Late Spring (Banshun) [DVD]
Director : Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay : Kôgo Noda & Yasujiro Ozu (based on the novel by Kazuo Hirotsu)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1949
Stars : Chishu Ryu (Shukichi Somiya), Setsuko Hara (Noriko Somiya), Yumeji Tsukioka (Aya Kitagawa), Haruko Sugimura (Masa Taguchi), Hohi Aoki (Kasuyochi), Jun Usami (Shuichi Hattori), Kuniko Miyake (Akiko Miwa), Masao Mishima (Jo Onodera), Yoshiko Tsubouchi (Kiku), Yôko Katsuragi (Misako), Toyoko Takahashi (Shige)
Late Spring is one of Yasujiro Ozu’s most direct and powerful shomin-geki, or “modern family dramas.” Shomin-geki was the genre in which Ozu excelled, and the second half of his cinematic career is defined largely by the poignant, sympathetic, and utterly transcendent way in which he painted family life in postwar Japan. His films tend to have a lingering sadness, partially because Ozu never allows them to become sensationalistic or melodramatic even though they tend to depict familial dissolution and disappointment.
Late Spring, which was Ozu’s first film to explore domesticity in the postwar era, is the story of the relationship between Shukichi, a widowed professor, his grown daughter, Noriko. Shukichi and Noriko are played, respectively, by Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, both of whom were favorites of Ozu. Ryu starred in an astounding 31 of Ozu’s films, ranging from the silent era until Ozu’s very last film, 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon, while Hara starred in six.
Noriko, who is 27, takes care of her father, cooking him dinner, making his tea, and making sure he gets his work done. In many ways, she is more of a wife than a daughter, and she loves her place with Shukichi and has no desire to marry and leave the home (in some ways, it is hard not to read the film with a Freudian slant, with Noriko literally replacing her mother). However, everyone around them feels that Noriko should get married, including her friend Masa (Haruko Sugimura), whose status as a divorcee has not ruined her views on matrimony, and her Aunt Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka). Noriko resists, insisting that she has no interest in marrying and is perfectly happy living with her father and tending to his needs. For his part, Shukichi also seems content in their relationship, but he also understands that he may be holding Noriko back. He knows that the only way to convince her to leave the home and marry is if he re-married himself, something that Noriko finds utterly distasteful (in fact, she tells a family friend who has recently been remarried that it’s “filthy”).
Thus, like many of Ozu’s films, Late Spring is about a family in transition. There is a sadness to the story because social forces insist on disrupting the contented relationship between Shukichi and Noriko, essentially enforcing a particular definition of “family” and branding their lives as unacceptable. The pressure is both overt (particularly in the way both Masa and Aya badger Noriko about her unmarried status) and subtle, and the two intertwine to ensure that Shukichi and Noriko’s father-daughter bond is eventually broken. The film’s climax, in which Noriko finally agrees to an arranged marriage, has an air of melancholy, and the final scene of Shukichi alone is heartbreaking.
Ozu’s signature style, which relies primarily on a static camera placed near the ground and a reliance on straight cuts and “pillow shots” to transition between sequences, holds up throughout the film. Ozu’s camera is observational, rather than intrusive; even when we get something akin to a close-up, it never feels like it’s invading the character’s space. So little happens in his films that it would seem disingenuous if his style were more “showy”; his films are very much about what is happening internally, and the most important information is usually conveyed in looks and in what isn’t said. In Late Spring, there are a few uncharacteristic tracking shots, particularly when Shukichi and Noriko are walking back from a kabuki play during which Noriko has spied a woman her father might marry (who is, therefore, her rival). The camera movement increases the urgency and discomfort of the scene, which isn’t surprising given how rare such an aesthetic is in Ozu’s films.
Late Spring is very much a product of the time and place in which it was made. Even though there are only a few explicit mentions of World War II, the war and subsequent American occupation of Japan hangs heavily in the air and is glimpsed frequently in Westernized icons such as a Coca-Cola sign that dominates the foreground of an otherwise idyllic shot of a bike ride, as well as English-language books and a copy of The Saturday Evening Post. Traditional elements of Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony that opens the film and the Noh theater that Shukichi and Noriko attend are present, as well, but they feel like nostalgia. The implicit need for Noriko to marry seems at least partially borne out of the sense of Japanese renewal in the postwar years--to move forward, rather than lingering in the past.
|Late Spring Two-Disc Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 9, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|As is typical of Japanese films made in the initial postwar period, Late Spring is a victim of both dated film stock and lack of preservation and care. Criterion’s new high-definition transfer came from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and was digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. As a whole, the transfer is excellent, certainly the best this film has ever looked on home video. The black-and-white image is sharp and clear, with strong contrast and solid black levels throughout. The image is marred from time to time by vertical scratches and at least a few prominent white hairlines, all of which are inherent to the source material and are significant enough that they couldn’t be digitally erased without compromising the integrity of the image. Nevertheless, I feel confident that this is the best the film could look at this point. As far as the monaural audio track goes, it was fairly clean after digital restoration, although there are a few points where slight ambient hiss can be heard. There are no major drop-outs, though, and dialogue and music sound good throughout.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary comes from Richard Peña, who teaches film studies at Columbia University and is also the program director at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. In 2003 he programmed a Yasujiro Ozu retrospective, so he is extremely well-qualified to discuss the cinematic and cultural details and merits of Late Spring, which he does very well. |
The second disc in this two-disc set is given over to German director Wim Wender’s fascinating feature-length 1985 documentary Tokyo-Ga. Having become entranced with Ozu’s work, Wenders took off in the middle of filming Paris, Texas in Los Angeles and went to Tokyo in order to “discover” Ozu’s Japan. It is a thoroughly intriguing and culturally enriching film, as we learn along with Wenders not only about Japan, but also about Ozu and his films. Tokyo-Ga includes interviews with a number of people who worked with Ozu, including actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta, who shot 16 of Ozu’s films over a three-decade period.
The insert booklet contains an excellent essay on the film by Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson and another essay on the career of Setsuko Hara by Ozu scholar Donald Richie.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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