Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ozu's Late Spring

Late Spring: Criterion Collection
Criterion // 1949 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening shot
A widowed father feels compelled to marry off his beloved only daughter in a poignant tale of love and loss in postwar Japan.

Late Spring (Banshun) marks part one of director Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy, continuing with Early Summer (Bakushû) and culminating in his acknowledged masterpiece, Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari). With this release of Late Spring in a fine two-disc set, The Criterion Collection now offers the complete trilogy on DVD; all come highly recommended.

A Bit of Plot…
Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chisyu Ryu) devotes himself to his work. His adult daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) runs the house since her mother died. Father and daughter live an insular life until the meddling of well-intentioned friends and family interrupt their quiet world.

The professor’s annoying sister Masa Taguchi (Haruko Sugimura) urges Noriko to marry and proposes several prospects. When these aborted romances fail to catch fire, Masa tells her niece of plans to unite pretty young widow Miwa (Kuniko Miyake) and Shukichi. Noriko’s father plays along with this scheme, hoping his imminent remarriage will encourage Noriko to move on with her own life and find a husband.

Misinterpreting a conversation between her father and the pretty widow during the performance of a play, Noriko realizes in an epiphany that the essence of life is change, and life with her beloved father cannot continue indefinitely.

Historical Context and Significance
Ozu’s astonishingly restrained film reflects the quiet tensions of generational conflict within a Japanese family, which serves perhaps as a microcosm for the oppression of society’s expectations in a rigidly traditional culture. Looking at it another way, the great director (at right) devoted much of his career to an examination of familial disintegration and, by extension, profound changes in postwar Japan. But this is not merely a film about another culture in a specific time and place. Ozu’s themes are universal — family, love, death, marriage, divorce — and this is why his films still endure in an age of hyperkinetic editing, flash cuts, computer-driven special effects and formulaic plots that feel stale before the opening credits are over.

Solemn, painterly compositions of delicate beauty are a hallmark of the Ozu style, as well as a penchant for unusual transitional shots that hold interest because the cuts defy our expectations. A scene of two characters entering an art exhibit will be followed by a quick shot of the sign for the exhibit. This precedes an immediate cut to a restaurant sign and another cut showing the same characters dining inside, all of which neatly condenses time to suggest how fleeting our moments of happiness can be, while propelling the narrative with maximum economy.

Ozu often locks his camera in place and shoots in a documentary style. When the lens is free to roam, he invariably moves the camera at the same pace as the actors crossing his frame, so while they are in motion they also appear frozen in space. This creates a curious visual effect, as though the director is calling our attention to nothing less than the temporal state of existence. I don’t mean to go Zen on you (that was Ozu’s prerogative). Rather, the director gently prods his audience to think. And one message that might be considered is this: life fades away. Ozu conveys his ideas with such conviction, in such a calm and understated way, as to make the work of many directors seem exasperatingly pretentious.

In his Noriko trilogy, Ozu employs his stock company of actors, especially Ryu and Hara, although they all play different roles in each film. So Noriko in Late Spring is actually a different character in subsequent films. The theme, however, remains the same — life is change.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Criterion delivers a nice two-disc package with a modest selection of interesting supplements, although the source materials were evidently challenging to restore. More on that in a moment.

Disc One features the film with optional audio commentary by Richard Peña, program director of New York Film Society’s Lincoln Center. Disc Two contains Tokyo-Ga, director Wim Wenders’s documentary tribute to Ozu. Filmed in 1985, this 92-minute feature includes running narration by Wenders, who declares Ozu “a sacred treasure of the cinema.” Interviews with actors who worked with Ozu for decades are interspersed with contemporary Tokyo street life. Wenders shoots these scenes in imitation of Ozu’s distinctive style, although the color film stock curiously undercuts the impact (Ozu worked in color only late in his career, although his stark black-and-white films are unmistakably the work of a visionary artist). Like Ozu, Wenders’s thematic concern is change, transition. I have often found Wenders’s films to be maddeningly obtuse, but this tribute feature was a refreshing and enjoyable exception.

A 22-page booklet of essays and stills from the film rounds out the supplemental material.

The Contrarian View
Although audio restoration tools were employed to clean up the sound, Criterion notes that “viewers may notice significant distortion in the soundtrack, owing to the age and condition of the extant film elements.” To that, add the innumerable scratches and lines across the image itself, during virtually the entire running length of the film. I wouldn’t want to imagine what this film looked like before Criterion undertook the restoration effort, but I concede the transfer probably looks the best it can.


Ozu is an acquired taste, but one well worth cultivating. Lat Spring is a stately, meditative film that rewards the patient viewer.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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