Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 02 August 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews: Late Spring
The films of Yasujiro Ozu are explorations of space. While his later work is consistently preoccupied with the passage of time, space is an important theme throughout Ozu’s career. His camera investigates the structure of living and working spaces, the geography of small suburban towns, the architecture of homes and sake bars and offices, and the emotional spaces that divide and unite the films’ characters.
The restrained style for which Ozu is celebrated serves these ends as it portrays the quotidian details of post-war bourgeois society in Japan, and these subjects and compositions recur with a reliable consistency. Perhaps the most recognizable of Ozu’s visual trademarks is his framing of the interior of the suburban home, a deep and multi-layered composition, densely cluttered with objects, but nonetheless organized by the rigorous geometry of Japanese design. These shots recur again and again: chairs and bottles of sake blur the foreground; walls and plants and staircases interrupt the middle ground; and a bamboo fence, an umbrella, or a moving figure is visible in the distant background. These images define the world of the family as a place of close, often uncomfortable proximity, a dense but ordered stage for the conflicts that will inevitably arise between people.
Although Ozu is mostly known for the simple, static compositions of his late films, much of his earlier work, particularly in the early 1950s, is quite mobile, literally wandering through the various family spaces, cataloguing objects and calmly observing the site of the action. Ozu notably employs this device in 1952’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice: the camera tracks through the empty rooms of the married couple’s house, noting the space in which they live as well as the emotional gulf between them. The relative confines or expanses of space within the home and among people are also echoed by the wandering within the plots of his films — as in Tokyo Story, the elderly parents traverse Japan to visit their distant family in the city, or in The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, circumstances threaten to break up the couple’s marriage by sending the husband to Uruguay.
In many ways, Ozu’s 1951 film, Early Summer, is the apotheosis of his investigations of domestic, geographical and emotional space. Among all of his films that portray the dissolution of a family, it is one of the few to depict this process from beginning to end. Where The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and Tokyo Story begin with their respective families already partly divided, Early Summer opens with a tight, contented family unit and concludes with the family members scattered across Japan. (As in Toda Family, the taking of a family portrait marks the end of the family’s life together, except in Early Summer this event occurs at the end of the film, rather than the beginning.) Throughout the film, the camerawork is almost restless (at least by Ozu’s standards), with tracking and crane shots emphasizing the family’s irrevocable state of flux.
The important place accorded to trains in Ozu’s work is particularly noticeable here: discussion of the great uncle’s long train ride from Yamato and of the fiancé Kenkichi’s departure for Akita bookend the film, with much Tokyo commuter rail travel in between. Even the young boys’ obsession with their toy train set (and the whining and tantrums associated with it) resonates with this theme of travel and separation, particularly between parents and their children. This is further reinforced when the boys run away from home in indignation at their father’s refusal to buy them more train tracks.
At the heart of the film, as in many of Ozu’s family dramas, is the question of the daughter Noriko’s marriage. Setsuko Hara again plays the Noriko character, Ozu’s archetypal Japanese “girl next door,” polite and sensible, and yet slightly girlish and self-centered. The choice of her husband becomes the concern of the entire family, but especially her brother Koichi (played by Chishu Ryu), a stern and anal-retentive doctor who insists on managing Noriko’s engagement to a forty-year old man. Unenthused by this prospect, Noriko instead makes a rash and (worse yet) independent decision to instead marry Kenkichi, a lifelong friend and low-ranking doctor, whom Koichi himself has assigned to a hospital in the distant Akita prefecture.
The reasons for Noriko’s impulsive decision are initially obscure to her family and to the audience, and thus it seems to be the irrational and selfish whim of an immature girl. It appears to her family (and especially to her obdurate brother) that Noriko is merely asserting the sort of independence that so many women have demanded since the end of the war. But as Noriko later explains, it is the prospect of Kenkichi’s departure — of his being distant from her — that prompts her realization of her feelings for him and her decision to leave her family. (“It’s like when you look for something all over the place, and then you find it was right in front of you… He was so close at hand, I didn’t realize he was the one.”) Essentially, her decision is a choice of one close family unit over another.
Noriko’s affection for Kenkichi is not explicitly portrayed in the film — indeed the engaged couple appears together in only a handful of scenes — but this very lack of romance implies the maturity behind Noriko’s decision. Like her friend Aya, she recognizes that happiness “is no more than the anticipation you feel before going to the races,” and not something to cling to with childish sentimentality, like the boys with their train set or the child whose balloon Noriko’s parents observe floating away into the distance. Her decision proves that, like her father, Noriko knows that “we must not want too much,” and similarly her assertion of independence is not merely a sign of youthful rebellion but rather a demonstration of maturity. By the end of the film, Ozu clearly portrays Noriko as a free and confident woman, running toward the waves on the beach. This image is nearly identical to the closing shot of The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, in which the sober and moralistic Shojiro literally flees a marriage prospect of his own. Shojiro, like Noriko, demonstrates a seemingly incongruous combination of rationality and free-spiritedness, a kind of independence that is nonetheless equable and conscientious.
But it is also Noriko’s maturity and independence that effects the inevitable dissolution of her family. In the closing moments of the film, Ozu does not leave us with the image of the strong, independent Noriko on the beach, but of a Noriko weeping for the loss of her family and for the rupture she has caused. Perhaps this is Ozu’s way of signifying that she is not indifferent to her family after all; or perhaps it is a recognition that each new life necessarily requires the death of an old one. Somewhat earlier, Ozu has emphasized this circularity and this “new beginning” with a repetition of the first moments of the film: the patriarch painting his birdcages in his study, the sound of a music box plinking on the soundtrack.
As we leave Noriko weeping over the loss of her family, we flash ahead in time to Yamato in the West, where Noriko’s parents have come to stay with the grand uncle, living out their old age among placid fields of barley wheat. With Koichi and his family still in the suburbs of Tokyo and Noriko far away in the North, the distance that separates the family is now far greater than the confines of the tiny home at the film’s outset. Underscoring the themes of motion and space once again, the film’s final image is another tracking shot, gliding across the great expanse of the wheat fields.