Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. Japan. 1949.
Reviewed by Howard Schumann and Alan Pavelin

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The concept of mono no aware is said to define the essence of Japanese culture. The phrase means "a sensitivity to things", the ability to experience a direct connection with the world without the necessity of language. Yasujiro Ozu sums up this philosophy in Late Spring, a serene depiction of the acceptance of life's inevitabilities and the sadness that follows it. The film shows the pressure in Japanese families for children to be married as the "natural order" of things, regardless of their wishes. One wonders if Ozu, who never married, is sharing his own family experience with us.

In Late Spring, a widowed Professor, Somiya (Chishu Ryu), must face the inevitability of giving up his daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) to marriage. Noriko, however, wants only to continue to live at home and care for her father and insists that marriage is not for her. Yet the social pressure to marry continues to build, coming not only from her father but also from Somiya's sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) whom she calls "Auntie", and from a friend, the widower Onodera (Masao Mishima) who has recently remarried. Masa, unrelenting, presents Noriko with a prospect named Satake who reminds her of actor Gary Cooper, but she is still reluctant. To make it easier for Noriko to decide, Somiya tells her that he is planning to remarry and she will no longer need to take care of him. Noriko's agonizes over her decision and her once beaming face increasingly carries hints of resignation. At the end, the old man sits alone peeling a piece of fruit as the ocean waves signal the inexorable flow of timeless things. 

Howard Schumann

Many people, including the current editor of Halliwell’s Film Guide, rate Yasujiro Ozu’s magisterial Tokyo Story (1953) as the best film ever made.  Less well-known is Late Spring (Banshun), made four years earlier, which would surely rank as Ozu’s finest were it not for the 1953 masterpiece.

Featuring many of the same actors as Tokyo Story, including Ozu’s alter ego Chishu Ryu who starred in virtually every film he made, Late Spring is a little more “Japanese” in the sense that it opens with a traditional tea ceremony and includes an extended excerpt from a Noh play (a beautiful scene which drives the story forward).  So it lacks a little of the universality of Tokyo Story, but in its own way it is perhaps even more perfect.

The film is the first of six which the actress Setsuko Hara would make with Ozu, and is the first of the so-called “Noriko trilogy”, so called because she plays a character of that name in Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story.  Following Ozu’s death in 1963 Hara, by now one of the biggest stars of Japanese cinema and known as “the eternal virgin”, abruptly announced her retirement, reverted to her original name, and went into lifelong seclusion.

The film’s title refers not just to the time of year in which it is presumably set, but also to the time in Noriko’s life; while still eligible for marriage, she is a few years past the age at which most of her friends married.  In fact she sees her role as looking after her widowed father, and brushes off all suggestions from father, aunt, and friends that a husband should be found for her.  Not only that, but she regards as “unclean” the notion of her father’s friend, a widower, marrying a much younger woman.  So when she comes to believe that her father has just that intention for himself she is horrified, and reluctantly agrees to become betrothed to a man found for her by her aunt.   

Ozu’s trademark style is well-established by this time: a seldom-moving camera held permanently at the level of a seated person, characters often speaking straight to camera, shots held for a while after characters have left the room, and scene changes marked by shots of buildings or landscapes.  Other characteristic little touches include, for example, instances of a character who, on leaving a room at the end of a scene, returns briefly to pick something up from the floor or a table.

Three scenes in Late Spring are particularly memorable, beautiful, and important.  The first is the aforementioned Noh scene, lasting several minutes.  In the audience are Noriko, her father, and the woman she believes her father is to marry.  With the only on-screen sound coming from the Noh performers, a sequence of looks and glances between these three characters tells us all we need to know.

The second memorable scene comes during a trip to Osaka, after Noriko has reluctantly agreed to marry.  After going to bed, with Noriko lying awake while her father has just fallen asleep, we twice see a shot of a vase silhouetted in the twilight, an archetypal Ozu shot signifying stasis, a coming to rest, a decision finally made and accepted.

Following a little plot-twist (always assuming that an Ozu film can be said to have a “plot”), there is the famous closing scene, where the father, left alone after Noriko’s wedding, silently and sadly starts to peel an apple as tears come to his eyes.  “Life is disappointing”, as another Noriko says in Tokyo Story, and as is the theme of nearly all Ozu’s later films.  The very final shot of waves breaking on the seashore indicates that life goes on, as generation succeeds generation. 

Alan Pavelin
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