So, here goes: each day, 1 Criterion movie. Easy enough, right?
Let's start off with a master from Japan:
I work sometimes as a college professor for English non-fiction writing, and one of the key things I tell my students is to try to read both between and beyond the lines with what's presented to them. If you look at what is on the surface in Early Summer, it may appear somewhat dated, in the sense that in the 21st century (perhaps even the latter 20th century in general), single women are more prominent and acceptable as a group in society, and even can do things like turn the tides of elections in their size of numbers (as happened in the 2012 US election, but I digress). So in 1951 in Tokyo, Japan, a family (and several friends) who keep on a young woman named Noriko (the beautiful and always charming/dramatically wonderful Setsuko Hara) to get married already. I mean, hell, woman, you're 28 already!
But looking a little closer at what Ozu is doing here and the movie reveals itself to be about more than it seems to be, or, at the least, he's wise enough and has enough faith in his audiences to know that they can see what other statements can be read into about what a society does and consists of and what a family even means in certain respects. Of course the obvious touchstone is tradition: a woman finding a husband and settling down to take care of the kids was a given for many women for, well, centuries I suppose. Indeed it may almost seem modern in the scope of this film in its context that the parents of Noriko don't arrange a marriage for her when she's younger, and that she has this time to, well, dwell on things and think about what she wants to do with herself. She even has other (gasp) single unmarried female friends, though some would like to get married sooner rather than later.
How does one deal with this pattern of tradition? Is it only in marriage?
|You might say the decisions here are a... piece of cake, right?|
I'm not sure if Ozu meant a direct correlation, but I could see in how this serio-comic supporting character thread connects from the kids to Noriko (I hasten to say 'storyline' since these are character portraits through and through). You're told what you should do as a kid, or what you must do, and you may take a few moments to process it but will eventually follow it (long as one's not a sociopath or something). But as an adult? What happens when it seems like every other person, if not everyone, asks the marriage question? I think it comes down to stability, or some way to attain happiness through it. But what if Noriko isn't happy or content with someone pressured on her?
This leads to a third act conflict that Ozu earns as a filmmaker because there's been so much character work that's been laid up to this point, and it leads to some emotional scenes. Early on in Early Summer it feels like little is "going on" in the usual Sy Field dramatic structure, as we're simply seeing people start their day, doing this or that, the little things at work that set things up with Noriko that we're not even aware are set-ups (the sign of a very clever and intuitive director), and yet through all of those trademark Ozu style shots of the camera being in just such a place to see the characters, or in those one-on-one style close-ups of characters talking to each other, there's stakes built up and we get who everyone is and why they feel the way they do be it they just don't know any other way to live or have lived in different periods of time.
It's a splendid film about transition from tradition, in a manner of speaking, but seeing what marriage means to different people (i.e. the man who may eventually become Noriko's husband being someone a little older who lost a wife and has a kid and may work in the sticks for a few months- not the ideal for her parents) and why these viewpoints matter whether it's in Japan in 1951 or in the US in 2016. Though I may have slightly preferred the similar themes in Late Spring, it's all the same a tremendous work of art, often seen like it's by some spirit peering in to these people's lives, about how humanity ebbs and flows and change is hard but worth the risk sometimes.
In short, if you read between and/or beyond the lines, there's a plethora of exceptional dramatic goods here, and meditative filmmaking to boot.