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Early Summer

Early Summer

By Arpad Lukacs • January 13th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: October 3rd, 1951
Running time: 125 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese

Director: Yasujir? Ozu
Writers: Kogo Noda, Yasujir? Ozu

Cast: Setsuko Hara, Chikage Awashima, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Shûji Sano

Early Summer

I’ve been looking forward to watching Yasujir? Ozu’s Early Summer for quite a while. When I first saw his widely known classic Tokyo Story (1953), I didn’t know the film was part of a trilogy – a thematic trilogy in which the stories take place in separate universes but are linked together by actress Setsuko Hara playing a single woman named Noriko in post-war Japan. When I later watched my second film from the “Noriko Trilogy”, Late Spring (1949), I was surprised to find that I couldn’t help but like it more than Tokyo Story. Those stranger scenes where Ozu ventures towards surrealism intrigued me and I loved its commentary on conservative ideology and how it becomes incompatible with the world when taken to the extreme. So Early Summer was quickly put onto my ‘to watch’ list so I can finally take a look at the trilogy as one piece.

I really like that this is a trilogy in which the three pieces are distinctly different in spite of the Noriko theme being a very specific element linking them together. Noriko is once again a single woman in a world that perceives her as someone who is running out of time at the age of 28 to find a suitable husband. She lives within a traditional extended family; her parents, her brother, his wife and their children all under the same roof. Much of the plot revolves around Noriko’s family and others making it their mission to find Noriko a husband and then persuade her to get married before it’s ‘too late’. Although a choice is made – without Noriko’s approval – things get complicated as well as comical when even the meddlers begin to fall out about how to meddle.

Early Summer

It’s strange to watch this ‘horse race’ from the present of the 21st century, many of the characters seem genuinely stressed out as if time was really running out for Noriko, but this is of course only the ‘time’ that was set by social conventions and cannot be rationalised in any other way. The dialogue addresses post-war feminism in Japan most notably at a dinner scene with Noriko, her grumpy older brother Koichi (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake). The only man at the table begrudges a changing world and is outnumbered by two giggling ladies who clearly think his complaints are hilarious. In the midst of that however, Noriko makes a serious point saying that women haven’t become ‘too forward’ but merely took their natural place in a world where men used to have too much power.

Besides the plot and the social commentary of the era, what I found most intriguing was what I perceived as lesbian subtext. Subtext it is, although it’s also directly addressed in the dialogue along with other social issues. Nevertheless, when we look a little bit further along this particular line, a completely different story reveals itself. Noriko and her friend Aya (Chikage Awashima) are very close allies when it comes to Early Summermaking an argument against marriage. They tease their married friends endlessly, and in a fascinating scene these friends literally move seats to be further away from their unmarried counterparts in the midst of a playful disagreement.

As the film progressed, I became increasingly certain that Noriko and Aya might be a couple. In the scene where this possibility is actually spoken, Aya tells Noriko’s boss (Shûji Sano) that she has a large collection of pictures of Kathrine Hepburn to which he promptly asks if Noriko likes women and even tells Aya that she should teach Noriko “everything”. Aya is offended and denies everything, but it’s interesting to think about why she went to talk to Noriko’s boss in the first place: she’s investigating how Noriko feels about the idea of getting married to the man that was chosen for her by her anxious family. Maybe Aya is worried about losing Noriko.

In this context, Early Summer has a really tragic end. When we ignore the subtext, the film actually seems very progressive as Noriko chooses a different man to marry – defying her family and what is accepted as social norm. But to me it seemed that she merely submitted to pressure coming from others and she eventually chose the only man – by her own admission – whom she could trust, because they knew each other since childhood. I tend to be cautious with subtext because I don’t like to read things into films pointlessly, but when it’s there, it’s there and it should be pointed out. I have very little doubt that Noriko and Aya are meant to be a couple in Ozu’s Early Summer, in spite of finding no academic material focusing on their relationship. Telling the story of this relationship, the film shows post-war Japan was becoming increasingly progressive due to western influence, but not progressive enough to accommodate Noriko and Aya’s relationship.

Early Summer

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

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”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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