Saturday, January 1, 2011

Early Summer (1951) -- Yasujiro Ozu

The Mamiya family. 
Noriko (Setsuka Hara) is twenty-eight and lives with her parents, her brother and his wife, and their two sons. She is unmarried, which in post-war Japan still borders on being an old maid. Her marital status is of great concern to all, particularly her brother and parents. Times are changing, however, and Noriko is an independent woman. She works in an office and helps with the family budget. She enjoys being single and visiting with friends, both married and single. When her boss suggests she marry a 40-year old friend of his who is well established with an executive job her family urges her to accept. Though caring and devoted to her family, Noriko has other ideas.

This the the second in the "Noriko Trilogy" by Director Ozu and Hara. If the weakest of the three films it is still wonderful (the others being Late Spring 1949 and Tokyo Story 1953). It similarly is in the minimalistic style of the director, with mostly static, low angle camera shots, little action, and conversations that show a family's every day existence. They are quiet films, serene in their pace, where the focus is on family interaction over action and plot. There are scenes of eating and simple conversation, characters going to work and coming home. With these Ozu cuts to scenes of a bird cage, a tree, a moving train, or a busy Tokyo street to emphasize that each family is but a small part of life in the city. The film opens and closes with a shot of waves lapping a shore--life is constant and inevitably moves forward.

That theme is what this film is about. Noriko's choice reflects the changing culture of post-war Japan, which is increasingly being Westernized. Women are beginning to make their own choices, and are not so reliant on tradition and the wishes of parents. Marriages are becoming less arranged contracts. 

The best scene in the film is between Hara and her sister-in-law, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake). It is near the end and Noriko has decided to reject the arranged marriage proposal, and instead, wed a long-time acquaintance, a widower with child. Fumiko loves Moriko like a sister, and needs to express her concern. She warns her about being poor. Assured by Noriko that she knows what she's doing, they share a poignant laugh. Noriko explains she wasn't comfortable about a 40-year old man still drifting around unattached. The scene ends as they run down to the sea and begin to stroll along the shore, water lapping at their feet.    

Noriko and Fumiko share quiet moment.

The scene opens with a shot of a sand dune. The camera pans slowly up and from behind we see the two women walk up the hill, stop at the top and sit down. There is an immediate cut to the front. We can still not see what they are looking at. During the conversation you get the sense that despite her worry, the slightly older woman envies Noriko a little. She admits that she herself knew nothing of marriage before she wed Noriko's brother. It is a small, honest moment between two friends that care for each other, something that Ozu captured as well as anyone. Each trilogy film contains an undercurrent of sadness. Here, both women feel the imminent change in their lives. It is disquieting, but inevitable. And the loss of another brother killed in the war haunts the family, particularly the grandmother who still hopes he will return. Still, Early Summer is much less overtly sad than the other films. The aged parents see the family broken up and dispersed, but the old couple are still together, and no doubt will see everyone again. 

Like the great John Ford, an American director he purportedly admired, Ozu has his stock company. Many of the same actors appear in the Trilogy films, most notably Hara and Chrishu Ryu, who here plays the brother. In Late Summer he is Hara's father, in Tokyo Story, her father-in-law. Ryu has an extraordinary talent to assume the age and appearance of his characters, down to an old man's shuffle. 

The supporting actors will be familiar to Ozu viewers. With little screen time they give effective performances.  

What Makes Early Summer Special:

Setsuko Hara is a joy to watch. Easily shifting character: from a mature, confident young woman, to almost a giggling schoolgirl with friends and family, or crying because her decision unintentionally hurts someone, she is a natural actress. Her smile is radiant and comforts the viewer. When Japanese woman talk in Ozu films they often sound like happy birds chirping. Hara's voice is like that, and conveys sympathy and concern. In each film she is the most likable character.   

Ozu does a great job capturing signs of Americanization in a nation bound in tradition: Noriko's business attire, a Coca Cola sign, a movie poster, a mention of a Hollywood actress.  

Inside Story:

Ryu appeared in 52 of Ozu's 54 films, certainly the greatest partnership in film history between an actor and a director.  

At the time of this writing Hara is still alive at age ninety. She retired from film in 1963, shortly after Ozu's death, still at the height of her popularity.

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