Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Late Spring

"Late Spring" **** (out of ****)

In my last "Masterpiece Film Series" entry I included a film by the master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. When it was time for this next entry I already knew well in advance what my next choice would be. I had to write about another great Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu.

I hope some of, if not all of, my readers know who Ozu is. This is the first time I am writing about the famed director and I have decided to write about what may be my favorite of all the films I've seen by him, "Late Spring" (1949).

Back in his homeland it was Ozu who was considered the more "Japanese" filmmaker than Kurosawa. Kurosawa was usually considered too "Western" for Japanese movie fans taste but Ozu stuck firmly to Japanese culture. It is coincidentally enough for that exact same reason Kurosawa is more widely known in America than Ozu. In fact Ozu's films were not shown in America until the 1960s. "Late Spring" for example, while released in Japan in 1949 was actually released in the U.S. in 1961.

Ozu's films often deal with life after World War II and the changing values. The changing structure of the family as tradition was being pushed aside to make way for a more modern way of thinking. Ozu also invoke seasons into his titles; "Early Autumn" (1961), "Late Autumn" (1960), "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), his final film. And "Early Summer" (1951) among them. At first I would get so confused with these titles I wouldn't know which films I'd seen. Several of his films have very similar story lines. "Late Spring" and "An Autumn Afternoon" deal with the exact same subject. It is not really a remake however.

In "Late Spring" we follow Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and Somiya (Chishu Ryu). Somiya is a retired professor and Noriko is his daughter. They have been living together, quite happily and peacefully since Somiya's wife died. But Noriko is now in her mid-20s and it is suggest by her aunt, Masa (Haruko Sugimura) that she get married. Noriko has no interest in marriage. She says she doesn't want to leave her father alone. Is that true, I asked myself, or would she feel it would be an act of betrayal if she did?

Eventually Masa talks Somiya into arranging a marriage for his daughter. She reminds him that as he gets older and passes away, who will look after Noriko? He must plan ahead and find a suitable man to take her of her. Knowing how Noriko might feel about an arranged marriage he tells his daughter she must go through with it since he has decided to get married. This, he hopes, will ease her mind about leaving him alone, even though he has no plans to remarry.

Some viewers and critics have suggested that "Late Spring" and several other Ozu films show a modern view towards female characters. As is usually the case with me, I don't agree with the public. I thought the film showed how submissive women are treated in the culture. In an early scene Somiya and a young man, Hattori (Jun Usami) are working together. Notice how the father repeatedly orders Noriko around to serve them. Poor Noriko never has a moment to sit. Even when it is just the two of them home together, Noriko must serve her father. Every female character in the film only talks about getting married. Not out of love mind you, but, out of the need to fit into society and have someone take care of them.

Still there are ways in which Ozu shows a modern sensibility. He seems to sympathize with his characters in their resistance to conform to society. They don't want to change their living conditions but traditional society demands it. Noriko is too old to be single. A woman needs to be married at a young age and fulfill her purpose in life, which is to get married and have children. But Noriko doesn't want that sort of life. She rather just serve her father. In a way she has taken on the role of wife for her father. She performs all the household duties such as cooking and cleaning.

As I watched "Late Spring" again, to prepare for this review, I noticed almost immediately I was in a good mood. There is a certain calm and goodness inherent in Ozu's films. You get the feeling he loves his characters. He wants the best for them.

Ozu is well known for his observational style of filmmaking. His camera never moves. It is static. Ozu usually positions the camera in front of his actors. In a show of Japanese tradition he even places the camera at a sitting level, a few inches above the ground. If a character is standing we are looking up at them.

And that is one of the joyous things about "Late Spring". Ozu makes the everyday interesting. We merely observe the lives of this father and daughter. We watch them sit and talk, eat, walk. There really isn't anything visually exciting in way of explosions or car chases. Just the simple pleasures of everyday life.

One of my two favorite scenes in the movie deals with Somiya giving Noriko wedding advice and the meaning of happiness. She is expressing doubts to him. She doesn't want to marry. She wants to take care of him. She is happy with her life. But he explains to her about the happiness found in married life. It is the only time I can recall in the life when the two actors truthfully speak as father and daughter. In this same scene each seems to be trying to convince the other that it is a good idea while masking their pain.

My other favorite scene is one of the last images in the film. It is after the wedding, Somiya sits alone. It has dawned on him what life will now be like for him, all alone. He sits and peels an apple. There is a sadness on his face. You can't help but feel heartbroken at that moment.

"Late Spring" isn't Ozu's most famous movie. That honor probably goes to either "Floating Weeds" (1959) or "Tokyo Story" (1953). But if you enjoy "Late Spring" I think you will enjoy both of those other movies. "Late Spring" is very typical of the Ozu style and displays his normal sensibilities. You come to understand how he views family, the special bond between parent and child and tradition. And he does all of these things with such heart and tenderness.

That is what makes "Late Spring" one of the masterpieces of cinema and a movie all film fans should cherish.