Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Japanese cinema through the films of Akira Kurosawa. I was 11 years old, and my mother took me to see Ran (1985) at our local art house theater. Not long after, we saw Seven Samurai (1954) on the big screen.
I was hooked, and saw Rashomon (1950), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Dreams (1990) before I graduated high school. I also watched Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of films about Musashi Miyamoto (1954-1956) that starred Toshiro Mifune.
At some point in my early adulthood, I realized that there was more to Japanese cinema than samurai and swordplay. Kurosawa himself made brilliant human dramas like Ikiru (1952) and contemporary police dramas like High and Low (1963), and he was just one director among many.
It’s become a cliche to say that Kurosawa was the “most Western” of Japanese filmmakers and that Yasujiro Ozu was the “most Japanese” of Japanese filmmakers, but there’s plenty of truth in it. Kurosawa drew inspiration from American westerns and French detective novels, while Ozu depicted Japanese family life without any fireworks or flashiness.
One of the most commonly mentioned aspects of Ozu’s directorial style is that he shot most of his interiors with a camera placed about three feet above the floor, which is the point of view of a person sitting on a tatami mat at home. Ozu framed his shots unpretentiously, and made the viewer of his films an unseen but unremarkable presence in the lives of his characters.
Ozu began making films in the silent era. By the time he directed Late Spring, he’d made close to 40 movies.
Late Spring is based on Kazuo Hirotsu’s short novel Father and Daughter. Ozu wrote the screenplay with his frequent writing partner Kogo Noda.
The luminous actress Setsuko Hara, whom I last saw in the early Kurosawa film No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), plays Noriko Somiya, a 27-year-old who still lives at home with her father.
Her father, Shukichi Somiya, is played by Chishu Ryu. Both Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu appeared in many of Ozu’s films. Ryu worked with Ozu 33 times and Hara appeared in six of his films.
Noriko has a sunny disposition and is devoted to her father. She is charming, and gets along with everyone, but sees no reason why she should marry and leave her aging father to fend for himself (although she does seem to have romantic feelings for her father’s assistant, Shoichi Hattori, who is played by Jun Usami).
Her father desires to marry her off, but he is ambivalent. He loves her and doesn’t want to let her go, but children must marry and leave home. It is simply the way of the world.
On one level, Late Spring is a simple story of normal people living in a specific place and time, but on another level it is a timeless and universal story about change, aging, regret, and loneliness.
Unlike most American films, there are no solutions to anyone’s problems. No one is completely right or completely wrong. Late Spring isn’t a cri de coeur against the patriarchy, but it’s not a celebration of it either. The final reel of the film doesn’t feel calamitous or momentous, until the final minute, which is one of the most quietly devastating endings to a film I have ever seen.
After Late Spring, Setsuko Hara appeared in five more of Ozu’s postwar films. In her next two films for Ozu she also played a character named Noriko — Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) — and Chishu Ryu again played her father in both films. They weren’t meant to be exactly the same characters from film to film, but they were all thematically linked.
Unlike the filthy cesspool Kurosawa depicted in his postwar film Drunken Angel (1948), Ozu’s critique of the American occupation of Japan in Late Spring is much more subtle. But in typical Ozu fashion it’s haunting despite its simplicity. Was he the first filmmaker to use the ubiquitous Coca-Cola symbol to represent American military and social power? If he wasn’t, its use in Late Spring is the first I’ve seen.
Late Spring is a brilliant film. It’s only the second Ozu film I’ve seen (the first was Tokyo Story), but I’m looking forward to seeing many more.
On a personal note, I’ve written this entire review with my four-month-old daughter asleep in a baby carrier on my chest. I have no idea what the future will bring, but someday I will have to let her go. It’s a prospect both wonderful and terrifying.