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Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)


      An early indicator of Ozuís late-career greatness, his remarkably subtle family drama Late Spring finds him at his expressive peak. Demonstrating Ozuís considerable capacity for both formal control and attentive humanism, the film delivers a simple, culturally-bound story, about a young woman faced with the prospect of marriage, but through careful attention and great empathy transforms it into something profoundly universal. Like many of Ozuís movies, it sees struggle within a family unit emerge not out of overt conflict, but instead out of enduring love and a sense of obligation. As in most real families, its drama unfolds more through unspoken implication than through confrontation. It develops not due to the schematic whims of plotting, but rather with the pace and unpredictability of everyday life.

 

     The multilayered symbolism of the title Late Spring is indicative of Ozuís deceptive simplicity here. On a surface level, it refers both to Noriko, the filmís unmarried, twenty-seven year-old heroine, and to the possibility that Shukichi, her widowed father, might remarry. Digging a bit deeper, it seems to suggest the dawning of a new era in Japanese culture. Made in the years immediately following World War II, Late Spring sees Ozu grappling with the notion of a modern Japan, heavily influenced by the West. Throughout the course of the film, there are both vestiges of a threatened Japanese culture (a tea ceremony, a Noh play, an inevitable wedding) and harbingers of the new Japan to come (Western clothing, a friendís home furnished in the Western style, etc.). The filmís central conflict, in which Noriko seems torn between the sweet domesticity of her home life with her father and an unknown marriage with a man not of her own choosing, directly extends Ozuís concerns about an uncertain future. While neither the weight of Norikoís personal decision nor the hazy future of Japan ever emerges as cause for alarm, the unease with which Ozu treats each is telling.

 

     Ozu is often mischaracterized as a sentimental or predictable director. While itís true that many of his films were made in a similar style and deal with similar concerns, a close look at them will reveal myriad unorthodox, or even subversive, choices. There are his unintuitive formal moves, such as his frequently disjunctive transitions from one sequence to the next or his blatant disregard for supposedly essential filmic grammar, evidenced most famously by his seemingly static camera (which is, in actuality, sometimes moving, as a way of masking character movement). His plots ignore not only genre, but often conventional notions of development. Characters with small parts often dominate scenes. Major characters often have unresolved emotions at a filmís end. Most of all, though, there is Ozuís continual act of questioning. His films may generally focus on the family unit, but they depict families under pressures from the society in which they live, with members that often sacrifice happiness in a bid to fit in with the group.

 

     Ozuís deep wisdom belies his troubled attitude toward Japanese society. Nowhere in Late Spring is this more obvious than in the heartbreaking scene, near the end of the movie, in which Noriko finally summons the courage to tell her father her true feelings about his proposed remarriage, only to find that he has dozed off. As Late Spring unwinds from this point, it outwardly adopts a tone that would suggest resolution of the mild, but heartfelt, tensions that had been brewing for the whole film, yet Ozu all too clearly knows better. His bittersweet shots of Shukichi Ďs newly empty home say everything that the characters canít bear to.

 

88 

Jeremy Heilman 

08.05.09