irises, when a woman appears. She alludes to a famous poem by the waka poet of the Heian period, Ariwara no Narihira, in which each of the five lines begins with one syllable that, spoken together, spell out the word for "water iris" ("ka-ki-tsu-ba-ta"). The monk stays the night at the humble hut of the woman, who then appears in an elaborate kimono and headdress and reveals herself to be the spirit of the water iris. She praises Narihira, dances and at dawn receives enlightenment from the Buddha and disappears.[note 8]
As Norman Holland explains in an essay on the film, "the iris is associated with late spring, the movie’s title", and the play contains a great deal of sexual and religious symbolism. The iris' leaves and flower are traditionally seen as representing the male and female genitalia, respectively. The play itself is traditionally seen, according to Holland, as "a tribute to the union of man and woman leading to enlightenment."
Noriko calmly accepts this sexual content when couched in the "archaic" form of Noh drama, but when she sees her father nod politely to the attractive widow, Mrs. Miwa, who is also in the audience, "that strikes Noriko as outrageous and outraging. Had this woman and her father arranged to meet at this play about sexuality? Is this remarriage 'filthy' like [Onodera's] remarriage? She feels both angry and despairing. She is so mad at her father that, quite uncharacteristically, she angrily walks away from him after they leave the theater." Holland thus sees one of the film's main themes as "the pushing of traditional and inhibited Noriko into marriage."
Late Spring has been particularly praised for its focus on character, having been cited as "one of the most perfect, most complete, and most successful studies of character ever achieved in Japanese cinema." Ozu’s complex approach to character can best be examined through the two protagonists of the film: Noriko Somiya and her father, Shukichi.
Noriko, at 27, is an unmarried, unemployed young woman, completely dependent financially upon her father and living (at the film’s beginning) quite contently with him. Her two most important traits, which are interrelated, are her unusually close and affectionate relationship with her father and her extreme reluctance to marry and leave home. Of the first trait, the relationship between father and daughter has been described as a "transgenerational friendship," in which there is nevertheless no hint of anything incestuous or even inappropriate. However, it has been conceded that this may primarily be due to cultural differences between Japan and the West and that, were the story remade in the West, such a possible interpretation couldn’t be evaded. The second trait, her strong aversion to the idea of marriage, has been seen, by some commentators, in terms of the Japanese concept of amae, which in this context signifies the strong emotional dependence of a child on its parent, which can persist into adulthood. Thus, the rupturing of the father-adult daughter relationship in Late Spring has been interpreted as Ozu’s view of the inevitability—and necessity—of the termination of the amae relationship, although Ozu never glosses over the pain of such a rupture.
There has been considerable difference of opinion amongst commentators regarding the complicated personality of Noriko. She has been variously described as like a wife to her father, or as like a mother to him; as resembling a petulant child; or as being an enigma, particularly as to the issue of whether or not she freely chooses to marry. Even the common belief of film scholars that she is an upholder of conservative values, because of her opposition to her father’s (feigned) remarriage plans, has been challenged. Robin Wood, writing about the three Norikos as one collective character, states that "Noriko" "has managed to retain and develop the finest humane values which the modern capitalist world… tramples underfoot—consideration, emotional generosity, the ability to care and empathize, and above all, awareness."
Prof. Shukichi Somiya
Noriko’s father, Shukichi, works as a college professor and is the sole breadwinner of the Somiya family. It has been suggested that the character represents a transition from the traditional image of the Japanese father to a very different one. Sato points out that the national prewar ideal of the father was that of the stern patriarch, who ruled his family lovingly, but with an iron hand. Ozu himself, however, in several prewar films, such as I Was Born, But… and Passing Fancy, had undercut, according to Sato, this image of the archetypal strong father by depicting parents who were downtrodden "salarymen" (sarariman, to use the Japanese term), or poor working-class laborers, who sometimes lost the respect of their rebellious children. Bordwell has noted that "what is remarkable about Ozu's work of the 1920s and 1930s is how seldom the patriarchal norm is reestablished at the close [of each film]."
The character of Prof. Somiya represents, according to this interpretation, a further evolution of the “non-patriarchal” patriarch. Although Shukichi wields considerable moral influence over his daughter through their close relationship, that relationship is "strikingly nonoppressive." One commentator refers to Shukichi and his friend, Professor Onodera, as men who are "very much at peace, very much aware of themselves and their place in the world," and are markedly different from stereotypes of fierce Japanese males promulgated by American films during and after the World War.
It has been claimed that, after Noriko accepts Satake’s marriage proposal, the film ceases to be about her, and that Prof. Somiya at that point becomes the true protagonist, with the focus of the film shifting to his increasing loneliness and grief. In this regard, a plot change that the filmmakers made from the original source material is significant. In the novel by Kazuo Hirotsu, the father’s announcement to his daughter that he wishes to marry a widow is only initially a ruse; eventually, he actually does get married again. Ozu and his co-screenwriter, Noda, deliberately rejected this "witty" ending, in order to show Prof. Somiya as alone and inconsolable at the end.
Ozu's unique style has been widely noted by critics and scholars. Some have considered it an anti-Hollywood style, as he eventually rejected many conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. Some aspects of the style of Late Spring—which also apply to Ozu's late-period style in general, as the film is typical in almost all respects[note 9]—include Ozu's use of the camera, his use of actors, his idiosyncratic editing and his frequent employment of a distinctive type of shot that some commentators have called a "pillow shot."
Ozu's use of the camera
Probably the most frequently noted aspect of Ozu's camera technique is his consistent use of an extremely low camera position to shoot his subjects, a practice that Bordwell traces as far back as his films of the 1931–1932 period. An example of the low camera in Late Spring would be the scene in which Noriko visits her friend Aya in her home. Noriko is in a sitting position, while Aya is seated at a slightly higher elevation, so Aya is looking down towards her friend. However, "the camera angle on both is low. Noriko sits looking up at the standing Aya, but the camera [in the reverse shot] looks up on Noriko's face, rejecting Aya's point of view. We are thus prevented from identifying with Aya and are forced into an inhuman point of view on Noriko."
There has been no critical consensus as to why Ozu consistently employed the low camera angle. Bordwell suggests that his motive was primarily visual, because the angle allowed him to create distinctive compositions within the frame and "make every image sharp, stable and striking." The film historian and critic Donald Richie believed that one of the reasons he used this technique was as a way of "exploiting the theatrical aspect of the Japanese dwelling." Another critic believes that the ultimate purpose of the low camera position was to allow the audience to assume "a viewpoint of reverence" towards the ordinary people in his films, such as Noriko and her father.
Ozu was widely noted for a style characterized by a frequent avoidance of the kinds of camera movements—such as panning shots, tracking shots or crane shots—employed by most film directors. (As he himself would sometimes remark, "I'm not a dynamic director like Akira Kurosawa.") Bordwell notes that, of all the common technical practices that Ozu refused to emulate, he was "most absolute" in refusing to reframe (for example, by panning slightly) the moving human figure in order to keep it in view; this critic claims that there is not a single reframing in all of Ozu's films from 1930 on. In the late films (that is, those from Late Spring on), the director "will use walls, screens, or doors to block off the sides of the frame so that people walk into a central depth," thus maintaining focus on the human figure without any motion of the camera.
In a dialogue between Noriko and her friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), Aya is seen from below, as if from the seated Noriko's point of view
... however, in the reverse shot, Noriko is also seen from below, rather than from Aya's point of view, retaining the "low" camera angle.