My choosing of Late Spring as one of my picks derived mostly from laziness. Last year’s Criterion Month I watched Tokyo Story, the film often described as director Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece, and was thoroughly blown away by its ruminations on the human condition. But I never quite had the will to watch any of his other films, when there are always so many other newer, far less slow and contemplative movies out there to watch. Which makes me really glad I decided to take this opportunity to view one of his other films from the same period, but also a bit befuddled over what to write about it, since it’s fantastic in almost all of the same ways that Tokyo Story is fantastic.
For one, it was made by a lot of the same people, as this marks one of many collaborations between Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda, as well as with two of the main actors from Tokyo Story – Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara. Also, there’s plenty of the static, intimate camerawork featured in Tokyo Story, but I’m guessing that trademark is featured in many of Ozu’s films. Also the cultural differences between generations in post-war Japan is a huge part of the film, as is the way family influences these differences. So considering all these themes make an appearance in Tokyo Story, I’m having a bit of a hard time wrapping my mind around why exactly Late Spring is as great as it is, while also feeling so familiar.
Also, much like Tokyo Story, the amount of plot is pretty minimal. But the just of the plot is, Shukichi is a middle-aged widower living with one daughter, Noriko, who is 27-years old and not married. Which is a bit suspect in the eyes of Shukichi and the other people that inhabit these character’s lives. Though Noriko’s single-dom isn’t for lack of trying: early on in the film we get a lovely sequence of Noriko going for a bicycle ride with one of Shukichi’s co-workers, whom Noriko has a liking for. However, this is undercut when the man tells Shukichi he’s been engaged. Noriko’s feelings towards marriage are then tested even further when she sees her father falling for a new woman, while Noriko has her own (not terribly kind) opinions on her father getting remarried.
Clearly, a lot of this movie is about people’s relationship with the concept of marriage, which I think is kind of a perfect device for exploring Ozu’s fascination with modernity vs. tradition. These characters have their own specific opinions on what marriage should be, some of it based in tradition, some of it not. And because it isn’t just the elderly Shukichi who has the more traditional views on marriage or the younger Noriko having the more modern views on marriage, the contradictions here just makes these characters feel that much more nuanced and that much more carefully observed.
I think for these reasons, you could even make the case that this is a more interesting work than Ozu’s often regarded masterwork Tokyo Story. That story is pretty cut-and-dry in terms of its use of a family’s generational difference as the root of the differences in cultural expectations between the characters in that film. However, here you have characters grappling a bit more with how they are expected to act at this particular time in Japan, right after World War II. A time where a woman like Noriko could be encouraged to strike out on her own, all while she still feels a kind of comfort in the idea of staying at home and caring for her father.
That cultural complexity is also reflected in the visual style. It’s subtle for sure, but there are scenes of Ozu’s signature ground level shots of characters sitting on tatami mats. While at the same time, the movie opens on a scene of Shukichi and his business partner sitting at a desk, looking like a couple of money-hungry Americans. This post-war Americanization is also employed in the bicycle sequence in which we see a not-so-subtle Coca-Cola ad, or the fact that a trespassing sign is in both Japanese and English. Alternately, we see the characters juxtaposed against things like beautiful Shinto shrines or going to watch a traditional Noh performance.
But I think the ultimate triumph of Late Spring is in how it never judges the characters for the way they act. Shukichi and Norito are always depicted as being shaped by their circumstances, and just want to be happy, while encouraging each other to be happy. It makes for one hell of a father-daughter relationship, but also gets at the idea that in life there are no heroes or villains. There are only people doing the best they can, and there’s only so much time we have to understand where each other is coming from, so why not just sit down and listen?