Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Late Spring was the third picture Yasujiro Ozu made after the end of the Second World War, and in many ways it established the pattern for the typical postwar Ozu film. It's the kind of film that, except for the occasional oddity like Good Morning (1959), Ozu continued making until his death in 1963. Concentrating on one family and a compact group of their acquaintances, these films deal with small domestic conflicts and dilemmas with special emphasiss on a subject that had long fascinated Ozu, the often difficult relations between parents and children.
The chief characters in Late Spring are Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu), a widowed university professor, and his 27-year old daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Content to live at home caring for her father, Noriko has no desire to marry. Problems in this cozy domestic arrangement begin to develop when a meddlesome aunt with a propensity for matchmaking turns her attention to finding a husband for Noriko and a new wife for her father. For his part, the father, feeling guilty for being Noriko's reason for not pursuing a life of her own, sees the sense of the aunt's suggestions. Noriko, however, wants no part of these plans, considering herself indispensable to her father's happiness and comfort. "If I left home, Father would be lost," she says.
The tone of the first part of the film is fairly light-hearted. Noriko enjoys simple domestic pleasures like caring for the practical details of her father's daily life and shopping trips to Tokyo. She has an easy platonic friendship with her father's young research assistant, a bantering relationship with one of her father's former academic colleagues, and a close friendship with a former schoolmate, a very modern and Westernized divorcée named Aya. The tone of the film takes a sudden shift, though, in a crucial sequence where Noriko and her father attend a performance of a Noh play and Noriko sees in the audience the woman her aunt has in mind to become her stepmother. After attending the Noh play, Noriko becomes morose and even more stubbornly resistant to the entreaties of her father and aunt that she must prepare herself for a change in her father's circumstances and give serious consideration to a marriage of her own.
Eventually, after much persuasion by her father ("Happiness isn't something you wait around for," he tells her. "It's something you create yourself.") Noriko accepts that she must marry and make a life for herself, and she does marry a young man her aunt has introduced her to. In a final irony, after the wedding the father admits to Noriko's friend Aya that he never really intended to marry, that it was just a ruse to compel Noriko to do what would be best for her despite the pain it would cause both of them. "It was the biggest lie of my life," he confesses.
Like all of Ozu's movies, Late Spring seems to dwell not on big emotions but on small details of its characters' lives—small talk and gossip, sharing a meal or a cup of tea or sake, a bicycle ride to the beach, eating an apple. Yet to say that the film is only about everyday trivialities would not be accurate, for those little things are wrapped around subjects and situations of great moment. Everywhere in the film are signs of the profound cultural changes in postwar Japan, especially the increasing Westernization of Japanese society. Noriko and the other young people in the film wear Western clothing and furnish their homes with Western-style furniture. Older people like Noriko's father and aunt wear traditional attire, at least at home, and stick with traditional furnishings—tatami mats, shoji screens and dividers, low tables and floor cushions to sit on. When Aya visits Noriko and sits on a cushion on the floor, her legs fall asleep because she isn't accustomed to such seating. Aya's own home and Noriko's upstairs room are filled with Western furniture—chairs and tables and Western bedding.
Perhaps the most vivid image of the Americanization of Japan comes on the bicycle ride Noriko and her father's assistant Hattori take to the beach one day. Visually this is a very poetic sequence, filled with simple but artfully composed shots of Noriko, her hair blowing in the wind and a beatific expression on her face, the two young people on their bicycles, the dunes and the surf in the background. In the middle of the sequence, though, is a single shot composed in the same painterly style as the rest of the sequence, but with one element in the foreground that underscores the pervasive influence of the West in postwar Japan. It's a reminder of Ozu's sublime visual subtlety, a single prop that on the abstract level functions as a purely formal element, but on the literal level causes the shot to transcend its apparent meaning as simply a piece of a narrative sequence.
Another subject always in the background is the changing role of women in postwar Japan, particularly among the younger generation. Noriko's friend Aya seems to typify these changes. Aya is not just a divorcée, but a woman who married for love instead of accepting a traditional arranged marriage, then grew tired of her husband's demands on her independence and got rid of him. Now she is a professional stenographer fluent in English, and apparently a prosperous one. She has her own house as far from the traditional Japanese style as imaginable, a fashionable Western wardrobe, and no interest in either remarriage or motherhood. In comparison to the independent-minded Aya, Noriko seems quite staid and conventional. Even Noriko's conservative aunt observes at one point in the film that Noriko seems "old-fashioned for someone of her age."
It might actually be more accurate to say that Noriko is exceptionally averse to change, especially in her personal life. There comes a time in every person's life when the grown-up child must break free of the primal love relationship—the one between parent and child—and create a unique identity. Noriko seems to have become stuck in an early stage of this universal process of maturation, to have carried the idea of filial devotion to such extremes that she has stalled her own emotional development. To use a common analogy, she's like the young bird which refuses to leave the nest and must be pushed out. This is what her father realizes and what impels him to indulge in the benign chicanery that forces Noriko to move forward.
Working with Ozu for the first time, Setsuko Hara gives one of the great screen performances of all time as Noriko. (She would go on to make five more pictures with him. Two of her later performances for Ozu—in 1953's Tokyo Story and as the parent in Late Autumn, the 1960 semi-remake of Late Spring—are just as good.) She immediately establishes Noriko as a character of great charm, a young woman who embodies with complete comfort the opposite qualities of gentleness and rigid determination. It's a graceful, charismatic performance that takes a sudden turn in an unexpected direction during that pivotal scene at the Noh play.
When Noriko glances across the room and spots the woman her aunt is urging her father to marry, her mood suddenly collapses and we see a side of the relaxed and winsome young woman she has not shown before. In an instant the expression on her face and in her eyes hardens as she stares at her rival, her face tense with stress. Hara lowers her head and closes her eyes in that characteristic way of hers that here suggests simultaneously a dropping away of Noriko's carefree façade, anguish and utter dejection, and finally a closing down of all outward expression of her inner emotional tumult. It's a stunning transformation that in its suddenness and completeness I've seldom seen equaled on the screen.
The last scene in the film, when Noriko's father sits alone in the empty house after the wedding contemplatively peeling an apple, powerfully conveys the loneliness he feels. Yet if you look closely at that amazing sequence, you can see that, like so much in Ozu's films, despite its apparent simplicity it suggests a great deal more than it actually shows. If it suggests the sense of loss Noriko's father feels, at the same time it also suggests that the painful process of separation has exposed some dormant but essential element of his psyche. Take a closer look at the room he is sitting in. This downstairs room is in his part of the house. But the traditional furniture from earlier in the film is gone, replaced by the Western-style furniture we saw earlier in Noriko's room upstairs. Apparently, like Noriko he too has moved forward into a new phase of his life, the way an insect sheds its old skin for a new one. This new phase might lack the familiarity and security of his former life with Noriko, but at the same time the loosening of the bond between him and Noriko has given him the freedom to move in a new direction of his own choosing.
Ozu then surpasses this apple-peeling sequence with the final shot of the film, a brief pillow-shot coda of waves gently breaking on the shore, a shot which seems to imply that the lives of Noriko and her father are part of a much larger natural continuum. It's impossible not to think back to the Noh play they attended earlier in the film, whose theme was that of achieving enlightenment through the close observation of nature. I don't believe I've seen another movie which expresses something this ineffable as succinctly as Ozu does in that remarkable final shot, pretty but meaningless on its own, yet containing a universe of meaning in the context of the small human drama we've just experienced in the film.
You might also like:
- Regret, Hope, and Acceptance: Ozu's Last Three Films
- Two Early Films by Ozu, Part 1: The Only Son (1936)
- Two Early Films by Ozu, Part 2: There Was a Father (1942)
- No Regrets for Our Youth (Setsuko Hara and Kurosawa)