(1949) Directed by Yasujirô Ozu; Written by Yasujirô Ozu and Kôgo Noda; Based on the novel Chichi to musume by Kazuo Hirotsu; Starring: Chishû Ryû, Setsuko Hara and Yumeji Tsukioka;
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray
Rating: **** ½
How many choices are truly our own, and how many are contingent on the expectations (whether explicit or implied) of others? This dilemma is at the heart of Late Spring, a film that feels at once universal and uniquely Japanese. Director/co-writer Yasujirô Ozu set his poignant postwar family drama in Kamakura, a suburb of Tokyo. While the setting and traditions might appear somewhat alien to western audiences, the themes of meddling friends and family are quite familiar.
Setsuko Hara is captivating as the 27-year-old Noriko, who’s content to care for her aging, widowed father (Chishû Ryû), and views the institution of marriage with suspicion and disdain. She’s in no hurry to change her living arrangement, which has been a great source of happiness for her. But the other people in Noriko’s circle are concerned that life is passing her by, and are determined to upset the balance, confirming the age-old axiom that change is the only constant in life. Hara displays enormous range in her character, as she progresses through a spectrum of emotions from childlike elation, to rage, and finally arriving at begrudging acceptance. In one of the film’s key scenes, we observe her attending a noh play with her father, as she sneaks furtive glances at Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake) sitting in the audience, the woman she thinks will displace her as her father’s caretaker. In this dialogue-free scene, accompanied only by the mournful song of the play, we can feel her inner turmoil as she warily regards the rival for her father’s affections. Noriko is a portrait of quiet grace bursting under pressure, imposed by her well-intentioned family, friends and societal expectations.
Noriko’s father, Shukichi Somiya, is the other key player in this family drama. His calm exterior and soft-spoken, amiable nature masks his conflicted interior. He outwardly dismisses the fact that Noriko has already found her happiness at home with him, but he’s ambivalent about letting her go. He’s also aware that he won’t always be around for her, and cognizant that her finding a mate will inevitably break up their dyadic relationship. One of Somiya’s challenges is convincing Noriko that marriage isn’t an end, but a beginning. He observes, “Somehow she got the idea in her head that marriage is life’s graveyard.” After observing her spending time with her male friend Hattori (Jun Usami), Somiya deduces (much to Noriko’s chagrin) that Hattori would be the perfect husband for her. He’s surprised to learn that Hattori is already engaged to marry someone else, but this seems to be the catalyst that sets in motion Somiya’s determination to help Noriko in spite of herself. At this point, he schemes with her aunt to find a suitable husband.
Apparently joining in this conspiracy is Noriko’s best friend, Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) a modern woman in a rapidly changing Japan. Divorced, and living alone as a stenographer, Aya reflects the changing roles of women in Japanese society. She isn’t in a hurry to enter a relationship with another man, but paradoxically encourages Noriko to “…hurry up and get married.”
Late Spring reflects Ozu’s fascination with marriage, which was often a recurring theme in his films. Ironically, in his own life, Ozu’s never married, and chose to live with his mother until her death. Another recurring conceit is that Ozu never spells out the answers for us about Noriko’s inevitable decision to marry, nor are we privy to all the details and signposts other filmmakers normally include. We never actually see her fiancé Satake, but his physical presence is irrelevant to the story, because the audience already senses his influence and what he represents for Noriko. Late Spring’s story unfolds without obvious protagonists or antagonists. The decisions made in the film are not clearly right or wrong. They simply acknowledge that life is often messy, with no easy choices.
Fatalism is another theme, woven throughout the film. By the time her wedding occurs (which never appears onscreen), the atmosphere seems more appropriate for a wake. A death of another kind has occurred. Noriko is resigned to her fate, rather than excited about her life transition. When prompted by Somiya, her enthusiasm seems forced and disingenuous. Their final trip together as father and daughter is bittersweet. As they go to sleep, Ozu’s lens lingers on a large vase, apparently the source of much debate among film scholars. If I had to venture a guess about its significance, perhaps the vase signifies she has made peace with her decision to marry Satake, and it exists as a symbolic vessel to isolate her misgivings.
The final scene suggests a zero-sum solution, in which no one really benefits. Noriko has gained a husband but lost the special relationship with her father. Somiya managed to marry off his only daughter, but at the price of his loneliness. In the end, we’re left to wonder if she’s truly better off. There are no simple answers. Late Spring is an enduring classic because Ozu trusts the audience’s intelligence to cope with ambiguity and fill in the blanks. Its themes of life transition, social obligations and compromising ideals at the service of others span geographic and cultural barriers.