Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yasujiro Ozu's LATE SPRING

Late Spring has a very unique place in cinema as a story of people who accept (or push) for change to come and lament it at the same time.  Like the change in seasons, Yasujiro Ozu might be saying, it is what it is and can't really be helped.  The central conflict in the film is that a father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and daughter Noriko (best-smile-in-the-world Setsuko Hara) live together, he a professor in his 50's and she in her 20's, and that she "needs" to get married.  By that it's meant mostly through pressure from Noriko's Aunt, who takes a marriage proposal to such a pressing matter the way a stockbroker would make a deal on wall street.  But it's not simply a question of it being an arranged marriage, though it certainly is that.  It's about the daughter liking the situation she has with her father, taking care of him, loving him, being there when he needs things, and about how she does, at some point, need to let go.  Circle of life kinda thing.

Ozu's film is gentle and peaceful about such dramatic changes of life, yet there's a vibrancy underneath what is very calm camerawork and editing.  This is a story brimming with tension about this decision, and yet Ozu being Ozu, and coming from the silent era, he can create so much going on for an audience to read into and to meet halfway about just by how the actors look in a scene.

There's one in particular, possibly the only one I wasn't immediately fond of, where the father and daughter are at a Noh play.  Maybe it was because it wasn't subtitled and didn't know what was going on (though always it's shot wonderfully) but I started to tune out of the scene... until Ozu pulled me back in by going closer in shot by shot on the father and daughter, the former totally caught up in the action of the play, the latter looking at someone else they both know at the play across the room and the sadness of this scene being so fleeting, that change is coming, is all on Hara's face. This is a film that is difficult to peg if one were to describe entirely what the 'tone' is, except to just see it (and Ozu being one of Japan's most recognizable auteurs, when you've seen one you've seen many others).

The story has the ingredients for melodrama, of the peace and fun times between a father and daughter (relatively anyway in post-war Japan) and how it comes apart by the realization that maybe, kind of, an arranged marriage is not always the best course.  But it doesn't raise tension so high and spill over like a Sirk or Visconti movie.  It being Ozu especially and Japanese in general, emotions are often suppressed or just under the surface - that is, except for Setsuko Hara, who is so naturally expressive when she makes Noriko happy or just generally engaged in a conversation (and it can be about anything in particular like sliced pickles on the beach with a guy she genuinely likes), or in personal turmoil when she's faced with this next-step-in-life issue.

Actually, I should take some of that back: Ozu was a *great* director of actors when it came to showing how they really feel.  Part of it is just the casting, of his regular players like Hara and Ryu and the Aunt played by Masa Taguchi (Sugimura, in a wonderfully smug performance for a character who is all about "I" in talking usually and has a funny bit with a stolen wallet).  And part of it is understanding how understatement and subtext, and just how to have two character walking in a scene can mean so much.  After the Noh play the father is still in contentment, but the daughter has much on her mind so she says she'll be 'going shopping' or other.  She walks to the other side of the street but does not walk fast so much to go away from Shukichi completely; Ozu emphasizes this by having a medium shot of the two walking on the street separated by grief and space.

Again, if you're expecting a drama with high tension, however, look elsewhere; Ozu's notion of showing anxiety is an insert shot (but a perfect one) of a magazine falling off of a stack of books on a chair.  Yet his filmmaking is so mature and assured that the passion comes through anyway, and he takes a pacing for certain shots like when Hara's character is on the train, all of those exterior shots of it moving along to that sweet, elegiac music by Senji Ito, that it creates a kind of trance-state for the viewer that is not too imposing (hence why Paul Schrader including Ozu in his book on Bresson and Dreyer and transcendental style, though I might think Ozu has the least heavy of these director's hands).  And sometimes he's just plain lucky in creating such visual poetry, like when the father and aunt are walking and talking in a square talking about Noriko's waiting on marriage, and they pass by a bunch of birds.  How they fly away should be too perfect in timing, but it's just perfect enough to be breathtaking.

Her smile can mean anything really....

I loved this film, for how it treats its subjects with love and affection, and how no one really wishes anyone ill will (well, maybe that one supporting character who is the divorcee for her ex-husband, a funny little moment but true all the same), and that near the end Late Spring takes on greater significance in the grand scheme of how people should live, or want to live.  A part of me was angry and saddened that Noriko was sort of pushed to do something she wasn't totally comfortable with - not that she doesn't 'like' the guy she is to ultimately marry, but *love* is a pretty heavy thing - and a part of me also recognizes the truth in what Sukichi tells his daughter, calmly but sternly, about how things must change, and how a marriage may be tough.  He believes what he's telling her, and she does finally accept it...

And yet, there's that final scene, cutting into the apple, and it calls so many emotions in one stroke.  It's bittersweet, and sad, and contemplative about impermanence with things, be it a daughter or marriage or an apple.  The final shots of the ocean should be, you know, 'pretentious', but it really works just as the right coda for this story, for this journey both characters take, in a land that clings to the old ways but is also in a place after a war that has changed so much already.  It's one of the great mid-20th century films, Japan or otherwise. 

And remember, drink Coca-Cola responsibly, especially in an arranged marriage

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