A wonderfully contemplative and beautiful film, Late Spring comes to us from one of Japan’s greatest directors, Yasujiro Ozu. It appears on the surface to be simple — there isn’t a whole lot to it, or so it looks — but it is as effective a character study as can be achieved in the cinema. It doesn’t so much tell a story as it sets a mood and has strong themes, although it also tells a beautiful story about a woman and a father and the “ideal” of marriage in 1949 Japan.
The woman: Noriko (Setsuko Hara). The man, Noriko’s father: Professor Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). They live together. The mother passed away some time ago, and Noriko has taken over the household. She cooks, cleans, and does the shopping. she has fulfilled the role of the wife for a while now. Both of these characters are content — nay, happy — with this situation. Noriko goes into town, meets one of her father’s friends, and tells him — through laughs and smiles, but she means it — that he’s filthy for remarrying. She has few positive opinions on marriage.
That’s unfortunate, because she’s reaching the point where she either has to get married or remain single forever. While she would be content caring for her father until his death — and then presumably living alone — that’s not what anyone else wants. Her high school friend, already a divorcée, shows up and tells her to marry. An aunt pops in to remind her that marriage is for the best. Even her father eventually comes on-board and tries to convince her that marriage is for the best — that it is the way things must be.
Noriko is stoic. She smiles to hide her pain and remains adamant that marrying is not for her, and that she must care for her father. She is secure in this role, and upsetting that would be devastating. For a child of the war, this makes sense. But is that her only reason for wanting to stay away from the married life? Is she hiding something else? And what happens when the potential for her father to remarry comes up? If his wife will care for him, then what will she do? These are questions you’ll ask while Late Spring is playing. You’ll be pleased by the film’s answers.
There are lengthy takes scattered throughout Late Spring. Many of them do not even have substantial action to them. Characters might talk and then move to another room, but the camera, unmoving, will remain fixated on the likes of a vase, or perhaps a grandfather clock. It permits the audience time to think about what they’ve just seen and ponder what they might soon see.
Do I consider this something that is necessary? Not for a domestic film. I believe that the brain can both process the images and audio, as well as think about what has just been seen. We don’t need designated times to consider earlier moments. But with foreign films where brainpower is needed to read subtitles and concentrate on the images and audio? Maybe that additional time is beneficial. That will all depend on how active a brain you have and whether a film was made in the language you speak. And if I’m right about that hypothesis.
What Late Spring does so well is boil everything down to the few key ingredients necessary. It’s not simple, but it appears like it is. It’s deceptively simple, yet it makes an emotional and intellectual impact on the viewer. There’s not much camera movement — the camera is primarily flat, yet lower down than most films you’ll see; if it’s normally at head level, here it’s at the knees (which is head high when kneeling down at the table) — few stylistic flourishes, and a plot which doesn’t require much thinking. But it brings with it so much more in terms of characters and themes.
I mean, how many films can you think of that have a love interest — solely a plot device or not — whose face you never even see? The aunt character brings him up, saying he looks like Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, but we never even get a picture. Mention is made of Noriko’s past with the war, but we’re never entirely sure what happened. The routine that Noriko and her father have established is so solidified that it could take place without thought. Seeing that potentially broken up is kind of heartbreaking.
It helps that the two lead performances are strong. A few select moments — scenes in which no dialogue is spoken — highlight these. These are points when you can tell exactly what the characters are thinking based solely on body and facial expressions. A smiling face generally means a happy person but from the first time Setsuko Hara’s infectious smile graces the screen, you can tell it’s being used more as a mask than a genuine display of bliss.
Late Spring is one of those films you watch that completely absorbs you. While not an exercise in style, it’s a contemplative film about characters, ideas, traditions and relationships. It is beautiful from start to finish contains two great lead performances, and permits you time to sit and stew about it while it’s playing, not just after, through its lengthy takes even after the action has moved on. It’s a film boiled down to its bare essence, and it’s a powerful, wonderful watch.