Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Late Spring (1949)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writer: Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda
DP: Yuuharu Atsuta
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Score: Senji Ito
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
Starring: Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Yumeji Tsukioka
Distribution: Shochiku
Length: 1 hr. 48 min.

There is only one mention of World War II in Late Spring, not enough to say that the movie is directly about the post-war state of Japan or even the effect that war in general has on people. The film is broader than that.  But the war is very significant; it's present not as a political or social subject, but as a moment of upheaval.  The people in Late Spring are trying to recover from that, and consequently end up attempting to simultaneously make progress and retain the sense that nothing has changed.

Late Spring is the story of a woman named Noriko living with her father Shukichi in the late 1940s. We learn that Noriko used to suffer from illness due to the conditions during the war.  Her mother died during that period as well, of unspecified causes.  Noriko's friends and relatives insist that she marry, but she always politely avoids the topic.  Shukichi appreciates having Noriko around, but is beginning to be swayed by the people who believe Noriko should marry and leave his household.

Those who want Noriko to marry use the logic that she needs to move onto the next stage of her life, that it would be healthy for her to live with someone other than her father and start a family of her own.  They tell Noriko that they'll help Shukichi get married too to ensure that he won't be left alone if she leaves him behind.  Their words and promises are supportive, yet it's impossible to shake the feeling that something isn't quite right about the way they're pressuring her; Noriko tells them straightforwardly that she's happy the way she is, but they assume offhand that this cannot be the case.  For all their concern, their dismissal of her opinion feels uncomfortably flagrant.

The film respects Noriko's claim to her own happiness; early on there's a bright, cheerful scene in which she bikes along the road near the coast with a male friend named Hattori.  The camera is in motion for this entire scene; Ozu has a reputation for infrequently moving the camera, but movement is employed here with the purpose of allowing the characters freedom of movement without dwarfing them in a large space or distancing them from the audience.  Noriko's relatives question why she doesn't consider marrying Hattori, but she tells them he's already engaged to be married.  So, we know that she's not held back from being content by the state in which she already lives. It's worth noting that as Noriko bikes with Hattori, they pass a rather noticeable Coca-Cola sign. Her preferences are further distanced from the demands of tradition by relation to westernization.

On the other hand, Noriko herself embodies the irreconcilable tension between wanting to find a satisfying future and wanting everything to return to the way it was in the past.  She criticizes her father's friend for remarrying after the death of his wife, which doesn't particularly offend him, but is markedly unfair nonetheless.  She lives a nontraditional life, but has trouble accepting another person's choices for their own happiness because they speak to the instability of her position; if Shukichi's friend could remarry, then Shukichi could also remarry, which would be the death knell for the life she lived with him before the war.

Conversations in Late Spring play out with both characters visible in the frame until the topic of Noriko's marriage comes up.  Then the film starts cutting between shots of the characters.  The rift between them when this conflict arises is felt more strongly because of this, and because of Ozu's preference to have shots of single characters be head-on medium shots with the character looking directly at us.  Ozu eliminates the implication of closeness between shots, and instead shows us performances full of forced smiles and passive-aggression.  Setsuko Hara in particular does an excellent job of conveying the total disdain behind her character's politeness.

There is one interpersonal disagreement for which the camera maintains both involved characters in the frame together.  This is the one disagreement with no passive-aggression, just open baring of emotion.  There are no more rationalizations, no more pretensions to courtesy.  The truth comes out: The characters are acting on emotional impulse.  That is, Noriko's relatives want her to conform to tradition because it would reassure them of their beliefs' persistence through time. They pick someone for Noriko to marry, but we never see him; the remedy for their uncertainty about the future only forces more uncertainty onto Noriko.

The end of Late Spring does not resolve this uncertainty.  There is no guarantee that any of the characters will get the satisfaction they hope for.  It doesn't insist that they're doomed either, thankfully.  Even so, the end of Late Spring feels desolate.  It isn't a premonition of dire things to come; it's a sign that Late Spring is a film of such compassion and empathy that for people to be impacted by loss and afflicted with anxiety is seen as a disaster.

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