The first time I read about Ozu, I became obsessed to see his films. The recent news that Criterion would be releasing Late Spring on blu-ray was just the icing on the cake. The story is simple: Noriko a single Japanese woman is living a seemingly happy life caring for her widowed aging father. Social pressures, however, force family and friends to believe that Noriko can only be fulfilled by entering into marriage, although Noriko seems to have no interest in marriage herself. Noriko’s agonizes over her decision and her once beaming face increasingly carries hints of resignation. At the end, the old man sits alone peeling a piece of fruit as the ocean waves signal the inexorable flow of timeless things. This is a difficult film for those who are not used to “Eastern” style of films. Especially ones from the 1940s. As long as we watch with an open mind, the theme of the film is as universal as it can get. It’s really no wonder Setsuko Hara became a huge star in Japan with this film.
Familiar Ozu regular Chishu Ryu gives his most sympathetic and accessible performance as Shukichi with a touch of appropriate absent-mindedness. The rapport between the two feels genuine, and it amazes me how they can be so convincing as father-daughter in one film and brother-sister in the next. The narration is playfully oblique, first introducing us to a possible love-interest, withholding the information that he is already engaged (something which Noriko knows, but we don’t), then never showing us the real husband-to-be. Yet, by the end, Ozu has told us all the important things about his main characters and it feels not like we’ve watched a movie about them, but have shared a piece of their lives. Yes, it is THAT engrossing. The way people sit, their furniture and the clothes they wear are all very important in showing where every character stands in this marriage between the old and the coming new during each scene. Good examples of this, which show the change taking place, are the contrast between the very first scene and the very last scene, as well as the two separate scenes which take place at the same bar.
Beyond the emotional depth, the visual depth is powerfully captivating, attesting to Ozu’s vision and almost mechanical genius. Each shot of the film is like a frame on the wall, looking into the lives of these real characters. Each scene stretches deep into the frame creating a real space which the actors explore. There is a lot of symbolism in this movie, and I certainly have lost some of the more subtle messages because of my lack of familiarity with Japanese customs and culture. And yet this film is at the same time simple, as well as modern and universal in look, we can resonate with the characters and I had less difficulty in understanding their emotions than in many other Japanese or Far East movies seen through the perspective of my ‘western’ eyes.
At the same time the film has a wonderful human dimension, we can see on screen a story of love and affection between two people who need and are willing to make a huge sacrifice in order for the other one to be happy. This combination of emotions, simplicity and art cinema makes of this movie a real treat. I think Ozu’s films are a striking example of the possibility to reach out to a distant viewer both in space and in time while remaining rooted in its specific culture without concessions. It almost makes one wish for the human race to be continued to be plagued with ills, for only then will the relevance of such artistic rendering still be appreciated, right along with the greatest of novels and novelists. Its been said that Ozu’s films were very Japanese. Except for the landscape, this is truly universal. The acting, the pacing, the direction:superb. Don’t miss it!