Over the years, the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu has occasionally been accused of making the same movie over and over again. Indeed, after a certain point, there were a number of striking commonalities that could be found in Ozu's work: from 1949 onward, his films were almost exclusively small, intimate post-war dramas offering understated portraits of ordinary people going about their lives. Most of these films were marked by unobtrusively static cinematography, gentle music and a delicate tone. All of these movies are clearly made by the same man, but to call them all variations on the same movie is only true if you believe that all human lives are variations on the same life. Each of the major characters in Ozu's films (and even many of the minor ones) are richly detailed figures with full inner lives and complex emotions. Ozu's storytelling is simple and direct, but his characters are more complicated.
As far as film historians are concerned, Late Spring officially marks the beginning of the final stage of Ozu's career. It's the film that solidified a number of thematic ideas and filmmaking techniques that would appear over and over again throughout the remainder of the director's filmography. It's the first film of his “Noriko trilogy” - a series of three consecutive films in which actress Setsuko Hara played a young woman named Noriko (though all three of these women are otherwise unconnected). It's also the first of his “season movies” - a group that includes Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, The End of Summer and An Autumn Afternoon. The titles of these films refer not to the time of year in which each film unfolds, but which season of life the protagonists of each film are experiencing.
Appropriately enough, the central figure of Late Spring is a 27-year-old woman. Noriko lives at home with her elderly father, the esteemed Professor Shukichu Somiya (Chishu Ryu, Tokyo Story). They have a happy, healthy relationship, but the professor worries that his daughter is going to end up an old maid. He hints that she might enjoy pursuing a relationship. She smiles and declines. He advises her that she needs to be looking for a husband. She smiles and declines. Eventually, he begins making plans to arrange a marriage for her, at which point her smile begins to fade.
As with most films, what Late Spring means to you will likely depend heavily on what you bring to it. There are those who will see Noriko's tale as a tragedy – a forced journey into a future she was never interested in pursuing; the tale of yet another victim of social tradition. There are others who may read it as a sweetly optimistic tale, and see Noriko as a woman who learns an important lesson about the nature of love: it's something you create with another person, not something that simply finds you. The tensions between tradition and modern thinking quietly underscore the entirety of Late Spring, and Ozu never shoves us too hard in a particular direction. This is a difficult situation meant to be thoughtfully considered, not a collection of moral lessons to be swallowed.
Indeed, I have already oversimplified the complexities of the situation these characters find themselves in. The father's increasingly firm-handed nudges are clearly well-intentioned, even if they run contrary to modern notions (and once-modern notions) of independence. Additionally, Noriko's desire not to marry is not rooted in some sort of desire for independence or lack of desire for romance, but in her wish to ensure that her father is well-cared for. They love each other, and their differences of opinion in terms of how that love should be expressed occasionally threatens to push them apart. There are no villains here, or any parties who are definitively right or wrong. There are only people trying to do the right thing.
Japanese films made between 1945 and 1952 were subjected to the censorship of U.S. occupying forces, which meant that Ozu had to be subtle in the way he addressed postwar concerns. Numerous references to Japan's horrible conditions during wartime had to be excised – all that remains is a vague comment about the “difficulties” Noriko faced just a few years ago. Still, the postwar unease can be strongly felt even if it isn't explicitly addressed, and Ozu visually underlines the matter by juxtaposing a host of traditional Japanese imagery (a Noh theatrical performance, a Japanese tea ceremony) with more blatantly modern elements (a Coca-Cola logo, an English-language sign designed to caution the American drivers about the weight capacity of a bridge and a recurring reference to Gary Cooper). This is a new world, but the old one will not fade away so easily.
The two lead performances here are wonderful, and both play a key role in the film's greatness. When Hara first appears, she is a joyous presence – that smile filling the room with its radiant warmth. She keeps smiling as the film proceeds, but the warmth slowly fades until the smile begins to resemble something forced and pained. Her eventual acceptance of her fate is mournful, and her performance makes it all the more difficult to accept that this is really, truly for the best. On the other side, Ryu is playing a character much older than he actually was at the time, but he's so persuasive in the part that we don't even notice. Rarely have an actor's repetitive grunts felt so eloquent. His silent work in the film's closing scene is so affecting that it may very well sway our feelings on the whole situation.
The stillness of Ozu's camera is merely an extension of the stillness one senses in the entire film. His movies are too quiet and intimate to become wildly popular, but masterful enough to continue drawing audiences back in decade after decade. His films are almost never larger than life, but rather beautifully-constructed mirrors of life. There are debates to be had about which of these is the best – I'm partial to the wonderful Tokyo Story, mostly because it was the first of his films I experienced – but Late Spring is clearly among his finest efforts; a sincerely empathetic snapshot of a hairline fracture between two generations.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 1949