Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Production: Shochiku (Ofuna); black and white; running time: 107 minutes. Released in Japan in 1949, and in USA in 1972.
Screenplay: Yasujiro Ozu and Koga Noda, from an original story by Kazuo Hirotsu; photography: Yuhara Attuita; music: Senji Ito.
Cast: Chishu Ryu (The Father); Setsuko Hara (Noriko, the Daughter); Haruko Sugimura (The Aunt); Yumeji Tsukioka (Aya, the Daughter's friend); Jun Usami (The Young man).
Awards: Kinema Jumpo Prize for Best Film of the Year, Japan, 1949.
Richie, Donald, 5 Pictures of Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo, 1962.
Sato, Tadao, Ozu Yasujiro no Geijutsu (The Art of Yasujiro Ozu), Tokyo, 1971.
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Tessier, Max, "Yasujiro Ozu," in Anthologie du cinéma 7, Paris, 1973.
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Bordwell, David, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, Princeton, 1988.
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Late Spring is the first of six films Ozu made with Setsuko Hara, the titles of which are often motivated by the age and situation of Hara's character; in Late Spring she is of the age when a young woman was expected to be married, in Early Summer she is getting past it, and in Late Autum she is a middle-aged widow. The first three films, symmetrically separated by two-year gaps and alternating with films without Hara—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953)—can be argued to form a loose trilogy. In all three (and only these three) Hara's character is named Noriko, and in each a major narrative concern is the pressure exerted upon her to marry or (in the case of Tokyo Story) remarry.
Late Spring, along with many other Ozu films, has suffered from the unfortunate polarization in the West of two influential but inadequate critical approaches: the kind of content analysis practised by Joan Mellen in The Waves at Genji's Door (plot synopsis followed by the judgement that Ozu was a conservative locked into a nostalgia for the values of a threatened or collapsed traditional Japanese patriarchy) and the formalist analysis of Nöel Burch (To the Distant Observer) which produces Ozu as a "modernist" filmmaker because his method resists the dominance of the Hollywood codes, an approach that renders the subject-matter of the films irrelevant. (David Bordwell's recent Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema represents a surprising move toward rectifying this polarization, Bordwell having been previously associated with Burch's strict formalism.) The treatment of spatial relations in Ozu's work certainly differs significantly from the Hollywood norms, and this affects our relationship to the characters and the narrative, but the narrative remains clearly dominant: Ozu's meticulous concern with the minutiae of script construction on the one hand and acting on the other cannot be simply swept aside in order to fetishize his formal devices ("pillow shots," eyeline mismatches, use of 360 degree space, etc.). As for the charge of conservatism, Ozu's critical sensitivity to all aspects of social change, its gains and losses, the erosion of old values and the emergence of new, is such that the films offer themselves at least as readily to a radical as to a conservative reading. They are in fact so complex as to resist any simple political classification, every position dramatized in them being qualified by others. It is often difficult to define with the necessary clarity and precision exactly what the films are about.
It is easy, however, to state what Late Spring is not about: it is not about a young woman trying nobly to sacrifice herself and her own happiness in order dutifully to serve her widowed father in his lonely old age. If Noriko resists the social pressures that compel her into marriage (Ozu's comprehensive analysis of those pressures shows them convincingly to be irresistible), it is because she is thoroughly aware that she will never be as happy as she is within her present situation. The film precisely defines the choice that contemporary society (post-war Japan, with its conflicts between traditional values and Americanization) offers her: subordination to a husband in marriage, or entrance into the "emancipated" world of alienated labour (i.e., subordination, as secretary, to a male boss). The latter option is embodied in Noriko's best friend Aya, a young woman so completely "modernized" that her legs get stiff if she has to sit on a tatami mat. Far from denouncing the breach with traditional values, Ozu presents Aya with immense sympathy and good humour, the emphasis being on the constraints of her situation. On the other hand, traditional marriage is never presented in Ozu's films as in itself fulfilling, and especially not for the woman (Norikio's father informs her that her mother wept through most of the first years of their marriage).
With her father, Noriko has a freedom that she will never regain: she can go bicycling by the sea with handsome young men, visit sake bars with casual associates, enjoy relatively unrestricted movement. And movement (and its suppression) is the film's key motif and structuring principle. The first half contains (for Ozu) an unusual amount of camera movement accompanying or parelleling Noriko's sense of enjoyment and exhilaration (the train journey, the bicycle ride). The last camera movement in the film occurs in the scene in the park where her father and aunt finalize plans for her marriage. The film then moves inexorably to Noriko's entrapment in an irreversible process, her immobilization (beneath the heavy traditional wedding costume) and final obliteration (the empty mirror that replaces any depiction of the wedding ceremony). The film's final shot of the sea is commonly interpreted in terms of Zen-ian resignation and acceptance (Ozu once remarked that western critics don't understand his films, so "they always talk about Zen or something"); it can equally be read as a reminder of the bicycle ride and the lost freedom.