Review by Ed Nguyen
Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake, Chieko Higashiyama
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Audio: Japanese monaural
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Features: Ozu's Films from Behind the Scenes documentary, commentary, trailer, essays
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 2004
people don't know what real happiness is."
of the hallmarks of a master film director is the ability to take any story, no
matter how complex or how many characters, and to present that story simply yet
effectively. Among Japanese
directors, none was more revered than master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu for his
ability to capture the essence of modern Japanese culture in his seemingly
simple tales of family life. While
contemporaries such as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi were entertaining
international audiences with painterly, epic films of great cinematic beauty and
psychological detail, Ozu was content to capture the hearts of the Japanese
people by defining the humanistic aspects of Japanese society.
of Ozu's finest films was Bakushű (Early
Summer, 1951). As with many of
Ozu's later films, Early Summer was a
family drama, centering around the life of a young, unmarried woman and attempts
by friends and relations to find an appropriate match in marriage for her.
The subject of marriage was a favorite one for Ozu, who found countless
ways to re-visit this universal theme time and time again throughout his
features a quintessential Ozu cast with many of the director's favorite actors
and actresses. In the lead role of
Noriko is Setsuko Hara, one of Japan's leading film actresses of the day and a
common presence in six of Ozu's best films.
Her cheerful and effervescent performance as the daughter gliding happily
through unmarried life gives the film its central gravity.
In fact, Ozu had been quite insistent on her casting in Early Summer, so certain had he been that she was the ideal actress
for the role.
Ryu portrays Koichi, Noriko's well-meaning brother who wishes to see his sister
successfully married. Ryu was by
far Ozu's favorite actor, appearing in numerous Ozu films and frequently
representing Ozu's alter ego on-screen. A
versatile actor, Chishu Ryu looks significantly younger in Early
Summer than in his finest role two years later in Tokyo
Story as an old and wise man. Interestingly,
while he plays the son of Chieko Higashiyama in Early
Summer, he would portray her husband in Tokyo
Higashiyama, for her part, was also a regular actress in Ozu films.
In Early Summer, she plays
Shige Mamiya, the mother of the Mamiya household.
Mamiya family is one comprised of three generations living together
harmoniously. Such closely-knit
families are not unusual in Asian societies, and the Mamiya family includes
Koichi and his wife and kids, his two parents, and his sister Noriko all under
the same roof. The film commences
with expositional scenes of the family members conversing casually and going
about their daily lives in an unhurried manner.
These natural interactions, with little concern for story advancement,
are a staple of Ozu films, for the director preferred a loose, plot-less
structure that emulated real, everyday life as opposed to the rigid causality of
is not to suggest that Ozu was not a diligent director.
On the contrary, he was a very exacting and precise director, known for
his endless rehearsals to make scenes appear so natural.
As with Robert Bresson and especially Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu
thought of his actors as models to be moved about within a composition and
molded slowly into the proper character. Ozu's
humanistic style, however, set him apart, for his film characters appear quite
relaxed and realistic. A minimalist
director, Ozu carefully planned his shot compositions which, although frequently
static, always supported the story and offered a personal view into the
household of his characters without calling attention to the camerawork.
This is effect enhanced the illusion that these characters and scenes
were real, not merely part of a film. While
today's directors tend to go into epileptic fits of indiscriminate camera swirls
and zooms and tracking, Ozu, as with the best directors, kept the presence of
the camera essentially invisible, reserving movements or close-ups of actors for
specific moments of the greatest impact.
with most of Ozu's films, the camera is almost entirely stationary with
meticulous attention paid to the composition of the frame.
Only a few times does the camera move and usually only to accentuate a
certain emotion. In Early
Summer, the first time, the camera slowly moves down a hallway after Noriko
has received her first marriage proposition.
Since traditional Japanese society is unfailingly polite and proper, a
character's emotions may be subtle and well-hidden.
The camera motion seems to suggest an unsettling new development,
eliciting an emotional response of uncertainty that Noriko herself does not
openly display. A similar pan by
the camera occurs after Noriko's brother, a doctor, himself learns unexpectedly
from a patient of the marriage proposition.
finds gentle humor in the everyday occurrences of life - the healthy functioning
of the Japanese gossip-mill or the on-going debates between two unmarried women
and their married friend over the merits of single and wedded life, for
instance. Noriko, by relative
Japanese standards, is an independent and a forward-thinking woman.
Along with her best friend Aya (Chikage Awashima), she is content with
unmarried life and with the bonds of family unity.
or later, however, the premise of an arranged marriage will arise.
While unusual or even antiquated to American audiences, arranged
marriages are still in practice regularly within many Asian communities, even
Westernized ones. They are a
reflection of a culture in which the family, not necessarily the children,
determine the appropriate matches in marriage.
Marriage, then, is an important family decision, not merely one made of
love, as is more common in western societies.
with many postwar Japanese films, Early
Summer also subtly alludes to the war conflict. One character, a missing brother, is mentioned from time to
time, and although the family has accepted his disappearance, there is a trace
of hope that he may still be alive somewhere.
His "presence" in the film serves to accentuate the familial
bonds which so strongly tie the Mamiya family together that even distance or
absence cannot weaken them. This
family unity will eventually play in an important role in who Noriko ultimately
chooses to marry and her family's reaction to her decision, as well as its
Summer was a
collaboration between Ozu and his lifelong scriptwriter, Kogo Noda.
It represented a postwar return to form for the director, after which
time his films would be universally praised and well-received by critics and
audiences alike. By any standard, Early
Summer is one of the great masterpieces of Japanese cinema, and it is of the
highest tribute to Ozu that this film may not even be his best film (probably, Tokyo Story is). Today,
more than four decades after his passing, Ozu is remembered as the most
"Japanese" of all directors, a man revered in his country and whose
influence upon the cinematic world is still being felt today.
TRIVIA: Bakushű is actually translated as "barley harvesting
season," not "early summer."
presented in its original black & white, full-frame format.
The transfer was created using a 35mm fine-grain master positive from a
restored negative. This
is quite an old Asian film, so the frame occasionally jitters slightly, and the
image intensity flickers at times but not too intrusively. There are minimal traces of debris here and there, but
generally the picture quality looks quite good, with excellent contrast levels
and sharp details.
photographic style of the film may take some getting used to for Western
audiences. Ozu's favorite lens was
the 50mm, which he used almost exclusively because it best approximates human
vision. As a result, Ozu designed
his sets specifically around the lens's focal properties. He also preferred serene, still-life compositions for many of
his shots (photographed at the eye-level of a person kneeling upon a traditional
Japanese tatami mat). Low-angle
photography also minimized depth and gave his films a slight two-dimensional
style that emulated the art of classic Japanese traditional prints, which Ozu
enjoyed. Static shots of nature or
empty rooms are frequently used as establishing shots or even punctuation marks
between scenes, a device used by Ozu to allow audiences to pause for a few
seconds to contemplate the scene that has transpired. The general effect is one unlike any seen in typically
fast-paced American movies and tends to give the Ozu films, including Early Summer, their uniquely Asian flavour.
presented in its original Japanese monaural sound.
The film is entirely dialogue-driven, with sound being directed towards
the center speaker. The monaural
track has a few limitations related to its age, but nothing distracting.
In any case, Criterion has done a nice job in cleaning up the soundtrack
of age-related hisses and pops.
a side note, astute listeners might even distinguish between the different
dialects of Japanese used by the actors in some scenes for comic effect.
are only a few bonus features on this DVD, but they are generally well worth
looking over. First, there is the
frequently humorous audio commentary by Donald Richie, an author of several
books concerning both Ozu and Japanese film history. Richie's remarks tend to be of a dry humor variety as he
comments upon Japanese society of the day and the film's reflections of those
social values. In discussing
Noriko, a relative old maid at the age of twenty-eight (by Japanese standards),
he describes her as relatively "long on the vine," whose "shelf
life was not extending itself." It is a wry but funny statement that is
representative of the overall tone of this commentary.
While liberal feminists might object to some of his statements, they are
nevertheless quite funny in the context of his discussion of the film and are an
accurate reflection of Japanese society at the time, like it or not.
up is Ozu's Films from Behind the Scenes
(47 min.), a documentary focusing on Ozu's working methods as recalled by three
of his former friends. These men
are Kojiro Suematsu, a child-actor who worked with Ozu and later became his
sound technician, Takashi Kawamata, an assistant cameraman on Ozu's films, and
Shizuo Yamanouchi, Ozu's producer. The
documentary has all three men sitting in a traditional Japanese home, complete
with shoji screens and tatami mats, as they each discuss their memories.
Much of the discussion relates to Ozu's later films, especially Tokyo
Story, but do provide a sense of what working with the master director was
like. The documentary starts off a
little slowly but becomes more interesting as the three men become more animated
and recall more insightful anecdotes.
DVD extras are rounded off by a scratchy vintage trailer for the film.
the package insert contains two articles. In
the first one, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch describes a trip made to Ozu's hometown in
Kamakura, coincidentally the setting for many of Ozu's films, including Early
Summer. He also describes
visiting Ozu's commemorative grave-marker (the subject for an extensive and
excellent documentary found on the Criterion DVD for Tokyo
second essay is by film historian David Bordwell, who discusses the plot
structure to Early Summer.
This article, by its very nature, reveals certain key developments in the
story, so it is best read after watching the film.
Coincidentally, the same might be said for the plot synopsis on the back
cover of the DVD case, which gives away too much information.
Watch the film first.
TRIVIA: Interestingly, actress
Audrey Hepburn is mentioned prominently during one scene in the film, odd
considering that Hepburn had not yet filmed Roman
Holiday and was still a relatively unknown actress.