Monday, January 11, 2016

Early Summer (1951)

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, Chikage Awashima, Ichiro Sugai, Chieko Higashiyama, Kuniko Miyake, Zen Murase, Isao Shirosawa, Hiroshi Nihonyanagi
Distribution: Shochiku
Length: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Early Summer is often grouped with Yasujiro Ozu's other post-war masterpieces Late Spring and Tokyo Story as part of the unofficial "Noriko trilogy."  Each film features a character named Noriko, played by Setsuko Hara, who becomes the center of a conflict between generations.  Also, though none of these films directly treat on the state of post-war Japan, World War II always looms in the background as something everyone would like to forget, but can't.  The characters in these films find themselves tied up in tradition, their attachment to their memories from before the war, and the changing of the world around them.

These films focus on how people move between different stages of life. Their focus on tradition is primarily a matter of how tradition affects this process. To some extent, traditions are designed to help organize it and make it easier. But they also hold their own intrinsic appeal: people come to value them for their own sake. This draw to tradition makes things difficult for the families in Early Summer. Their generational succession has been disrupted. They lost time together as a family unit because of the war.

Early Summer, in a more explicit way than Late Spring and Tokyo Story, uses the post-war climate as an example of an inescapable external factor that demands change. The world looks different in each succeeding film of the Noriko trilogy.

The film is centered around the Mamiya family in Tokyo.  The main character is Noriko, who lives with her elderly parents Shige and Shukichi, her brother Koichi, her sister-in-law Fumiko, and her nephews Minoru and Isamu.  Noriko and Koichi had a brother named Shoji who was killed in World War II.  The Mamiyas feel that it's about time for the 28-year-old Noriko to marry, but although Noriko doesn't outright refuse, she doesn't seem very interested.

Instead of constructing a plot around some event from beyond the ordinary, Ozu and co-writer Kogo Noda evoke the patterns of daily life and show their characters changing naturally and inexorably. What makes Early Summer an ideal slice-of-life movie is how rigorously it tries to make the viewer understand the spatial layout of each environment, repeatedly returning not just to the same locations but to the same ways of shooting each location and characters moving along the same paths through them. As a result, it's more noticeable whenever there's a change in the way the image of a location is composed.

This is important because in Early Summer, the interplay between the characters depends on how they affect the setting around them. The characters all use their judgment differently (as demonstrated by an early scene involving a discussion of dinner etiquette), and the resulting compromise plays out on the screen in the spaces between them. The environments of Early Summer are helpful constructs; Ozu uses multiple establishing shots when introducing a location, so that we understand his film's settings are intimate pictures of a larger world. Then, every frame within each location functions in three dimensions and with an emphasis on geometry. The characters move along the lines of the environment, but also alter the placement of objects and their own position relative to other characters. When a scene ends, Ozu will linger from a distance, observing the characters and environments equally.

He will also, however, link characters across locations to contrast them. Consider the scene in which Noriko and her friend Aya discuss the absence of an old classmate of theirs named Takako: Takako had told Noriko she would pay her a visit, but later claimed she couldn't come because her father was ill; Aya knew this was a lie, leading her and Noriko to discuss how people who are close as children eventually drift apart as adults. As Noriko and Aya lift their drinks to their mouths, Ozu cuts to Shige and Shukichi in a different location, making the same motion. Shige and Shukichi contemplate how their current state of life may be the happiest they will ever experience because, while they still live with their children's company, each of their children has a secure future. They're happy to have this time, but only because they know it will eventually slip away when their children move away.

Here, while the aging young express wistfulness at the loss of their past, the elderly express gratefulness for the immediate moment. Both contrast with the depiction of children in the film, who talk almost exclusively about anticipation of future gratification. The film shows Noriko's adaptation to the life of someone who is no longer young (hence the title "Early Summer," a seasonal metaphor for the period of Noriko's life depicted). In the end, when she decides to marry, and therefore stake her future happiness on something, she chooses someone with a connection to her memories, even though her relationship with him will subject her to major changes in her immediate circumstances.

When Noriko tells her family about her decision to marry, they're visibly hurt that she made the choice without telling them first. Later, her parents contemplate whether they should move on and unconditionally give their blessing; they decide it would be the right thing to do, even though Noriko will do as she pleases regardless. In an expression of love, both for Noriko and for their own sakes, they adapt to a change in their circumstances.

The film also offers an escape from compromise and reconciliation at this point. Noriko and Fumiko visit a beach together and talk about the former's marriage plans, saying some things about the factors of her decision that they couldn't have said earlier for the sake of accommodating the other people in the room. The beach lacks the rigorously composed lines and layers of the film's previous environments; it's a freer space, not constructed for reconciliation, and it allows the characters to speak frankly.

I could hardly hold Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Ozu's 1932 comedy I Was Born, But... in any higher regard than I already do. So, to say Early Summer is my favorite of Ozu's films that I've seen is not something I say lightly. There's something broader and slightly less affected about it. But all these films are equal proof that Ozu was a great engineer of films, and of the brilliance of his collaborators.

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