Late Spring (1949)
Director: YasujirÃ´ Ozu
Cast: ChishÃ» RyÃ», Setsuko Hara, Yumeji Tsukioka
Synopsis: Noriko is twenty-seven years old and still living with her widowed father. Everybody tries to talk her into marrying, but Noriko wants to stay at home caring for her father.
Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and her father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) live a life of quiet harmony in post WWII Japan. She cooks for her father, washes his collars and tidies their modest home. Theirs is a warm and close relationship, but something seems just a little off-centre about it. At the age of 27, Noriko has reached the age at which she should be considering marriage if she’s not to be left on the shelf, but she shows no desire to find a husband. In fact, the idea of leaving her father fills her with sadness. Oblique clues are given as to the reasons for her unusually close attachment to her middle-aged father. She spent time during the war in a labour camp, and suffered some unspecified illness. There is a suggestion that she finds the act of sex distasteful, which explains why the living arrangement with her father suits her so well — she enjoys all the small pleasures of a domestic relationship without the physical aspects.
But social traditions are difficult to ignore, and Noriko’s aunt (Haruko Sugimura) presses upon her brother the importance of Noriko’s getting married. Initially, Shukichi’s young assistant Hattori (Jun Usami) seems like a probable candidate. He and Noriko enjoy a pleasant bicycle ride together. But, as with many of legendary director Yasujiro Ozu’s films, much is revealed by what his characters evade saying to another. Hattori is engaged to be married, and as he and Noriko talk about this they have a strange conversation about slicing radishes, which is a metaphor for jealousy. Is Hattori probing the possibility of Noriko as a potential wife? Is he prepared to leave his fiancee if Noriko is willing? He invites her to a theatre, but she turns him down and we later see him sat alone at the theatre with his hat and case on the empty chair beside him. Noriko seems to like Hattori and enjoys his company. Does her relationship with her father colour her decision? As always with Ozu, a deceptively simple story is laden with unusually hidden depths.
Noriko’s aunt proposes another candidate, a man we never meet, but who we are told resembles Gary Cooper. Noriko sniffily tells her westernised friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) that he looks more like their local electrician. But her father is persuaded by her aunt that it is time for his daughter to marry, and in order to persuade Noriko he pretends to be planning to remarry. He late confirms to Aya that it’s the biggest lie he has ever told, and it’s one that brings unhappiness to both him and his daughter.
Late Spring is a quiet tragedy about small lives that is typical of Ozu’s later output, both in terms of technique and content. The camera is often static, recording events from a low level. When it does move, it follows or retreats from its subjects at a speed that matches theirs in order to minimise the effect of motion. He often has his characters facing the camera as they talk to one another. There are numerous ‘pillow shots’ that soften the transition from one shot to the next (Ozu eschewed the use of dissolves earlier in his career), and numerous lingering shots of empty rooms from which characters have just departed, or into which they are about to enter. It all contributes to a slow, methodical unfolding of the tale, and accentuates the comfortable routine of Shukichi and Noriko’s lives.
Ozu isn’t for all tastes, but his style earns a near fanatical devotion from those who see in him a filmmaker of intense artistry. His is the art of contemplation, of quiet introspection. And yet his simple stories possess a depth which travels to the heart of social issues whose relevance resonates through generations. The penultimate shot of Late Spring is so quietly heart-breaking that it will remain with you long after the final credits.
(Reviewed 24th July 2012)