Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Late Spring (1949)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #15

It perhaps goes without saying that the nation of Japan was undergoing serious changes in 1949, when director Yasujiro Ozu's film Late Spring was produced and debuted. The nation was still reeling from its defeat in World War II, the cataclysmic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bomb, and the ongoing occupation of American forces. The occupiers were adamant about restricting anything that would be deemed "too Japanese," for fear of sparking another nationalistic streak and war effort. Coca-Cola signs along the beach were becoming the norm. Old traditions were giving way to new social norms, and the nation found itself in the midst of an identity crisis.

Late Spring, one of Ozu's most acclaimed films, deals with changing attitudes toward marriage in a very distinct, natural way. The film centers around Professor Shukichi Somiya (frequent Ozu collaborator Chishu Ryu) and his daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who serves as his caretaker. Shukichi, a widow, wonders if it is time for Noriko to be married, seeing as she is 27 now. Noriko has no interest in getting married; however, she agrees to meet with a few suitors at her Aunt Misa's (Haruko Sugimura) request, including her father's assistant, Hattori (Jun Usami), and a Tokyo University graduate, Satake. Noriko also struggles with the news that her father is interested in remarrying, a concept that she does not agree with.

Throughout the film, Ozu juxtaposes images of Western culture seeping into Japanese society, of modernity invading tradition. But Ozu makes his point not just through what is shown onscreen, but also the elements that are omitted from the narrative.

More after the jump.

Ozu populates the film with characters that present different thoughts on marriage, with each serving as a counterpoint to Noriko's beliefs. Early in the film, Noriko confronts a friend of her father, Jo Onodera (Masao Mishima), for getting remarried, an idea that she finds disrespectful and "filthy." Her friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), on the other hand, is a divorcee who has no intention of remarrying. Instead, Aya pursues a career and a life on her own, representing the idea of a woman independent of her family, which at the time was considered unusual. Misa, too, represents old traditions, as evidenced in her desire to marry Noriko off, and in her refusal to hand over a change purse that she discovers at a temple (believing it to be a good omen).

It's important to note, however, that Noriko is not strictly beholden to the traditions of family that had existed in Japan before the war. Shukichi does not demand that she be married, but rather asks if that is what she wants, and encourages her to meet the suitors Misa selects for her but does not pressure her to decide then and there. To say that she is representative of the transition from tradition to modernity is fairly obvious, but it should be noted that Shukichi, too, is more tolerant that his age and familial status suggest. He is a man caught between two eras as well, seemingly more at peace with change than his contemporaries.

Despite all of these different voices, Ozu seems to come down on a melancholic approach to Noriko's marriage. Ozu is famous for his use of elliptical storytelling (previously discussed), in which he omits seemingly-important events that other directors would make the centerpiece of the story. Late Spring builds up to Noriko agreeing to marry Satake, but neither the wedding nor Satake himself are ever shown onscreen. Instead, Ozu jumps from Shukichi seeing Noriko in her bridal gown to him sitting at a bar with Aya after the wedding. Satake, instead of being a living character for the audience to become acquainted with, is instead merely an idea, his presence paradoxically consequential to the narrative but inconsequential to the audience.

Tellingly, Ozu frames the film through the relationship between Noriko and Shukichi, rather than through Satake. Ultimately, this isn't a film that celebrates Noriko's decision to marry Satake, but rather plays as a eulogy for Noriko's relationship to her father. Early on, Onodera's daughter Kiku (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) refers to marriage as "life's graveyard," and the film presents Noriko's decision to marry as one of mourning rather than euphoria. In a sense, her wedding is a funeral; the relationship she currently has with her father has come to an end, and "Noriko the daughter" is dying, replaced by "Noriko the wife." Her marriage is the end of the life she knows.

The key scene, then, is Shukichi and Noriko's attendance to a Noh (a classical Japanese musical drama) theater. The production in question regards a monk who encounters a beautiful woman, an allegory for blossoming sexuality. Shukichi's suitor, Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake) is also in attendance, and when Shukichi politely nods at her, Noriko becomes consumed with jealousy. The scene is one of the longest in the film, contrasting the play being performed with Noriko's fluctuating emotional state. This is recalled later in the famous "vase sequence," in which Ozu focuses the camera on Noriko smiling in her bed, then cuts to a vase on the floor, then back to Noriko, now on the verge of tears, then back to the vase. These scenes reflect Noriko's transition from the bliss of her relationship with her father to the depression and isolation of marriage.

All of this isn't necessarily to say that the film is making a statement one way or another on the institution of marriage. Ozu considered himself a "tofu-maker," as his films were meant purely for entertainment and not for proclamations. It's hard to ignore, however, the way Late Spring depicts Noriko's marriage - and marriage in general - as a doleful ending rather than a jubilant beginning. It captured a sense of loss and confusion during a time in which Japan's future was more oblique than ever, caught between an occupation by "modernity" and the flickering memory of tradition.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Journey to Italy (1954)

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