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One of the most powerful of the family portraits by Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), Late Spring tells the story of a widowed father who feels compelled to marry off his beloved only daughter. Eminent Ozu players Chishu Ryu (There Was a Father) and Setsuko Hara (Late Autumn) command this poignant tale of love and loss in postwar Japan, which remains as potent today as ever and as strong a justification for its maker's inclusion in the pantheon of cinema's greatest directors.
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After having seen and loving Tokyo Story, a film which is widely considered to be not only master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s best film, but also one of the greatest films ever made, I was very eager to see more. Many consider Late Spring another of his absolute best works so it seemed like a logical next choice, and I can happily say that it most definitely met my very high expectations. As with Tokyo Story, this a deep, masterfully-executed and penetrating film examining family life in Japan and the societal and generational pressures which shape and mold it, for better or for worse.
As with Tokyo Story, we enter this tale of father, Shukichi Somiya, and daughter, Noriko Somiya, in the middle. 27-year-old Noriko lives together with her father and they appear to be very close. Naturally, questions begin to arise in the mind of the viewer: where is Noriko’s mother and why hasn’t she ever married? Ozu does a fantastic job of coaxing these questions out in the film’s early stages and gives us hints at what has transpired, but never spoon-feeds us by explicitly explaining the backstory. We learn that Noriko had been seriously ill at one point during a period of war and hardship, but has since recovered. Her mother is a mystery for much of the film, but it slowly becomes clear that she has died and that Shukichi is a widower. With this context, the film examines the father-daughter relationship between Noriko and Shukichi and the pressures on them both to have Noriko finally marry and “leave the nest”, so to speak.
The strength of this film (and Tokyo Story alike) is how subtly and effectively it tells this story. The screenplay and pacing of the film are phenomenal in slowly and carefully peeling back the layers of the family dynamic. Throughout the film we question the actions and underlying motivations of each of the characters. By the end, the full vision snaps into focus and we are left with a melancholy ending that really sneaks up and packs quite an emotional punch.
Let’s begin with Noriko. For the length of the movie she is adamantly against marriage, especially re-marriage. As the details of the backstory filter in, her reasoning begins to become clear. Noriko lost her mother which has obviously affected her very much. As a result, she is very close with her father and wary of leaving him behind. Her mother’s death obviously must have been very hard for her father as well, and she references the fact that he needs her to take care of him. She feels that she must be there for him because she fears he may be lonely if she leaves and won’t be able to cope as a widower. She is also understandably protective of her father – she is afraid to lose him like she did her mother. Thus, she can’t bear the thought of him ever remarrying which, in her mind, could potentially jeopardize their relationship. As the film progresses though, pressures on Noriko to get married come from all sides – her aunt, father, and best friend (and ironically, divorcée) all urging her that she must take this long overdue and necessary step. To her, the relationship she has with her father is more than enough and brings her contentment. However, she is made to feel like she is being selfish in staying home with him, especially when it is suggested that he wishes to remarry. Thus, she eventually gives into these pressures and marries at the end of the film, but is clearly devastated and unhappy with her choice.
Shukichi can be analyzed in the same way. He seems to be very happy with his daughter home and with the lives they are leading together. It isn’t until his sister, Masa, makes the observation that Noriko has gone far too long without marrying, that he begins to question things. He too begins to pressure Noriko that she must marry, and begins to insinuate that he wishes to remarry as well and that she need not worry about taking care of him. Many conversations seem to have taken place between Shukichi and Masa off-screen, as at the end of the movie it is revealed that Shukichi’s plans for remarriage were fabricated by both he and Masa in order to influence Noriko in her decision. Shukuchi feigns happiness at Noriko’s wedding (as does Noriko… quite poorly), but at the end of the film we see him return home to his empty house in a devastating scene where his true distress becomes apparent.
In this moment, the movie strikes a powerful note as we realize neither Noriko nor Shukichi wanted for this marriage to happen and neither are happy with the outcome. They were both made to feel selfish by others around them – Shukichi for keeping Noriko home so long with him and Noriko for keeping her father from remarrying. In reality, neither of these two things are true, but the characters are made to believe them through the pressures of their family and friends. Now, they find themselves in places that neither of them wanted or needed, but that society has deemed “correct” for them.
It’s a poignant and thoughtful tale which is marvelously achieved by the strength of spectacular direction and acting. Setsuko Hara is absolutely radiant and Noriko. She shines in every single scene and has such an effortless quality to her acting that makes her every move feel completely natural. There is quite a lot of subtlety to her performance as well, as Noriko constantly hides her true feelings behind a big smile and a pleasant demeanor. This subtlety and depth of performance extends to Chishû Ryû as Shukichi as well, who is equally brilliant as a caring father who is conflicted between keeping his daughter by his side and shooing her out the door to a more socially acceptable life.
And everything of course is tied together by Ozu’s absolutely masterful direction. He is able to frame his characters in such a respectful and gentle way that is never judgmental. And although this is a relatively sad story, it never feels like a condemnation of Japanese family values. Ozu’s strength is that he is able to simply present the story as it is, asserting that such is the nature of life and the pressures we all face. He doesn’t blame his characters or anyone else for the way things play out, he just ruminates on the existence of these family dynamics and their effect on the lives we lead. The end result is a powerful film that is deep, thought-provoking, and emotionally resonant.
But this doesn't convey the depth of feeling, and the profound revelation of human connections and ultimate loneliness of living. After the daughter is engaged - we never see her prospective partner - the father & daughter take a final trip from their home city of Kamakura to visit Kyoto. As the visit ends, just they are packing, the daughter tells her father that she doesn't want to marry, that she is happiest living with him. In response though he tells her she must leave him, that this is "the pattern of the circle of human life"; and that she will make a new happiness with her partner.
The wedding, which we never see, has happened. The father sits alone peeling a fruit, the peels drops, and his loneliness is all-enveloping. Waves break on the Kamakura shore...
With this perspective, I think this is his most stylish work, he started to frame his shots, established his camera angle, and build his beautiful props, cut to his pace all in this one film.
I enjoyed all of his films, but this one is very dear to my heart, as I watched them all and came back to this one, it almost gives me a feeling - yes, this is it. This is where Ozu found his mark, and I can see all of it coming together for his later masterpieces.
I do believe a true artist should not sell himself out to the commercial interest, but a true artist needs to survive and prosper like everyone else, the greatness of Ozu, at least from my personal perspective, was his willingness to take the post war melodramatic Japanese studio works, and he did these with his own style, he sighed and mocked sometime the unbearable loneliness of being in a fast changing, morally decadent society, but he never pointed it out flatly to you, he does not shout out the idioms, you will need to find it yourself, but it is all there, after many years passing by you, you will smile, nod your head and finally say to him: I understand it now.