music friday: 50 years ago today at the fillmore
what i watched last week

late spring (yasujirô ozu, 1949)

This was the first movie I watched on a new streaming service, FilmStruck. The service is a combined effort from TCM and Criterion, which means it focuses on older movies. I joined as soon as the service went live, and cancelled my Hulu account ... there are some good things on Hulu, but the only reason I had a subscription is because that’s where the Criterion films were. Now that they have moved to FilmStruck, I moved my money to the new site.

I feel like I need to catch up on my Ozu. This is only the third of his movies I have seen. I gave my highest 10/10 rating to Tokyo Story. And I gave 8/10 to his final film, An Autumn Afternoon. Now here’s Late Spring, which is also excellent.

Ozu takes his time in these movies. I can be impatient with that kind of style ... perhaps the Slow TV genre of shows like Rectify have gotten me to take it as it comes. It’s impossible to give spoilers for Late Spring, even if I told you every key point in the plot, because the movie is about the characters and their relationships to each other and to their environment. (For the record: a woman in her 20s lives her father in post-war Japan. They are content with their lives, but there is pressure for her to marry. Ultimately, she does participate in an arranged marriage, although it appears neither father nor daughter actually wants this to happen.) As has been true with the other Ozu films I’ve seen, I’m constantly feeling like I’m missing some important cultural aspect of Japanese life. (It helps in this case that the Wikipedia page for Late Spring is as long as I’ve seen.) To some extent, this is instructional ... I don’t know much about post-war Japan, for instance. When the movie was being made, it was subject to the Allied Power’s Occupation of Japan, and the American censors impacted the final product. Much of this revolved around the censors’ desire to remove any positive reflections related to the Japanese culture of the past, but there were also changes to make the Allies look better (in the script, Tokyo is referred to filled with ruins, but in the final product, “ruins” becomes “dust”). There is some disagreement about Ozu’s intended politics here, and this is one of the many places where my lack of knowledge prevents a deeper understanding.

Nothing Ozu does is obvious. His camera style is usually static, and you notice, because it is unusual, but you quickly adjust to the calm nature of what you see. The characters exhibit a resignation about life, at times even happiness at their lives, but there is nothing ostentatious. The legendary Setsuko Hara conveys so much with the expressions on her face. Her smiles are captivating, but subtle movement suggest something behind the happiness. It is disconcerting, in fact, when what she says seems at odds with her smile ... at those times, she no longer seems happy but rather seems polite, as if the smiles are expected of her. For most of the movie, she rejects the idea of marriage because she thinks her father needs her, so he lies about preparing for his own marriage so she will be able to move out on her own. So she marries, though she doesn’t want to, because her father pretends to be getting married, which he doesn’t, and he is left alone, which he didn’t want. Because the relationship between father and daughter in Late Spring is extremely close (not incestuous, but emotionally), we, like they, want them to be together.

These characters are what matter to Ozu, which is shown by the absence of scenes of the marriage (in fact, we never see the groom-to-be). Ozu uses what I might call “casual jump cuts” that remove “action” so he can get to the conversations that ensue. Even here, the cuts aren’t obvious, such as Godard might use. And while at times Godard’s jump cuts often feel like part and parcel of the accelerated lives of the characters, Ozu uses them calmly, simply to extract the characters from mundane actions. Godard uses jump cuts because he’s in a hurry ... Ozu uses them because he doesn’t care about the events he omits.

The detailed first half of the film establishes a connection to the characters that helps us understand them better during the events of the latter half. It’s hard to say where it starts, but the combination of Ozu and Hara (this was the first of their six films together) is the match for any match of director and star in all of the movies. #65 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

(I have not mentioned Hara's co-star, Chishû Ryû, which is very unfair. He is a crucial component in the film's success. I just can't quit thinking about Hara.)




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