Original release: September 13th, 1949
Running time: 108 minutes
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Writers: Kogo Noda, Kazuo Hirotsu
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Cast: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura
If you can name just one film from the body of work of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, that film is very likely to be the wonderfully simple and yet profoundly moving Tokyo Story (1953).
Four years prior to that the director made Late Spring, which along with Tokyo Story and Early Summer (1951) made a trilogy of sorts generally called the “Noriko trilogy”. These three films have completely separate narratives, but have certain thematic similarities and are tied together by actress Setsuko Hara playing a character called Noriko – a single woman in post-war Japan.
I saw Late Spring after Tokyo Story and therefore that film shaped my expectations for the first ‘Noriko film’. It took me by surprise; it’s quite clear that the principle of simplicity so consistent throughout Tokyo Story was not driving the director when making Late Spring. Style and auteurship are much more visible here while the film tells a realistic coming-of-age story from Japan’s American occupied censorship-era.
The Noriko of Late Spring is living with her widowed father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). She is the only child and is quite happy taking care of her father’s everyday needs and being in charge of the household. She is, however, twenty-seven years old and unmarried; which prompts her father and aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) to gently push her towards finding a man.
Much of the narrative revolves around Noriko resisting these attempts, while revealing she’s a true conservative at heart. While in this day and age being a conservative is often defined by one’s stance on specific issues like gay marriage or abortion, Noriko reminds us that conservatism at its core is all about resisting change. Film critic Phillip Lopate puts Noriko into context by contrasting her behaviour with the rapidly changing morals of post-war Japan:
Like it often seems to be the case with social conservatives, Noriko resists change until change happens. A glaring example of this is when Noriko tells one of her father’s friends Professor Onodera (Masao Mishima) – who was also widowed and recently remarried – that she finds the idea of remarriage unnatural, distasteful and unclean. She’s strikingly upfront about it and incredibly rude by any standard of conversation, but fortunately for her, Professor Onodera finds her views really funny.
Noriko holds this opinion until she meets the professor’s wife and sees them together; then she realises that two people making each other happy couldn’t be any further from distasteful.
There are several intriguingly puzzling scenes in Late Spring. One of the most discussed is what is generally called the “vase scene”, in which Noriko is shown at night before falling asleep. She stares at the ceiling with a smile, from which the camera cuts to a vase and rests there for six seconds. Then suddenly Noriko is shown again but now with a very solemn and melancholic expression which is again replaced with another shot of the vase – this time even longer, lasting for ten seconds.
Another mysterious scene is when aunt Masa circles in Noriko’s room just before her wedding. This scene apparently took a number of takes with actress Haruko Sugimura thinking that the scene is about her character looking around in Noriko’s room with a sense of nostalgia. Ozu had her do this three times before approving, and the final result feels really quite strange and unnatural.
I could point out a many more scenes that put a puzzled expression on my face when watching the film, and I eventually began to see Late Spring as something of a surrealist film. I found myself trying to decipher Ozu’s intentions much like I do when watching the works of David Lynch. These elements of surrealism weaved into social realism makes it a very unique viewing.
Comparison between Tokyo Story and Late Spring is probably pointless, and yet I couldn’t help myself; the first film of the Noriko trilogy was a very exciting watch with its mysterious clues wrapped into the stylish presentation from a director who was willing to express his ideas through visuals.
Noriko’s conservative ideology confronted by the reality of the world around her makes a thematically strong film underlined by Setsuko Hara’s wonderful performance. The strong and straightforward story punctuated by scenes and visual techniques that left me wondering what else is waiting to be discovered makes Late Spring a brilliant and highly recommended Japanese film.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.