As a single blossom of creeping azalea can reveal a labyrinth of life-giving roots and stems, Yasujirō Ozu’s 1949 drama Late Spring (Banshun) is the fount of an insightful cinematic trilogy, one which apparently depicts marriage conventions in postwar Japan, but then gradually delves deep into the individual psychologies and expectations of its community. The stark simplicity of the film’s narrative—a young woman facing mounting pressure to enter into marriage—extracts a raw response from viewers, unaltered by excessive emotional cues or artificial exposition. This plainness affords the film an effortless grace, a touch perfectly attuned to the brave new world of a Japan suddenly flung onto a stage of international modernity.
The basic narrative of Late Spring stems from a short novel, but it’s the glimpsed history of Imperial Japan’s impending downfall and the extensive industrialization left in the wake of World War II that breathe cinematic life into the material. This rapid shift of ancient traditions into a fresh, modernized landscape provides a great deal of Late Spring’s conflict: Noriko (the radiant Setsuko Hara), the single twenty-seven-year-old daughter of a professor, lives a life of domestic bliss in the suburbs of Tokyo, doting on her father (fellow Ozu regular Chishū Ryū) and enjoying good company. Noriko exists in an emotionally symbiotic relationship with her father, both of them sustaining the other, yet in all other aspects she is thoroughly independent, a blooming image of the modern woman. However, as the people in her life find themselves drawn towards the binding contracts of love and the social virtues of marriage, Noriko is left as a wayfarer between personal freedom, smothering tradition, and what others view as a delayed reconciliation between her wants and needs.
This tug-of-war between a customary past and a novel future also operates beyond the narrative structure of Late Spring. As the film was produced during the Allied Powers’ occupation of Japan, numerous restrictions on content were put in place to thwart any dissension against Japan’s assimilation into an international community by American proxy. Director Ozu acted in accordance with the limitations set by American censors, but brilliantly subverted these confines precisely through his knowing adherence. The fragile imposition of Western intrusions is apparent on the screen: an obnoxious roadside Coca-Cola sign, the humorously debated beauty standard set by Gary Cooper, interpolations of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” within a traditional Japanese score. Yet Late Spring is also ripe with images of enduring Japanese culture—zen gardens, tea ceremonies, and even a performance of a traditional Noh musical drama are given ample space within the film’s narrative. The beauty and symbolic national value of these images are heightened as set against symbols of Western acclimatization, all of which ultimately pale before the emblems of a specifically Japanese culture throughout the film.
Late Spring is remarkable above all because it addresses a swiftly changing world with a masterful hand, simple and consistent. Like the blank space looming below words at the end of a chapter, transitory shots of languid temples, trees, and railways punctuate the gravity of their preceding scenes and beckon contemplation. This invitation to closely ruminate upon simple themes is felt not only in the narratives of marriage and family to be continued in the trilogy’s next installments, Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), but in the steady production and release of these films as well: all of them were directed by Ozu and star Setsuko Hara as different women named Noriko. (Neither Ozu nor Hara ever married, a fact that could go some way toward explaining the intense authenticity they bring to the screen in contemplating the meaning and value of love and marriage.) Late Spring is a gift not to go unrecognized, as the film’s statements on the merging of individual desire and the pressures of collective society remain timeless and universally accessible.
Saturday, December 12th, 2015, would have been Ozu’s 112th birthday. The world only recently learned of Setsuko Hara’s passing late this year at the age of 95. With this review, we at Double Exposure wish to pay special respect to the life-changing work of these artists.