Thursday, June 9, 2011

Late Spring (1949) -- Yasujiro Ozu

In post-war Japan, Noriko Somiya (Setsuko Hara) is 27 and still lives at home. Recently recovered from an illness contracted during the war, she is content and happy with her simple life, taking care of her widowed father. She explains to her aunt that no one understands him like she does. But the aunt and father worry that at her age, it is time for Noriko to marry and start a life of her own. They concoct a rouse to convince the girl to consider an arranged marriage.
Setsuko Hara as Noriko.
The first film in the Noriko Trilogy, Late Spring may be the most touching and sad of the bunch. It is essentially a film about the relationship between a father and his beloved daughter, and the difficult decision they make, one that neither really wants. Spurred on by the unlikable aunt, the father leads Noriko to believe that he plans to remarry -- it is not true -- and it would be better for both of them if she finds a husband so he can get on with his life. She resents the decision and is devastated and deeply hurt, feeling herself shoved aside.

Hara, one of cinema's great actresses, effectively conveys the emotional pain of her perceived rejection by her father with confused and searing looks, at one point crying in despair. At times her reaction is almost painful to watch, but any viewer who has unintentionally or intentionally hurt someone they love knows that look. In that respect, Ozu has produced a remarkably honest film.

On talent alone, Hara is magnificent. Combined with rare beauty and immensely likable roles, surely she had what it took to achieve international stardom. However, she never ventured into American films, and because of a lingering hatred of anything Japanese in this country after the war, none of the Noriko films were released in the U.S. until 1972. It is just as well, considering her apparent retiring nature. Still, Setsuko Hara easily could have paved the way for other foreign actresses who shortly thereafter found success in the U.S. in the form of an Oscar: Sophia Loren (1961), Simone Signoret (1959), and Anna Magnani (1955). 

Like all of his films, Director Uzo primarily relies on a static camera, focusing on the interplay between his characters through brief conversations, usually indoors. But in one memorable scene he takes you outside and follows Noriko on a pleasant bike ride with her father's assistant and her friend, Mr. Hattori. The scene is said to be a homage to the American style of film-making, which Uzo reportedly admired.
A late spring outing near the beach. 

For a time, you think that Hattori might be the man for Noriko, and they do engage in harmless flirting, but he is already engaged. The camera follows the pair as they ride along, the wind blowing Hara's wavy hair from her face. She is beautiful, laughing and smiling, having fun. It is easy to suspect that Hattori wonders if he has picked the right girl.

By the end of the film you understand that the rouse is just as hard on the father as the daughter. Chrishu Ryu, a long-time player in Ozu films, appears clueless to his daughter's suffering at first. When she tells him she is happy, that she just want things to remain as they are and cannot conceive of being happier married, he doesn't accept it. He tells her she will find a new happiness, and that marriage is not easy and takes time, maybe years. You realize he is not oblivious to her sadness of course, and acts as he does convinced that what he is doing is in Noriko's best interest. He is willing to sacrifice his own comfort for her future.  

That Ozu never reveals Noriko's husband, though tells us that "he looks like Gary Cooper," is an intentional decision by the director. He is telling us a story of the end of one family, not the beginning of another.

The final scene is probably the most famous in any Ozu  film. Home alone after the wedding, the father sits down and begins to peel an apple. He carves a long winding piece, then pauses as it drops to the floor. He hangs his head in despair. It sounds simple, but it is a crushing moment, one where the horrifying gloom of true loneliness falls on a man, as he understands the harsh reality of his decision for the first time.

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