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EARLY SUMMER

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake, Chieko Higashiyama
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Ozu's Films from Behind the Scenes documentary, commentary, trailer, essays
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 2004

"Single people don't know what real happiness is."

Film ****

One 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.

One 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 directorial career.

Early Summer 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.

Chishu 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 Story!

Chieko 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.

Early Summer's 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 plot.

This 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.

As 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.

Early Summer thus 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.

Sooner 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.

As 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 repercussions.

Early 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.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Bakushű is actually translated as "barley harvesting season," not "early summer."

Video ** 1/2

Early Summer is 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.

The 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.

Audio ** 1/2

Early Summer is 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.

On a side note, astute listeners might even distinguish between the different dialects of Japanese used by the actors in some scenes for comic effect.

Features ***

There 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.

Next 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.

The DVD extras are rounded off by a scratchy vintage trailer for the film.

Lastly, 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 Story).

The 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.

BONUS 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.

Summary:

An acknowledged masterpiece from Yasujiro Ozu, arguably Japan's most influential director, Early Summer represents Ozu at his finest, exploring his favorite themes of family and marriage.  On par with the director's greatest masterpiece, Tokyo Story, Early Summer presents a touching and sweet story whose appeal is universal, not just for foreign film enthusiasts.  Highly recommended!