Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu’s “Late Spring
There are some masters of film whose name everyone knows: Hitchcock, Godard, Fellini, Kurosawa. One name of a master whom I would be willing to bet no one knows is Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker who died in 1963. Ozu made films that are unlike almost any other filmmaker; his stories are about life’s small – very small – tragedies that have implications far beyond what happens – so much so that they change the course of life for those involved. Ozu began making films in the late 1920s, and didn’t stop (he directed 54 of them) until he died. Some of his later works are now available through Criterion DVDs, and frankly I think you owe it to yourself to at least rent one or two and see what he was all about.
This week on Movies 101 we’re going to be talking about one film; it’s called “Late Spring,” – and by the way, he titled many of his films by the season in which their story played out: “Early Autumn,” “Late Spring,” “An Autumn Afternoon,” and so forth, though I suggest you start with another one of his films, “Tokyo Story,” about the disconnect that has grown up without anyone noticing it between a father and his children, particularly as the father confronts his own imminent mortality.
But anyway, “Late Spring,” from 1949, is the very simple story of a widower, a professor at a college just outside Tokyo, who lives with his unmarried daughter Noriko, who’s now 27 years old. She always has a smile on her face, she takes care of the house for him and obviously loves her life. But his sister thinks she should marry; “What will she do when you die? She’ll be all alone.” And so the father thinks that he’s been needlessly cruel and selfish toward his daughter and brings up the subject, including an available young man (“Who looks like Gary Cooper, at least the bottom half”). But the more her aunt presses her, the more her father feels guilty about being selfish, the more we see the smile on her face turn into a kind of rictus, almost a grimace as she sees what she’s being forced into. She asks her father if he plans to marry again. With an ‘umm’ he leaves the impression that he will.
And so, Noriko, with her options slowly being cut off, agrees to marry. But here’s the important point about Ozu; he never shows us any of the consequences of her act; in fact we never even see the man who may or may not look like Gary Cooper (at least the bottom half). We see Noriko dressing for her wedding, but we never see the wedding. Nor do we see any other parts of the film that Ozu feels we need not see. And one thing more, something that has fascinated film buffs for half a century: Ozu filmed almost every scene with a stationary camera and a 50-mm lens (it was the closest to a human eye) set just a few inches above the ground, and played out his scenes that way. In fact he almost never used tracking shots, though in “Late Spring” he does use them to follow two bike riders along a road.
If all of this sounds lie something you’d avoid, please think again; Ozu is one of the most influential cinema figures in history, and you should at least get to know a few of the high points of his work. “Late Spring” and a number of other Ozu works are available as DVDs at Netflix or at local retailers like Blockbuster. You can find out their names by Googling him or going to IMDb for information. I wouldn’t kid you; Ozu is well worth it.