Father knows best

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Critic After Dark

Late Spring
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Available on the Criterion
Channel and the Criterion
collection, Amazon Prime

and iTunes

(Warning! Plot details explicitly discussed — if you haven’t seen the picture, go see it first!)

SEPTEMBER 19 marks 70 years since Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (Banshun) was first released, in 1949. The film is the first entry in his “Noriko Trilogy” (quintessential Ozu muse Setsuko Hara playing single or widowed character named Noriko), and the first masterpiece of his late period (rigorous pared-down style, soft-spoken focus on domestic tensions).

The film is also more, I think — a graphic chart of Noriko’s smile as she playfully chides family friend Professor Onodera (Masao Mishima) for remarrying (“It seems distasteful.” “Distasteful?” “Filthy, even.” “Now I’m really in trouble!”); cheekily blows off her father Shukichi, played by fellow Ozu regular Chishu Ryu (“We’ll play a round” “Have you finished writing?” “Yes. Well — almost.” “No game then!”), casually flirts with her father’s assistant Hattori, played by Jun Usami (“I’d say you’re not the jealous type” “Oh but I am!” “You sure?” “As the saying goes when I slice pickled radish it comes out all strung together.”)

That unflappably bright smile starts to look beleaguered when her Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) badgers her about marrying. “I can’t do that to father.” “Then you can never get married.” “I don’t care!”) The lines of her plump cheeks — so endearing when she makes a witty remark or sarcastic retort — deepen petulantly when she can’t deliver an appropriately funny comeback.


Richard Peña in the Criterion commentary notes that Noriko, having lived through World War 2, never had a proper childhood, that this willfully extended single status may be her chance to live out that childhood, serving as daughter, companion, and wife by way of recompense to her equally childlike if more reserved father. You see how she responds to her elders: when Aunt Masa or Shukichi want to talk about serous issues — basically what Noriko doesn’t want to talk about — they have to chase her down one hallway or another, up the stairs to the not-so-inviolate space of her room (complete with tea table and lowslung chairs), where she sits and glares into one corner (there’s a writing desk there and a nearby window — presumably her little spot where she can write letters or perhaps a diary). Your eyes can’t help but be drawn to that smile: often sunny, sometimes deceitful, in many ways sphinx-like, opaque. What’s she hiding? What’s she thinking? What does she really want?

And Shukichi? He sounds casually gruff trying to order Noriko around (“Where’s my tea?” “How about a towel?”) but Noriko sees right through him and serves him with a pleased air, like a mother indulging a spoiled child. Later when Noriko is more defiant — crossing a street at one point to avoid walking with him — Shukichi seems oddly nonchalant. There’s turning a blind eye to your beloved’s occasional flaws and then there’s putting on an elaborate show of not knowing what’s going on — Shukichi seems to be putting on such a show to the point of seeming negligent, callous even.

When Noriko gets married, Ozu prepares for the moment with appropriate fanfare: impatient kids loitering beside waiting rental cars reach in and blow the car horn; Hattori and Shukichi sit in the living room smoking, talking about the weather and Hattori’s recent honeymoon (typically the honeymoon itself gets a brief mention — they went to Yugawara, a hot spring town — before the two launch into what sounds like it’s going to be a lengthy discussion of available local transport). The housekeeper interrupts by walking into the shot and announcing Noriko ready (“Your daughter’s such a beautiful bride!”) — and the father may have a peek. Shukichi walks out; Ozu cuts to the base of the stairs and Aunt Masa rushing down to confirm (yes, she’s ready) and checking on the cars (they’re ready too). We finally see Noriko in profile, in full bridal regalia, sitting with head bowed; Shukichi punctuates the moment by rushing in (it’s her mini-living room with tea table and chairs removed) but our eyes are on the would-be bride. Cut to a frontal shot: she’s resplendent in an elaborate silk kakeshita caught round the waist with a wide brocaded maru obi tied in a tateya musubi (even in black and white the colors are a swirling riot of patterns around her slim form). Her head is bound up in a tsunokakushi, an elaborate bridal headdress meant to hide the horns that can grow out of a woman’s head, her hair a garden of kanzashi — wire butterfly and filigree blossom ornaments that tremble at her every nod.

Horns? In Japanese tradition, the woman turns into a demon when jealous (“when I slice pickled radish it comes out all strung together”); Noriko’s headdress is meant to hide the diabolical horns of selfishness and ego — to signify her willingness to be obedient to her husband, her voluntary lifelong submission to another man’s will.

All this, of course, rendered almost insignificant by Noriko’s expression. If as the saying goes “you’re never fully dressed without a smile,” the bride’s is a ghastly grimace, a startling rictus carefully pinned from one cheek to another to please her grinning dad. That it seems sincere — that she seems shyly serenely accepting of the fate about to fall on her head only adds to the horror.

As for Shukichi? Smiles and crinkled eyes. With his daughter literally dying before his eyes (the scene’s music sounding appropriately funereal) his casual poise seems perversely, even heroically, assumed.

No less so than Ozu’s. Famous for his tatami-level shots (the camera fixed at the height of a man sitting on a tatami mat, angled to look slightly up) his continuous use of direct address (the actor looking straight at the camera while talking) his elliptical editing (after fussing over Noriko’s marital status for most of the picture, Ozu leaves out both the actual ceremony and the impending groom [“He looks like that American. The man in that baseball movie.”]). I’ve read many elaborate theories but Ozu’s reason for arriving at this technique may be as simple as just wanting to tell a story. He uses 50 mm lenses because it’s generally considered the closest equivalent to the human eye; he uses the direct-address shots because this is how we address another person — looking straight into their eyes; and he uses tatami-level shots because that’s how the Japanese of his generation would conduct a normal conversation, sitting cross-legged on a mat. He, in short, has developed his visual style to achieve the effect of having invited you into his living room to sit and talk, perhaps listen to a story he has to tell.

As for the editing — I suspect it’s his way of keeping you on your toes. He wants you at ease and comfortable, but up to a specific point: you also have to follow what he has to say.

Late Spring starts out as sunlit bright and delicately wrought as a cherry blossom, all humorous vignettes and funny one-liners; when Aunt Masa, introduced as a comic figure, starts to loom over Noriko’s life — embodying the disapproving frown of Japanese society over her and Shukichi’s unorthodox living arrangement — the film darkens considerably, though the girl’s tantrums (impulsively leaving the house to go shopping, angrily cutting short a sleepover date with her best friend) help relieve the increasingly solemn tone here, there.

In a pivotal scene, Noriko and Shukichi watch a Noh play and Shukichi smiles at a woman. Noriko recognizes her — Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake), her father’s prospective bride. Ozu takes his cue from Noh tradition: a static almost frozen tableau where the slightest gesture suggest great import, in this case a stray look and smile that turns Noriko’s world upside down. Noriko has the fire and spirit to defy the world but when her father betrays her — when the one person she cares about seems to prefer or at least acknowledge another’s presence — she lowers her head. The static, almost frozen tableau suggests what’s within the young woman’s heart: total devastation, vast landscapes of frozen tundra and whistling unending wind. “When I slice pickled radish it comes out all strung together” — when Noriko sprouts horns she bows in acknowledgment of the sheer weight on her head.

What more to say? Not just Ozu’s masterpiece (though I love everything of his I’ve caught, so far this hits closest to home) but in my book one of the greatest films ever made.