Our film club title this August will be Yasujiro Ozu’s 1949 film Late Spring, which is a quiet and unhurried story about a young woman living with her widowed father. The father would like her to marry, but she is hesitant to do so, not wanting to desert him.
With its theme of marriage, and the fact that the main character suffers from an illness caught during the war, the film has some level of thematic connection with Kurosawa’s The Quiet Duel, which we watched last month and which was released two years before Late Spring. A case could furthermore be made that on a deeper level both films are also about the succession and birth of a new generation in occupation era Japan.
Typically considered the first of Ozu’s mature works (James Bell, in the booklet of the recent BFI release), Late Spring was Ozu’s third post-war film, his first post-war film with his frequent writing partner Kogo Noda, and his first altogether with actress Setsuko Hara. The film’s story was later remodelled as Late Autumn (1960) and And Autumn Afternoon (1962) in a fashion typical of Ozu, who once famously likened himself to a tofu maker who was able to craft a wide variety types of tofu dishes, but at the end of the day they would all still be tofu, not beef steak or tempura.
Late Spring is also the first film in the so-called “Noriko Trilogy”, which all feature young women called Noriko, played by Setsuko Hara. The connection between the films is thematic, as the Norikos in the three films are not the same individual. Our film club will be watching the other two films next year, with Early Summer (1951) scheduled for April 2012, and Tokyo Story (1953) for June.
While Late Spring may come across as a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated film — Donald Richie in Japanese Film describes the plot in three short sentences and concludes that it is “all there is to the story” (277) — the film has nevertheless been fairly extensively discussed.
One of the features picked up by many critics is the film’s inclusion of numerous symbols of traditional Japanese customs, which are contrasted with almost equally ubiquitous symbols of Western influence, including a very prominent Coca Cola sign towards the beginning of the film. What the purpose of this contrast is remains open for debate. David Bordwell in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema writes that “[n]o other Ozu film is so saturated with the iconography of a certain ‘Japaneseness’ — the tea ceremony, Zen gardens, temples, noh drama, the landscape around Kyoto, the seasonal cycle referred to in the title. Yet, this iconography is used for a specific ideological purpose: to show that Japanese tradition can be reconciled with the new liberalism of the Occupation era.” (307) James Bell (BFI booklet) agrees with this view, noting that “Ozu tells us that traditional Japanese customs can be reconciled with the changes brought by the Occupation.”
Lars-Martin Sorensen, who writes on the film quite extensively in his Censorship of Japanese Cinema (135-181), views the significance of these references in very different terms. He points out that Late Spring was conceived at a time when marriage laws in Japan were changing; a new law came into effect on January 1st 1948, which granted people over the age of 20 the right to marry without parental consent. By examining Late Spring‘s progress through the occupation censorship system, from its possible origins in an unfilmed 1947 script, to a synopsis, to a manuscript, to a finished film, and further to Ozu’s later permutations of the same theme in later films, Sorensen builds an argument that Ozu was deliberately and delicately leading the censors astray with what Sorensen calls at times “mocking” compliance of censorship requirements, while at the same time having the core of the film feature a deeper meaning which was strongly critical of the westernising influence of the occupation.
As is typical of Ozu’s works, also many individual details and sequences in the film have generated a wealth of discussion. According to Abé Mark Nornes (essay in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, 78-89), a brief sequence of shots found towards the end of Late Spring has in fact been the source of often conflicting interpretations on a level like nothing else in Ozu’s cinema. The sequence in question is seen towards the end of the film as the daughter and father lie on their futons in Kyoto, with the father already asleep. Ozu cuts between Noriko and long shots of a vase, raising the question about the meaning of the vase and the way Noriko’s expression between these shots changes. After quoting from various film scholars like Schrader, Burch, Richie, Thompson, Bordwell, Cazdyn and Yoshimoto, and in doing so also tracing the history of Ozu scholarship in the English speaking world, Nornes ultimately concludes by praising the multi-layered nature of Ozu’s works and writing that “it would perhaps signify the end of the discipline [of Japanese film studies] itself if someone, sometime in the future, ever imagined a way definitely to explain that vase in Late Spring.” Despite therefore risking the end of all Japanese film studies as we know it, it would be interesting to hear your takes on the scene in question, and what in your opinion the purpose of the vase is, if indeed anything at all.
At the time of its release, Late Spring was very well received, in fact winning the Kinema Junpo critics’ award as the best Japanese film of 1949. Sorensen notes that although some critics have later considered Late Spring a progressive film, contemporary reviews of the film overwhelmingly described it as “old fashioned”, although not necessarily in a bad sense. (146)
For further reading and pointers for good sources I can recommend the Wikipedia article on Late Spring, which covers the film quite extensively (especially for Wikipedia), mainly thanks to the recent and on-going efforts of our forum regular dylanexpert. Dylanexpert also suggested to me Norman N. Holland’s online essay which deals with the significance of the noh play featured in the film, and this is a background reading suggestion that I am happy to pass on to all of you.
Next month the film club will be watching Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. For information about the availability of the film, see the Akira Kurosawa DVD guide. For more information about the Akira Kurosawa film club, see the film club page.