To turn filmmaking into nature is a rare and magnificent skill. Few directors could make a film as pure and powerful as Yasujiro Ozu's Banshun (a.k.a. Late Spring). The forty-second film in Ozu's remarkable fifty-four-film output, Late Spring exemplifies Ozu's rich, mature style, an apparent stylelessness of patient, lifelike rhythms, unobtrusive camerawork, and credibly subtle performances.
Late Spring concerns the relationship of Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Noriko (Setsuko Hara) a father and daughter living humbly but happily in Kamakura, one hour from Tokyo. By her very existence, twenty-seven-year-old Noriko haplessly begs the question of marriage. When friends and family press the point, widowed professor Shukichi becomes convinced that he owes it to his daughter to insist upon her marriage, but all Noriko wants is to continue her blissful cohabitation with her beloved father.
Ozu observes how Shukichi and Noriko comprise a de facto married couple, and how each harbors unspoken feelings of duty to the other. More importantly, the two have a deep affection, a love that becomes unfortunately conditional when the issue of Noriko's marriage takes up residence in their traditional abode.
Steadily, Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda—working from Kazuo Hirotsu's novel Father and Daughter—turn the screws on the old man and his daughter, with possible avenues all leading to one inevitable destination. Noriko shares an ambiguous relationship with Shukichi's young workmate Hattori, a bachelor who's also on a track to get married, while Shukichi feigns interest in remarriage in order to stir Noriko from their nest. Divorcee Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) models bachelorette independence even as she presses Noriko to marry, and family friend Onodera (Masao Mishima), also a widower, models the faintly scandalous possibility of remarriage.
Ryu is marvelous, but the film belongs to the legendary Hara, whose guilelessness and depth of personality contribute enormously to the film's aching emotional impact. Though Ozu's social criticism is as understated as his style, Late Spring quietly accumulates a tension between the traditional Japanese family structure and the stirrings of social progression in occupied postwar Japan. Ozu no doubt felt some ambivalence about the Western influence: on record as a lover of American films, Ozu also ominously frames a "Drink Coca-Cola" sign overshadowing two happy bicyclists in one lingering shot, and Noriko still feels the ill effects of forced wartime labor.
Ozu craftily folds in counterpoints to his narrative line; he intercuts pleasing shots of nature with people's indoor activities—a reminder that life goes on with or without our complicated social constructs. Ozu further lays the foundation of tradition in a temple visit and the passing comment that Shukichi and Noriko live where Yoritomo had his shogunate, but the early-climax of the film comes at a Noh play—Morikawa—about a woman's tragic madness resulting from lost love. During the symbolically traditional display, Noriko quietly experiences an emotional seismic shift at the realization of what she must do. The tragedy, perfected in its ultimate frustration, is defined by Ozu as the tension of social imposition in a climate of tantalizing social change.
Master Ozu habitually put trains and train stations in his films, and Ozu's mastery in Late Spring has the feel of a day trip on a smooth track. Ozu takes his deceptively placid film through sprightly sweetness and middle-class social realism to a destination of mixed emotions about the inversion of a traditional lesson on "the order of human history," that "Happiness comes only through effort." Though Ozu's film is deceptively simple, sometimes simplicity is the express route to contentment.
A second disc offers the relevant companion piece Tokyo-Ga., a 1985 documentary, about Ozu and his Tokyo, directed and narrated by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire). The accompanying twenty-four-page booklet includes essays by critic Michael Atkinson and Japanese-film historian Donald Richie, as well as Ozu's own comments on screenwriter Kogo Noda.
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