Ozu once famously said that he was a tofu maker in regards to his films, but if you know tofu, you know that different varieties of tofu can be as different from each other as apples are from pears. Ozu’s films may all deal with similar aspects of human existence (and similar aspects of family life), but they are all quite different from each other (when he remade A Story of Floating Weeds as Floating Weeds, though the dialogue didn’t change much, the way he handles the material in the later film is different from how he handles it in the earlier film). Tokyo Story is the most solemn of the films I’ve seen by him, Floating Weeds and A Story of Floating Weeds both engage in goofiness before getting serious, and Late Spring has some moments in the beginning of the movie at which I laughed out loud.
The plot is simple: four years after the end of World War II, 27-year-old Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is still living with her widowed father, Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu). Somiya’s sister/Noriko’s aunt, Masa Taguchi (Haruko Sugimura), and Noriko’s friend, Aya Kitagawa (Yumeji Tsukioka), thinks that it’s time Noriko marries. While she had been ill during the war, she is healthy now. The only problem is that she doesn’t want to leave her father, and her father doesn’t want her to leave.
This may be the best acted of all of Ozu’s films–at least, of the ones I’ve seen. Hara, Ryu, and Sugimura were used again and again by Ozu (in fact, many of the same actors can be found in all of his films), and Hara and Ryu were probably his two favorite actors (according to Roger Ebert, whose great review of this film can be accessed below). Here, the two of them put on an acting clinic, with strong support coming from Sugimura and Tsukioka. Notice how, time and again, Noriko will say something, but Hara’s face will convey the opposite, or how Ryu uses his eyes alone to convey what his character is feeling.
And then there’s Ozu. He uses more tracking shots here than he normally does, but in a movie so filled with big decisions, it’s understandable (a camera moving in an Ozu film usually signals an emotional turning point in a character’s life. In Late Spring, he first uses it to convey the joy of a bike ride, but the next two times he uses it are at critical points in the film, for Noriko in particular). On the back of my DVD case, someone wrote that this movie “almost alone justif[ies] Ozu’s inclusion in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest directors.” Well, the scene in the film that cements it is one that lesser directors would have trimmed.
We are watching a Noh drama onstage. The camera shows Noriko and her father, kneeling side-by-side. The camera shows the drama unfold. The scene continues. On and on. We wonder what the point of this scene is. Then the camera focuses on Noriko and her father again. Her father sees someone and bows. Noriko notices this same person and bows. The camera then shows who they are bowing to. Back to Noriko. She looks at her father. His reaction to the drama. She looks at the woman they bowed to. Her reaction to the drama. Back to Noriko and her father. Noriko, wracked with sadness.
Unless you count the dialogue being chanted as part of the drama onstage, there is no dialogue in this scene. Dialogue would have destroyed it. Instead, you have several minutes that tell you all you need to know about Noriko, her relation with her father, her beliefs concerning her father’s relationship to the woman, her feelings about that kind of relationship, what she thinks of the other woman, what she thinks of her father remarrying, and what that means for her.
In a way, it’s good that so much of this movie depends on Hara and Ryu, for they are what elevate this film to the heights of great cinema. I thought Floating Weeds suffered some because the actor playing Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) wasn’t as good as the actor who played Shinkichi (same role, different name) in A Story of Floating Weeds. Also, the kissing scenes felt a little unnatural. And yet I love Floating Weeds, just as I love A Story of Floating Weeds, because they are about people, and about the cruelty people inflict, knowingly or unknowingly, on other people.
The theme of Late Spring is that two people, who are perfectly happy in the routine that they are in, destroy their happiness for the sake of each other, and for the sake of society. Noriko doesn’t want to get married, but will do it to please her father. Her father doesn’t want her to leave, but encourages her to marry because he feels that it will be best for her. Society is the aunt, telling her to get married because she’s “at a good age.” Society is her divorced friend Aya, who tells her she needs to leave her father’s house.
Sometimes I feel my life is an Ozu movie, or could be. This story, in particular, somewhat deals with my situation. No, I’m not a Japanese woman living in postwar Japan with my father, but I haven’t quite moved out of my parents’ house. I mean, physically I’m in Seattle, but my roots still run deep in Connecticut. At one point in the movie, Noriko wants to learn to be a stenographer so that she can leave her father’s house without having to get married. Like her, the only two ways I can establish roots elsewhere are to get a job or to get married (and probably in that order). Unlike her, I am not happy with the arrangement of living with my parents well into adulthood, but like her, I fear the chasm of the unknown that awaits people when they decide to leave home. And she grapples with the same issue I grapple with, which is that she wants transient things to remain permanent, even though she knows they cannot. Mono no aware, a melancholy awareness of the impermanence of things, is the central theme of most of Ozu’s films.
In closing, I give this film my highest recommendation, and I encourage all of you to watch it carefully, closely, and many, many times.
Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Review of Late Spring: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050213/REVIEWS08/502130301/1023