Nobody handles domestic life like Yasujirō Ozu. With 1949’s beautiful Late Spring, Ozu constructs one of his most poignant and powerful motion pictures. It is, as we’ve come to expect from the master, a film of depth and of quiet moments. Under the relatively innocent surface, however, is emotional force often not seen in similar movies.
Late Spring is based on Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu. It is the first collaboration between Ozu and the lovely Setsuko Hara, too, establishing the character of Noriko for appearances in several Ozu pictures to come. The Noriko character would be, for Ozu, his key figure pointing to modernity. While many other Japanese directors, such as Kurosawa, became more famous in the West for their broad historical drama, Ozu’s contribution came thanks to his modern characters and his look at domestic existence, family and change.
So to understand Ozu’s modern outlook, Late Spring is a great place to start.
We’re given the character of Noriko as a 27-year-old unmarried woman living with her father, Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu). As culture dictates, the time for Noriko to get married is looming and the pressure is on. Life is good and Shukichi and Noriko enjoy each other’s company, but the Professor can’t rely on his daughter day in and day out and she needs to get on with her new life as a married woman.
A plan is set in motion involving Shukichi’s sister, Masa (Haruko Sugimura), to set Noriko up with a potential mate. Hattori (Jun Usami) is first up to the plate, but it turns out that he’s already about to marry someone else. Another prospective match is introduced in the form of a man who looks like Gary Cooper. Noriko is reluctant at first and is heavily concerned about what will happen to her father. When Shukichi suggests that he will remarry when she leaves, Noriko is upset and hurt. While she knows life must go on, she doesn’t like the direction it is inevitably headed.
The beauty of Late Spring, as in all Ozu pictures, comes in the small intimate moments that give us a glimpse into the private lives of the characters. Ozu’s cinematographer, Yuuharu Atsuta, places the camera low in the domestic settings, almost on the floor, and grants us the movements of the characters from room to room. Sometimes he remains in an empty room, perhaps until a clock chimes, as though he’s granting the characters time to settle in their next location.
I’ve heard Late Spring described as reflecting the “inevitable sadness of life caused by change.” I’ve heard this about many Ozu pictures, actually. While I can see the point of such a remark, I tend to take a different view. I think Ozu reflects hope caused by change and, while there are always costs to changing tides in life, I believe Ozu to be remarkably interested in how we handle change, how we handle life’s inevitable progression, and what are perspectives are. If we venture into the unknown with sadness in our hearts that is unfortunate because, as Shukichi says, there’s a lot of hope and excitement to be found in what’s new.
Whether or not Late Spring is a sad movie depends on perspective, of course. The character of Noriko certainly isn’t looking forward to the change of getting married and leaving her ideal situation with her father, but she also shows signs of excitement. Her father, while saddened by the inevitability of this change, also shows signs of excitement for his daughter’s future life. He wants her to be happy.
Ozu’s Late Spring is an exercise in simplicity. His construction of shots and characters is impeccable. The performances from Ryu and Hara are flawless, giving weight to the relationship between father and daughter highlighted in Hirotsu’s piece. It is a brilliant place to start for those interested in getting into Ozu, of course, containing all of the emotion of today’s modern family dynamic in a lovely historical context of a changing Japan.