Friday, March 19, 2010

Movie Review: Late Spring (晩春: Banshun)

Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara as father and daughter in Late Spring (1949)

Did Yasujiro Ozu ever make a movie that was less than a masterpiece?  I have seen four of his films now, and I have yet to find one that isn't great.  I started with Tokyo Story (東京物語: Tokyo Monogatari), then saw A Story of Floating Weeds (うきぐさ物語: Ukigusa Monogatari)Floating Weeds (うきぐさ: Ukigusa), and now Late Spring.  Maybe it's because, with most directors, the characters exist for the sake of the story, whereas with him, the story exists for the sake of the characters.

Ozu once famously said that he was a tofu maker in regards to his films, but if you know tofu, you know that different varieties of tofu can be as different from each other as apples are from pears.  Ozu's films may all deal with similar aspects of human existence (and similar aspects of family life), but they are all quite different from each other (when he remade A Story of Floating Weeds as Floating Weeds, though the dialogue didn't change much, the way he handles the material in the later film is different from how he handles it in the earlier film).  Tokyo Story is the most solemn of the films I've seen by him, Floating Weeds and A Story of Floating Weeds both engage in goofiness before getting serious, and Late Spring has some moments in the beginning of the movie at which I laughed out loud.

The plot is simple: four years after the end of World War II, 27-year-old Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is still living with her widowed father, Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu).  Somiya's sister/Noriko's aunt, Masa Taguchi (Haruko Sugimura), and Noriko's friend, Aya Kitagawa (Yumeji Tsukioka), thinks that it's time Noriko marries.  While she had been ill during the war, she is healthy now.  The only problem is that she doesn't want to leave her father, and her father doesn't want her to leave.

This may be the best acted of all of Ozu's films--at least, of the ones I've seen.  Hara, Ryu, and Sugimura were used again and again by Ozu (in fact, many of the same actors can be found in all of his films), and Hara and Ryu were probably his two favorite actors (according to Roger Ebert, whose great review of this film can be accessed below).  Here, the two of them put on an acting clinic, with strong support coming from Sugimura and Tsukioka.  Notice how, time and again, Noriko will say something, but Hara's face will convey the opposite, or how Ryu uses his eyes alone to convey what his character is feeling.

And then there's Ozu.  He uses more tracking shots here than he normally does, but in a movie so filled with big decisions, it's understandable (a camera moving in an Ozu film usually signals an emotional turning point in a character's life.  In Late Spring, he first uses it to convey the joy of a bike ride, but the next two times he uses it are at critical points in the film, for Noriko in particular).  On the back of my DVD case, someone wrote that this movie "almost alone justif[ies] Ozu's inclusion in the pantheon of cinema's greatest directors."  Well, the scene in the film that cements it is one that lesser directors would have trimmed.

We are watching a Noh drama onstage.  The camera shows Noriko and her father, kneeling side-by-side.  The camera shows the drama unfold.  The scene continues.  On and on.  We wonder what the point of this scene is.  Then the camera focuses on Noriko and her father again.  Her father sees someone and bows.  Noriko notices this same person and bows.  The camera then shows who they are bowing to.  Back to Noriko.  She looks at her father.  His reaction to the drama.  She looks at the woman they bowed to.  Her reaction to the drama.  Back to Noriko and her father.  Noriko, wracked with sadness.

Unless you count the dialogue being chanted as part of the drama onstage, there is no dialogue in this scene.  Dialogue would have destroyed it.  Instead, you have several minutes that tell you all you need to know about Noriko, her relation with her father, her beliefs concerning her father's relationship to the woman, her feelings about that kind of relationship, what she thinks of the other woman, what she thinks of her father remarrying, and what that means for her.

In a way, it's good that so much of this movie depends on Hara and Ryu, for they are what elevate this film to the heights of great cinema.  I thought Floating Weeds suffered some because the actor playing Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) wasn't as good as the actor who played Shinkichi (same role, different name) in A Story of Floating Weeds.  Also, the kissing scenes felt a little unnatural.  And yet I love Floating Weeds, just as I love A Story of Floating Weeds, because they are about people, and about the cruelty people inflict, knowingly or unknowingly, on other people.

While watching this film, I took dozens of mental notes of things I wanted to comment on, shots I wanted to point out, scenes I wanted to highlight.  These mental notes went on and on and on, so perhaps it's best that I didn't write them down, though I will mention a few things that you should look for: Somiya's arc of reactions when Noriko tells him that a man he thinks would be a good match for her is "just her type," but is also engaged.  How Noriko enters her home each time (particularly the one time she doesn't say, "Tadaima," to signal that she's home).  In the second tracking shot (not including the bicycle scene), which occurs right after the Noh performance, notice the spacing effect that occurs after Noriko crosses the street, and--as always--how Ryu and Hara act this scene.

My last mental note: at one point in the film, Noriko's aunt wants to introduce her to a man.  Noriko finally agrees to meet with him, due to some pleading from her father, but we never see him, though he is described to us (looks like Gary Cooper from the mouth down), and his name is mentioned several times.  I think Ozu does this for two reasons: 1.) it doesn't matter who this man is, just that he exists, and 2.) it allows the story to continue focusing on the father/daughter relationship, rather than complicating it by having us (the viewers) decide on whether or not this man is worthy of Noriko, and whether her feelings toward him are justified or not, and what those feelings are.

The theme of Late Spring is that two people, who are perfectly happy in the routine that they are in, destroy their happiness for the sake of each other, and for the sake of society.  Noriko doesn't want to get married, but will do it to please her father.  Her father doesn't want her to leave, but encourages her to marry because he feels that it will be best for her.  Society is the aunt, telling her to get married because she's "at a good age."  Society is her divorced friend Aya, who tells her she needs to leave her father's house.

I have other reasons for loving this film, besides excellent acting from Hara and Ryu (and a final scene that is guaranteed to break your heart--again, look how Ryu conveys so much emotion through his eyes alone.  It's astonishing!).  The Noh drama takes place on a stage that I believe one of my friends performed at as part of a shamisen concert (unless the back of all Noh stages are painted with a large tree).  When father and daughter go to Kyoto, I've visited the rock gardens that are used as pillow shots.  And, on a slightly different note, I loved Hara in Tokyo Story, so I enjoyed seeing her onscreen again.

Sometimes I feel my life is an Ozu movie, or could be.  This story, in particular, somewhat deals with my situation.  No, I'm not a Japanese woman living in postwar Japan with my father, but I haven't quite moved out of my parents' house.  I mean, physically I'm in Seattle, but my roots still run deep in Connecticut.  At one point in the movie, Noriko wants to learn to be a stenographer so that she can leave her father's house without having to get married.  Like her, the only two ways I can establish roots elsewhere are to get a job or to get married (and probably in that order).  Unlike her, I am not happy with the arrangement of living with my parents well into adulthood, but like her, I fear the chasm of the unknown that awaits people when they decide to leave home.  And she grapples with the same issue I grapple with, which is that she wants transient things to remain permanent, even though she knows they cannot.  Mono no aware, a melancholy awareness of the impermanence of things, is the central theme of most of Ozu's films.

In closing, I give this film my highest recommendation, and I encourage all of you to watch it carefully, closely, and many, many times.


  1. You almost sold me this film, though I'm not particularly in mood jipponais. I saw "Tokyo Story" and "Floating Weeds" long ago and was quite bowled by the delicacy of the former. I have a mind to see it with Ebert's commentary.

  2. Did Ebert do commentary for Tokyo Story, or are you referring to Floating Weeds? And yes, I would watch the latter with his commentary, as it will make you appreciate the film even more.

    Also, don't fall into the trap of thinking Ozu's films are "too Japanese" to be appreciated outside of that reference. Ozu is universal, and his themes are no more specific to Japan than the themes in Richard II are specific to England. If you liked Tokyo Story, you'll like this film.

  3. My mix-up. Commentary is for "Floating Weeds" which I saw without the commentary and which struck me as a lesses film than "Tokyo Story".

  4. You should see A Story of Floating Weeds, which has a similar story to Floating Weeds but is more dramatic, and with better overall acting (though silent). It comes with the Criterion Edition of Floating Weeds. And yes, you should check out that commentary track.

    I find it difficult to discern lesser Ozu films from greater Ozu films, since I love them all, but I do feel (as you do) that Tokyo Story is the greater of the two films, though only slightly. Late Spring, however, is almost as good as Tokyo Story, and, depending on my mood...

  5. Which Ozu do you think I should see first. Ebert recommends Floating Weeds but I had trouble finding that. And obviously that's not your favourite so what do you say?

  6. I enjoy Floating Weeds immensely (the cinematography alone is worth the price of admission, as they say), but I prefer Ozu's work at Shochiku studios, since he built up a rapport with the same group of actors in movie after movie (Floating Weeds was done at Daiei).
    I'd start with any that you can find. Certainly Tokyo Story is the gold standard, especially since its power comes from its restraint, but Late Spring is also worth checking out. Like I said, each movie I've checked out by Ozu (and I've seen four) has been a great cinematic experience, and Floating Weeds only disappointed slightly because I had just seen A Story of Floating Weeds, which boasts better acting and a more devastating final scene than the later film, mainly due to that acting (which is where a lot of the power of Late Spring comes from, as well), but also due to Ozu's older, wiser, and calmer outlook on life.


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