Unlike Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu is not well-known in the United States, his films often considered “too Japanese” to appeal to Americans. Until a few months ago, when a friend suggested that Late Spring was “the best film ever made,” I had never even heard the name. A typical ignorant American, I was completely unaware of one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, a man who made 53 films over the course of a 35-year career, 4 or 5 of which are considered masterpieces on the level of the greatest works of Italian neorealism.
Having seen Late Spring, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s “the best film ever made,” but it is a dense, beautifully filmed, emotionally rich work of art that demands, and deserves repeated viewings. That it’s more “Japanese” and less “American” than films like The Seven Samurai — which was influenced by John Ford’s westerns — is part of its appeal. The strangeness of Japanese culture, the aesthetic, the body language, the verbal inflections, the rules of courtship, all of it forced me to pay much closer attention to the interactions between the characters than I would have for a similar French or American film. It threw the narrative into such great relief that an intimate family drama wound up feeling as if it had also made a profound statement about postwar Japan.
My guess is that it was intentional.
In 1949, Yasujirō Ozu and the Japanese film industry was subject to strict censorship by the United States military government. The rules could probably best summed up by the classic line from the British comedy show Fawlty Towers. “Don’t mention the war.” On the surface, Late Spring is serene, placid, detached from the bitter cares of most of the world. Even though Late Spring is set in Tokyo and its suburbs, there’s no sign of the massive American firebombing campaign that had taken place only 4 years before. There are no American military police, no returning Japanese veterans, no missing arms or legs.
Shukichi Somiya, a widowed, 56-year-old university professor lives with Noriko, his unmarried 27-year-old daughter. They have a close, even incestuous relationship. Noriko thinks of her father as an absent-minded professor, who wouldn’t be able to deal with the problems of everyday life without her around. Shukichi seems in no great hurray to push her out of the nest. Enter Masa Taguchi, Shukichi’s sister and Norito’s aunt. Norito, at 27, well into adulthood. Isn’t it time she got married?
Shukichi, reluctantly, agrees. He suggests his assistant, Shuichi Hattori, a young man who does seem to be interested in Norito, but who is also engaged to another woman. Just how strong a romantic attachment Hattori does in fact have for Norito is suggested later when he invited her to a concert, she turns him down — once her father suggests they be more than friends she suddenly feels guilty about moving in on his fiancée — and he goes to the concert himself, leaving the chair next to his empty. One might assume that, as the daughter of a university professor, the attractive Norito would have no shortage of suitors, but there seems to be a wall between her father’s domestic life and his academic life. We never see him teach a class, for example. So Masa Taguchi arranges a marriage, finds an eligible 34-year-old college graduate named Satake. He’s from an upper-middle-class family, and he supposedly looks like Gary Cooper. In other words, he’s a good catch. Late Spring ends with Norito and him getting married.
But here’s the rub. We never see him.
What exactly is Yasujirō Ozu trying to do here? Having only seen Late Spring twice, and as a novice to Japanese film and Japanese culture, I can’t speak with any authority on why he chose to make a film about a marriage, and yet show neither the groom nor the wedding ceremony. But I will venture a guess.
Yasujirō Ozu is making a comment about the survival of traditional Japanese culture through the American bombing and the American occupation. In the United States we have taken the idea of “romantic love” and turned it into an industry. Even back in the late 1940s, Americans believed in the fairy tale, Hollywood ideal of the “perfect” mate. Americans often get offended if you suggest that sex and marriage have anything to do with class or economics, that both are part of and indeed controlled by a larger society.
Ozu is telling us that, like like graduating from college and getting a first job, a heterosexual relationship is a step towards adulthood, nothing less, nothing more. A happy marriage isn’t something that falls out of the sky. It’s something you work at. For Norito, any eligible man more or less her own age and class will do. The very last thing she needs is a deep romantic attachment, a grand passion where she meets the love of her life and they both live happily ever after. That is, in fact, what she needs to get away from.
Indeed, Norito has already met the man of her dreams, the love of her life, Romeo to her Juliet. That’s the problem. It’s her father. While Late Spring is a serene, placid film, there’s something deeply unhealthy about the the relationship between Norito and Shukichi. Norito is 27, and yet she giggles like a school girl. She has no job or means of support. When Jo Onodera, a colleague of her father, also a widower, tells her that he’s remarried, Norito’s response is startlingly cruel and harsh. She calls him dirty, unclean, perverse. That Onodera takes it all in stride suggests that he sees her hostility merely as the reaction that any teenage girl would have towards the idea that her parents, or people her parents age, would be sexually active. “Eew, that’s icky.” But Norito, of course, is pushing 30. A romantic attachment to her father, giggling like a schoolgirl, thinking a second marriage is “unclean,” it’s all something she needs to grow out of. She needs to take that step towards adulthood and get married.
The week before her marriage, Norito and her father take a trip to Kyoto — the ancient Japanese city President Roosevelt and his Secretary of War Henry Stimson decided was too precious and full of history to bomb — to visit her mother’s grave. Shukichi’s talk with his daughter, his painful, reluctant decision to push her out of the nest, is one of the most beautiful moments between a parent and child I think I’ve ever seen on film. Shukichi wants to keep the status quo as much as Norito does. But he knows he can’t. Even at 56, he lacks maturity If he wants his daughter to grow up, he has to grow up too. But there’s still a sadness at the end of Late Spring. Yasujirō Ozu has seduced us into seeing things from Norito’s point of view. We want Norito’s and and Shukuchi’s serene, placid isolation to last. We also know that, if it does, Norito will end up as a lonely old woman with no children of her own. Their postwar idyll, like the film, has to end.
Yasujirō Ozu is a director who deserves to be much better known in the United States.