Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko
Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Yumeji Tsukioka
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Audio: Japanese monaural
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Features: Commentary, Tokyo-Ga film, booklet
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: May 9, 20
“How can you know how she feels deep inside?”
Film *** ½
One of Japan’s most famous leading ladies of the mid-twentieth century was Setsuko Hara. A luminously beautiful and talented actress, she was often regarded in her early youth as a model of traditional Japanese femininity. But as her fame grew, Setsuko Hara’s screen image evolved, and she began to inhabit the roles of more complicated and independently-minded women who were not afraid to challenge traditional values. This transformation of Setsuko Hara’s onscreen persona began as early back as Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) but truly blossomed through Setsuko Hara’s numerous collaborations with director Yasujiro Ozu, of which Late Spring (Banshun, 1949) was the first.
Late Spring was also one of over two dozen collaborations between Yasujiro Ozu and his favorite screenwriter, Kogo Noda. The film opens with a traditional tea ceremony that introduces the women of the film. Travelogue scenes of the urban and rural locales around post-war Tokyo ensue, providing director Ozu and Noda an opportunity to allude to the aftermath of the war and its effects on the traditional family. Here, we find the film’s true central theme, as Late Spring is a quintessential example of Yasujiro Ozu’s cinematic style focusing on the shomin-geki, or “modern family drama.” Late Spring depicts how life during post-war reconstruction has begun to alter Japanese society, and there are numerous comparisons between modernization versus the need to adhere to traditional values. This is evident in the generational tension between elders clinging to their past while the youth of the new generation tentatively embrace the imminent changes to come
The emotional core of the film is the relationship between Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) and his daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Shukichi is an old widowed professor who has decided, along with Noriko’s aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura), that the time has arrived for his daughter to seek marriage. Even Noriko’s former classmate and friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) encourages her to marry. However, Noriko, being very conservative, has different ideas; she would rather preserve her current, comfortable family setting, a status quo in which she takes care of her father without extraneous concerns or worries. But therein lies the central dilemma - should Noriko as a dutiful daughter acquiesce to her father’s request and marry? Or, does her wish to remain by her aging father’s side mask a deeper fear of change itself, of moving away from everything that Noriko has known her entire life?
Noriko’s reluctance to wed eventually compels her father and aunt to plan an arranged marriage for her. Prospective suitors include Hattori (Jun Usami), the professor’s assistant, and Satake, a young man of Aunt Masa’s choosing. And perhaps if Shukichi were to re-marry himself to the widow Miwa (Kuniko Miyake), that might in part to ease Noriko’s own lingering sense of familial duties. However, the idea of her father remarrying distresses Noriko more than comforts her.
There is in Noriko perhaps a sense of abandonment, a fear of not being loved, and hesitance to enter a new phase in life. But, we cannot all remain children forever. Life changes, and everyone grows up eventually. Professor Shukichi may discover the poignancy of the “empty nest” through his efforts to marry off his daughter, but all children must inevitably mature and leave to create their own lives.
In Setsuko Hara’s next film for Ozu, Early Summer (1951), her character, again named Noriko, would be a more confident and less passive young woman. This updated Noriko would be more pro-active and progressive in her opinions concerning family life and marriage. But for now, Late Spring offers an uncertain Noriko, a young woman caught in that awkward phase between childhood’s end and the acceptance of full adulthood and all its responsibilities, good or bad.
Video * ½
Late Spring is shown in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The black & white transfer was created using elements from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and a 35mm theatrical print. Images are sharp if slightly grainy. The picture quality suffers from copious scratches, moderate left-sided emulsion scuffs, and pulsations, too. These defects are noticeable throughout the film but perhaps a bit more so during the final third of the film.
Cinematically, this film reveals Ozu’s gradual move away from the pan and tracking shots of his early films for the fixed, low-angled, eye-level static shots of his later films, particularly as photographed through a 50mm lens.
The Japanese monaural soundtrack has been cleaned to minimize clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle, although there is some distortion of the music. Dialogue is always clear if a little reedy.
Criterion’s Late Spring release is a two-disc set. Disc One contains the film and an audio commentary by Lincoln Center film historian Richard Peña.
Disc Two offers a wonderful bonus feature in Tokyo-Ga (1985, 92 min.), a tribute by notable German film director Wim Wenders. This documentary opens and closes with images from Ozu’s own Tokyo Story; in between, the documentary is Wenders’ own personal pilgrimage and search in modern Tokyo, circa 1983, for any images of Ozu’s remembered Tokyo. Tokyo-Ga is essentially a travelogue of Japan’s capital city with its bright candy-colored nightscape and the influences of American culture, including baseball, golf, rock’n’roll, and fashion. Wenders finds time to visit Ozu’s grave and interviews Chishu Ryu. He also chats with Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu’s longtime cameraman, who demonstrates the use of an Ozu camera (and the director's personal special watch) and reminisces about his friendship and long working collaboration with Ozu.
Lastly, there is a 20-page booklet with cast & crew information, DVD credits, production stills, and three essays. The essay “Home with Ozu” by Micheal Atkinson pays homage to Yasujiro Ozu and discusses the film Late Spring. “Ozu and Setsuko Hara” by Donald Richie offers an overview of Setsuko Hara’s film career including her many collaborative efforts with Yasujiro Ozu. “Ozu and Kogo Noda” offers an excerpt from an Ozu biography in which the director himself discusses his working relationship with longtime friend and screenwriter, Kogo Noda.
Late Spring is a gem of a film that marks Yasujiro Ozu’s first collaboration with his favorite muse, Setsuko Hara, and signals the commencement of the most accomplished phase of the Japanese director’s storied career.