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Film Club: Late Spring (Ozu 1949)

Late SpringOur 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.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

Vili, once again, you’ve written a great intro. I know you are not the greatest fan of Ozu, but this is my personal favourite Ozu film – I think its almost infinitely mysterious, as you can see from the vast array of writing and opinions on it. The only critical consensus seems to be that it is wonderful, but nobody seems to be able to agree why it is so great.

I watched Late Spring last night with a sort of double bill – Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhum). I knew the latter film was based on Late Spring, I didn’t realise until I saw it that it was really a re-make – Denis actually uses the word ‘stolen’ from Ozu in her interview in the DVD extras. Like Late Spring, its quite a remarkable film, and I love how Denis riffed on specific scenes in Late Spring – instead of a walk along the sea, for example, the two potential lovers jog along a canal bank. Instead of a vase, there is a rice cooker. Instead of Kyoto, the father and daughter visit Germany to see her mothers grave. And the version of the famous Noh scene is a drunken dance in a bar to some bosso nova and the Commodores.

Anyway, I’d recommend anyone looking at Late Spring for the first time to watch 35 Rhum as well, as I think it illuminates many aspects of Ozu’s film very well, while removing its ‘Japaneseness’. And its a terrific (if very slow moving) film in its own right.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks Ugetsu! I really liked Late Spring, and it left me with an urge to see more Ozu films, just like Tokyo Chorus did last year. I love his films, but somehow I tend to forget his brilliancy when not actually watching a film by him. And I don’t watch his films too often as somehow I seem to think of his films as something that needs a special time and place to enjoy them, and yet whenever I have in the past couple of years actually watched an Ozu film I have been truly mesmerised.

I’ll see if I can find 35 Rhum somewhere. I actually already have Claire Denis’s latest one, White Material, on the “to be watched” pile. So many films to see, so little time! I’m at a theatre festival this whole week, yet only feel like watching films…

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dylanexpert

I had started writing the Late Spring Wikipedia article some weeks ago, hoping to contribute something (relatively) short and sweet after the gargantuan Kurosawa article I had worked on last year. Yet now it seems that this piece on the single Ozu film might turn out to be (nearly) as long as the one covering *all* Kurosawa’s films! For I now realize, looking over so much of the literature on this movie, that there are as many ways of seeing it (and by extension all of Ozu) as there are people who love film. So let me contribute one perspective.

There seem to me to be two kinds of masters of cinema, as for the other arts: Clever Masters and Wise Ones. In cinema, the two greatest archetypes of the Clever Master are Alfred Hitchcock and (especially) Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane was, amazingly, Ozu’s favorite film. Pauline Kael famously, and typically, called Kane a “shallow masterpiece” (the oxymoron of all time) and I suspect that even many who today call it the greatest movie ever made might agree with her. Actually, Welles’ debut brilliantly depicts one of the deepest and most resonant of all great American themes — the futility of power — but nobody seems to care when confronted with Gregg Toland’s gorgeous deep focus photography, or Robert Wise’s dazzling editing, or the wonderful lines of Hermann J. Mankiewicz, all in the service of Welles’ vision.

But if Citizen Kane is like the highly intelligent but breathtaking woman that few take seriously precisely because of her outrageous beauty, the works of the Wise Master face a subtly different reception. They are respected, but their beauty seems somehow much less accessible and they make some viewers uneasy. The undeniable power of such films comes from something that is difficult for conventional minds to understand or accept and so even those elements in them that are obvious and straightforward (e.g., Noriko’s simple desire to go on living with her father) are seen as somehow enigmatic, inscrutable. It is assumed that they must contain some special message or hidden agenda, when all that they really have, which is unconcealed, is a (much) greater depth in exploring the sources of human joy and suffering.

Mystical significance is attached to these films, and they are sometimes even called “transcendent.” And while this sort of critical approach makes sense in some ways, the movies are really about what *can’t* be transcended: the pain of daily life and the even greater, and ineluctable, pain of loss. In a foolish world, the Wise Artist who somehow avoids destruction and self-destruction, gets put, conveniently, on a high pedestal, too far away for the terrible truths he has to convey to do any harm.

In the end, Ozu reminds me in so many ways of Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Ozu started out as a comedian, and if the great Russian writer’s very earliest tales read like scripts from some Slavic Saturday Night Live show, the gags in Ozu’s early silents wouldn’t be at all out of place in a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton two-reeler of the period. Slowly, as both the Russian and the Japanese begin to take their respective arts more seriously, age and gravity take over, and their vision darkens and deepens. Just as so many people still say that “nothing happens” in the plays and stories of Chekhov, so they claim that “nothing happens” in Ozu’s movies, though it seems to me that everything happens in them. (It is really the films full of explosions and car chases in which “nothing happens.”) Finally, Chekhov in The Three Sisters and The Ravine and Ozu in Tokyo Story can confront us with the gravest and most unanswerable mysteries of life and death and make us feel pleasure while doing so — the mark of the very highest artists. These geniuses are not fashionable or sexy or cute; they are not transgressive in any sensationalistic way; they don’t compose shots that make audiences go “oooh” and “ahhh”. But they are the rarest, and perhaps the most valuable, type of Master… in any country.

(More on this soon…)

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Vili Maunula

That is an interesting generalisation dylanexpert, and I think a fairly accurate one as well. The one thing that I would like to note is that many of Ozu’s shots do actually make me go “oooh” or “ahhh”. His compositions are simply brilliant, and although they rarely draw attention to themselves, it seems to me that you can freeze a frame pretty much at any point in an Ozu film, and what you are left with is a highly artistic arrangement of things.

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Ugetsu

Great post, dylanexpert, I like your ‘Clever’ and ‘Wise’ Masters distinction. I certainly think its better than the notion of transcendence which has always baffled me. I always thought of it as a sort of short hand for ‘this is very moving, but I don’t really know why’.

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Leo Wong

Peter Drucker distinguishes between clever and wise in Modern Prophets: Schumpeter and Keynes? and concludes, “Cleverness carries the day. But wisdom endured.”

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cocoskyavitch

Great post, dylanexpert!

Please forgive me if I have one tiny quibble: I actually think Ozu’s “comedies” are as heartbreakingly rich and meaningful as his later work!

“I Was Born, But…” is one of the finest films I have ever seen.

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lawless

I guess I’m going to be the voice of dissent here. I just watched Late Spring and not that taken with it. Hara’s acting seemed even more artificial than in No Regrets For Our Youth and the story seemed too slight as the basis for an entire movie. In fact, the whole movie made me long for the conflict and incident-packed No Regrets.

On the positive side: the cinematography (although some of the images, such as those of the scenery along the train line, and arguably the infamous vase, seemed superfluous), the soundtrack, the actors playing the father, Noriko’s aunt, her friend, and her father’s assistant, Hattori. I kept wanting to see Noriko’s intended — we never saw him.

I guess I prefer movies that tackle social conditions and problems less obliquely and are less inclined to accept the status quo than this movie seems to, and that are more dynamic and less reflective. I think this is going to mean that I’ll like Kurosawa’s movies better than Ozu’s. So far, of what we’ve seen of Ozu, I like Tokyo Chorus best, and even that took time to get into; it wasn’t until the main character was grown up and working that it began absorbing me.

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cocoskyavitch

lawless, you may actually prefer the early silent films. I would give Ozu another look after a while, and check in on I Was Born, But… and Passing Fancy. I found both powerful, beautiful, strange, funny, heartbreaking and compelling. I also love love love the early and late versions of Floating Weeds. You may find that Ozu minus Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in main roles is more your style.

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lawless

Thanks, Coco. I watched I Was Born, But… right after Tokyo Chorus and didn’t like it as welll; the story didn’t speak to me as much and I found the kids annoying.

I saw another Ozu film years ago while I was in law school, but I’m not sure which one. I haven’t asked here because I’m sure it’s one of his well-known ones and I figure I may well stumble across it later in the film club schedule. The main character was an older man who reminded me of a less downtrodden version of the main character in Ikiru, and the movie was about his relationship and interactions with his family. I liked it, but it didn’t stay with me the way Kurosawa’s movies did after one viewing, which is why I think Kurosawa is more to my taste than Ozu.

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cocoskyavitch

Ah, allright then, lawless. I understand, though my sympathies are different. I actually am transfixed by the kids…and find them riveting.

For me, the Ozu “family” – Ozu, his players and the stories they portray-have become as much a part of my own life as Kurosawa’s players and their stories have. In critical circles (or maybe just art-school douchebag circles…I mean you have to always judge the source when I am writing…!) Kurosawa gets a “low-brow” rap. (Of course, there is some admiration for the classics 7 Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon thrown in…) Ozu gets the “intellectual” and “authentic” prize.

I see Ozu’s star ascendending…(odd that, after so many years…!) At first, I felt a bit protective of my first love when I felt Kurosawa’s star slipping…but, now I am convinced that they can share the spotlight-it hurts no one and helps our understanding. If there is a spectrum of Japanese post-war cinema (one self-defined by Kurosawa with his objectives at one end and Ozu’s at the other) I think we can look at the spectrum and appreciate each for what they bring to the table. (Hence, my discomfort with ranking systems that force a choice between two excellent things that are different from one another).

I would place Ozu and Kurosawa side by side at the top of the ranking system, (if forced) and then let someone else sort out Mizoguchi, Naruse, etc.,

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lawless

I’m not surprised that Kurosawa gets a “low-brow” rap in critical circles, or at least artsy critical circles, compared to Ozu. The reasons for that are probably the reasons why I like Kurosawa better. He frames his shots as well as Ozu, but his stories and films are more dynamic, less precious. (That’s also part of the reason Rashomon is one of my least favorite Kurosawa films.)

I like slice of life, but I like movies that have some greater meaning without my having to (to my mind, at least) invent meanings through shots of vases. The lack of social context referred to in another thread also throws me — its presence is probably why I like Tokyo Chorus.

This is going to sound strange, but even though I found the staging very static and the cinematography not as inspired as in Ozu or Kurosawa’s films, I enjoyed Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin more than this one.

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cocoskyavitch

Vili, sometimes a vase is just a vase (apologies to S. Freud). Is it possible that Kurosawa, for all the bluster and histrionics of his players remains a filmmaker we appreciate mostly intellectually and that Ozu for all the “intellectual” books (and, I have a feeling that, for example, “Transcendental Cinema” is the worst phrase ever invented-did he mean “transcendent”? or “trance-like”? and the term obscures rather than illuminates) is a filmmaker best appreciated on the human, emotional level?

I seriously, truly doubt that Ozu’s sets and pillow shots and images are meant to INFORM us in the way that Kurosawa intended his film to inform-in fact, I think that Kurosawa’s films are a search for meaning . I think that Ozu was transcribing as much detail of the life as he knew to ground a story in the minutinae that gives the appearance of reality. So, I think of htem both as wonderful storytellers-one coming from a :”struggle with ideas” angle, the other from “let’s make this a convincing yarn” angle. That both allow Western images to insert themselves is indicative of their time.

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lawless

I have to rewatch the vase scene to be certain, but I’m inclined to agree with Coco on this.

I seriously, truly doubt that Ozu’s sets and pillow shots and images are meant to INFORM us in the way that Kurosawa intended his film to inform-in fact, I think that Kurosawa’s films are a search for meaning . I think that Ozu was transcribing as much detail of the life as he knew to ground a story in the minutinae that gives the appearance of reality.

Oddly, though, that very dichotomy — between Kurosawa as a seeker of meaning and Ozu as a recorder of what exists — has the opposite effect on me from the one Coco suggests in her previous paragraph. Kurosawa’s films are the ones to which I respond emotionally, whereas I see the appeal of Ozu’s films conceptually but in actuality, they tend to leave me cold.

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Ugetsu

Coco

Vili, sometimes a vase is just a vase (apologies to S. Freud).

Weirdly, for all its supposed importance, I think it was only on my most recent viewing that I saw the vase that everyone was talking about. Maybe its the quality of the dvd I’ve been using, or just me, but I always saw that scene as depicting bamboo through the screens. I only noticed the vase in the foreground on my most recent look at the film.

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dylanexpert

My responses to various previous posts here:

Lawless:

Yes, I cannot understand why you would miss the liveliness of Ozu’s prewar films, such as Tokyo Chorus. But to me, the best of Ozu’s late work, particularly that with Hara, is at least as good in a different way. Your criticisms of Setsuko Hara make no sense to me. I think she was a brilliant actress and a great star. It was, by all accounts, extremely difficult for most actors to adjust to Ozu’s style, and Ozu could be brutally critical of those who, in his view, fell short. (He called Keiko Kishi a “lousy actress” to her face on the set of “Early Spring”.) I think Hara more than any other Ozu actor, even Ryu, was able to establish a direct emotional connection to the viewer while remaining in perfect harmony with Ozu’s very stylized form of realism. Look at the Noh play scene in L.S. There is tremendous power in the simple way that Hara as Noriko bows her head, as if she were at her own execution. I urge you to take a second look at the film and at Hara.

Vili:

I’m not surprised that you’re sensitive to Ozu’s style, but it is a style that is subtle and refined: it doesn’t overwhelm like the styles of some Western directors, so it is a kind of beauty that can be easily overlooked. I’m sure there would be many Western viewers who would look at an Ozu film and not see anything special at all about the visuals.

Coco:

When I said that Ozu evolved so that his style became darker and deeper, I had in mind the films made around the time of I Was Born, But… (It is the very early films like Days of Youth that seem frivolous, though occasionally fun.) That is the period in which Ozu began to win a lot of prizes, so the critics at the time were sensitive to this change as well.

The dichotomy between Ozu and Kurosawa is in one sense obvious and in another sense misleading. I don’t think one director was “intellectual” and the other “emotional.” I think both had very deep and disturbing visions of human existence and wished to convey these to the heart of the viewer. Remember that neither director was “avant-garde”; both sought the approval of the mass audience of their time. It is to their credit that they both succeeded in reaching this audience without compromising their respective genius. For me, both K and O move me in different ways, but I had to develop a taste for O, whereas K appealed to me immediately as soon as I saw his work (Rashomon). Actually, the two men were alike in many ways. But I’ll talk about that at greater length in another post.

More about that vase later…

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cocoskyavitch

I think both had very deep and disturbing visions of human existence and wished to convey these to the heart of the viewer.

dylanexpert, succinct and well-said!

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Ugetsu

dylanexpert

I think she was a brilliant actress and a great star.

I’m struggling to remember where I read it, but I did read somewhere that many contemporary Japanese considered both Hara and Ryu to be technically poor actors, or ‘daikon‘. It is implied that she and Ryu were essentially blank slates with very interesting faces and characters that Ozu used to great effect in his films, in the way that, for example, John Ford used John Wayne. I think Ozu felt that too many actors were overmannered and overtrained, so he may have preferred to use more ‘natural’ types. Of course, its possible that those comments were simply made out of jealousy – I haven’t see Ryu in many non-Ozu films, but I think Hara was wonderful in both Kurosawa and Naruse films, so I’m inclined to believe she was a truly great actress, even if (perhaps) her range was more limited than some of her contemporaries.

I second (or third, since Coco got there before me) what you say about both Ozu and Kurosawa, very well put. They are both great artists who had the great merit of not patronizing or attempting to manipulate their audience. Ultimately, I think they both really liked people, and that extended to the person paying in to see their films – this isn’t something you can often say about a lot of supposedly great film makers.

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Ugetsu

This maybe isn’t the place for it, but last night I watched A Story of Floating Weeds, one of his last silent films. A wonderful film – I was tired and I couldn’t get the audio to work (I ended up playing some Nick Cave while watching it, not very appropriate), but I was riveted from start to finish. I’m beginning to see what some people mean when they say they prefer early Ozu to his later work – without the later minimalism, there is a real vibrancy to the editing and camera movements. I watched half the Donald Richie commentary and he makes some very interesting points about Ozu’s working method – in particular his early fondness for using a completely separate camera angle and setting for every individual shot in an edit, even if the characters are quite static. The result should have been a mess, but the skill of his editing means it added a lot of interest to individual scenes.

What is really striking about this film – maybe even in contrast to Ozu’s later remake – is how great the female characters are. They are real hard nuts, cynical and independent. The acting is quite brilliant. I’ve become quite fascinated with Rieko Yagumo, who plays the actors mistress, a wonderful performance and yet according to imdb, its the only film she ever made.

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cocoskyavitch

I’m beginning to see what some people mean when they say they prefer early Ozu to his later work

Ugetsu, that early stuff is just utterly amazing! And, what a treat that the son in the first “Weeds” becomes the traitor who makes of with the troupe’s bank in the later, color version! Early Ozu rocks, and you’ve just viewed one of my very favorites!

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lawless

I just rewatched Late Spring, and here’s my two bits:

I still feel that Setsuko Hara was more effective in No Regrets. What I didn’t say before was that I found her portrayal of Noriko in the second half of the film, when she “learns” that her father intends to remarry, moving and effective, but that wasn’t enough to erase my feeling that she portrayed Noriko as more outgoing and happy in the first half of the film than was justified. It always felt to me like she smiled more than the situation called for, which struck me as phony and artificial. Would a self-contained, shy young woman like Noriko really look and act that way? I’m still not convinced.

This is a tough movie for me, at least, to get much out of on the first viewing because it is so everyday, even banal. My initial reaction was “So what?” Yes, the cinematagraphy, direction, acting (mostly), sets, and music are well-done, but to what end? It seemed like a pretty simple, almost lightweight movie. I like slice of life, but that works better for me in books and writing than in movies.

Now that I know the plot, on second viewing, it’s easier to see the theme, which to my mind is epitomized in the speech Noriko’s father makes their last night in Kyoto about relationships taking time and work. Even though at first blush the movie seems to be about forcing a woman into marriage and dependence on a man, I think what the movie is really about is her growing up and accepting adult responsibilities instead of taking the easy way out and staying at home with her father. It also seems less sexually charged the second time around — if anything, Noriko comes across as someone who’s afraid of sex and sexuality, despite her friendly banter with Onodera about the “filthiness” of his remarriage and the somewhat provocative way she sits on the beach with Hattori. As for Onodera’s remarriage, her feelings about that may be as much protectiveness toward her friend, his daughter, and how having a stepmother might affect her, as toward what remarrying might say about Onodera’s interest in sex. It’s well-known that children often find the thought of their parents’ sex lives, and by extension their parents’ contemporaries’ sex lives, daunting. But, as Noriko finds out, Onodera’s wife is a pleasant, charming woman, something that seems to persuade Noriko that maybe it’s not such a bad thing for her father to want to remarry.

Also, I found Noriko’s friend Aya more sympathetic this time around. She’s certainly got gumption, and took the initiative to learn stenography to support herself when she decided to divorce her husband. We aren’t given any specifics, but it’s clear that her ex turned out to be someone different from the person she fell in love with. Nevertheless, even though her experience with marriage went badly, she encourages Noriko to marry, which supports the idea that marriage = growing up and accepting adult responsibility rather than dependence and subordination.

So I liked it better and got more out of it the second time around, but Kurosawa’s still more to my taste than Ozu.

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