LATE SPRING (1949)

  • Director: Yasujiro Ozu
  • Writers: Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu based on the novel Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu
  • Starring: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Yumeji Tsukioka, Haruko Sugimura, Hohi Aoki, Jun Usami, Kuniko Miyake, Masao Mishima, and Yoshiko Tsubouchi
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#15)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

I’m not going to say anything here as dumb as “Yasujiro Ozu is overrated.” He really isn’t. His movies get at themes that seem universal to the human experience, yet don’t feel like they’re commonly depicted on screen. The awkwardness between aging parents, their adult children, and their young, ungrateful grandchildren in Tokyo Story is a prime example. Yet there is a part of me that thinks the modern embrace of Ozu films by critics is partly born out of a backlash against the modern, Blockbuster-heavy studio slate. Perhaps critics are so tired of Marvel movies that they’re looking for their exact opposite. And so we end up with the most recent Sight & Sound greatest movies poll, which has not only Tokyo Story at #3, but Late Spring, which if anything is “slighter” and even more determinedly Ozu-esque than its more famous cousin (at least in Tokyo Story, spoilers, one of the main characters dies), at #15.

Yet in its own way Late Spring is an entry into Ozu’s own private “Cinematic Universe.” It is considered the first in what is sometimes termed his “Noriko Trilogy,” all of which star the actress Setsuko Hara as various younger female characters, all named Noriko, though they don’t actually appear to be the same person. It also stars another future Tokyo Story star, Chishu Ryu, as her aging father. The story is pretty straightforward, to the point that, if you’re not paying super close attention, you might miss that there is one. Ryu plays an aging Professor Shukichi, whose only child, the 27-year-old Noriko, lives with him and cares for all of his needs. Wanting her to move forward with her life, Shukichi works with his sister, the slightly overbearing Masa (Haruko Sugimura), to try to arrange a marriage for Noriko. Much to Noriko’s consternation, Masa is also trying to arrange a match between Shukichi and the older widow Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake). She seems disturbed by this on a deep level.

Of course, as with women in patriarchal societies throughout history, Noriko feels like she’s both giving up any independence she might have by getting married, while also making a break with her current life that she doesn’t want to make. She eventually reluctantly agrees to marry one of her aunt’s suggested matches, Satake (he is never actually shown on-screen, though multiple people insist that he looks like Gary Cooper), but is still sad when she leaves her father. At the end of the movie, he reveals to Noriko’s friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) that he was never going to remarry, that it was a ruse to get Noriko to agree to move on with her life. She tells him he’s a great guy and promises to keep visiting him.

The thing to know about Ozu, if you aren’t familiar, is that his directing style is very distinct from your usual Hollywood movie. Most of the time he keeps his camera at a little bit of a low angle that, it has been pointed out, is about the same as a person of average height kneeling on a Japanese tatami mat. He tends to leave out “big” events, concentrating on smaller moments. We don’t actually see the wedding, or, for that matter, Noriko’s various meetings with potential suitors. It’s all about the smaller moments that maybe hint at how she actually feels (though at the same time the characters tend to be very reluctant to actually talk about their feelings. There is almost no camera movement within shots at all, everything is very composed and still. He also likes “pillow shots,” where he cuts to a seemingly unrelated, almost “still life” shot for a moment, either within a scene or between scenes. There’s a moment where we see Noriko lying in bed, smiling. Then we cut to a shot of a vase on a table, not just for a moment but for several seconds. When the camera cuts back to Noriko, she’s now in tears.

Late Spring was made soon enough after World War II that Japan was still under American occupation, and Ozu had to submit his film to American censors for approval. While in America the censorship boards were trying to enforce American cultural norms, in Japan they were trying to push back against “feudalistic” local customs. These actually included the entire idea of arranged marriage, which the Americans wanted to discourage. They did eventually allow the movie to go forward with Noriko marrying a man she had met only once, but required that the original script, where moving forward with the marriage is portrayed as “a family decision,” to be changed so it was entirely Noriko’s idea. They also removed the reason of “visiting her mother’s grave” for a trip taken by Noriko and her father to Kyoto, because the Americans wanted to discourage “ancestor worship.”

Meanwhile, the movie makes almost no direct mention of the recent war, and one line where Shukichi compares Tokyo unfavorably to Kyoto was changed from him referring to Tokyo as “ruins” to calling it “dusty.” The movie does deal with this indirectly, however, since the whole point is that men are scarce and none of the older characters think Noriko will find one on her own. The reason they’re scarce, of course, is because so many younger men were killed in the war, but the movie can assume its audience has this knowledge rather than spelling things out.

I didn’t connect with Late Spring to the degree that I did to Tokyo Story, and I think that might be as simple as it being further from my own experience. Not because it’s “more Japanese” or anything like that, but Tokyo Story is about younger people with their own lives trying to deal with their families, and Late Spring is about this woman trying to deal with her own place in society and striving for self-determination in the only way she knows how to. Which makes me feel sort of bad about my own levels of empathy, but I think is probably true. In a rare moment of saying what she actually feels, Noriko says that she doesn’t believe that she’ll ever be as happy with any man as she is just staying home and taking care of her father. Which is a little sad on one level but also feels like the socially acceptable way for her of saying “I don’t need a dude to be me.” But that sadness is also an essential part of the appeal of the movie. You would not hear this movie mentioned in the same breath as the all-time classics if it had a happy ending, I think.

One further note here on Yumeji Tsukioka, who plays Noriko’s friend Aya. I noticed that among her other starring roles was a 1955 movie with the English title of The Eternal Breasts. In the interests of science, I investigated, and discovered that it was a biopic in which Tsukioka played a famous female Japanese poet named Fumiko Shimojo. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent a double mastectomy, about which she wrote her most famous poems. So I learned something actually worthwhile, despite my own prurient interests.

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