Early Summer (1951)

Yasujirō Ozu | 2hr 16min

On one side of Noriko’s circle of friends in Early Summer, Fumiko and Takako proclaim that “Single people don’t know what true happiness is,” asserting contentment in their marriages even while complaining about their husbands. On the other side, Noriko herself and Aya lightly tease their friends for being tied down to traditional institutions that keep them from living their lives freely. It is a relatively light-hearted dynamic, and one that acutely represents the cross-sectional divide of social attitudes spread across Yasujirō Ozu’s depiction of post-war Japan, though it is back home in domestic settings where the film truly takes hold of these cultural stakes. As the rift in Noriko’s group widens, so too does the conflict between multiple generations of Japanese men and women under the same roof intensify, each of them struggling to reconcile the happiness of one individual against the security of the family unit.

There are few filmmakers in history so stylistically suited to these delicate tales of domestic dramas as Ozu, whose sensitive examinations of familial love and disenchantment offer a stage to those voices typically silenced in public arenas. While his camera will intermittently turn to broader visions of Tokyo rendered through its impressive structures and greyscale landscapes, it is evident that his characters’ homes are where he truly thrives, infusing interiors with the rich lives and personalities of the families who inhabit them. Door casings and hallways are often layered deeply into his shots, creating a funnelling effect that keeps narrowing each successive frame into the background, each one wrapping characters up in cosy compositions.

Ozu’s characteristic use of frames within frames aren’t just among the best in cinema history – there are simply no other auteurs who are as defined by this stylistic choice as him, creating these evocative compositions of domestic settings.
Character interactions captured through this thin slice of a frame coming through a doorway at an angle, often returned to as these characters enter or leave the home.

Incidentally, this also means that it is difficult for the characters of Early Summer to hold private conversations away from prying ears, as right after Noriko finishes gossiping with Fumiko, the door in the background slides open to reveal a whole other room where her brother, Kōichi, has been eavesdropping. Similarly, another discussion between Kōichi and his mother, Shige, can barely progress without the constant interruption of the family’s young boys popping in and out of the shot to bug their elders, injecting a small dose of humour into the drama. The claustrophobia of this space is especially felt in the narrowing of frames through doorways so much that they become vertical. Even as family members are squeezed into tight spaces though, the décor that surrounds them never suggests anything but a personalised environment they have crafted for themselves. Ozu arranges each teapot, sake bottle, and basket with great precision, crafting a tidy sort of clutter in settings where parallel and perpendicular lines otherwise dominate his mise-en-scène.

Multiple generations living under a single roof makes for some excellent character dynamics set across layers of Ozu’s frames.
It isn’t just the doorways, but Ozu turns his precisely arranged decor into frames too, here foregrounding a chair and desk around Kōichi as he comes home from work.

Every now and again, these stray items will become gorgeous frames of their own, as we observe in one composition that encloses everything between a chair and a desk sitting in the foreground. Though it is subtle, the formal consistency of this visual choice has a tangible effect in binding characters to their environments. Ozu will frequently begin scenes right before characters enter and only cut away a few seconds after they leave, and in those short moments of silence, we can feel the presence of its inhabitants. Every now and again he works in his trademark shot of hanging laundry as well, imprinting cut-outs of human shapes onto his scenery, and in this he effectively reminds us of the family who are still carrying out mundane lives in this comfortable home, even when they are not physically onscreen.

Hanging laundry makes for another trademark of Ozu’s, imbuing the setting with the presence of its characters even when they aren’t around.

Most powerful of all though may be the recurring series of shots drawing attention to the birdcages tended to by Noriko’s father, Shūkichi, hanging outside the family home. Ozu’s opening of the film with this motif and intermittent return to it is especially important in underscoring the nature of Noriko’s predicament. Like her father’s pets, she is fed and cared for by her parents, and marriage would similarly ensure a stable future, but the pressure to enter this patriarchal institution poses the same limitations upon her as those bars separating the birds from the open sky. It is not surprising that it is the men of the family who have the most outspoken views about this, with her brother, Kōichi, tersely bringing them up at mealtimes.

“It’s deplorable, what’s happened since the war. Women have become so forward, taking advantage of ‘etiquette’.”

“That’s not true. We’ve just taken our natural place. Men were too forward up to now.”

“That’s why you can’t get married.”

Ozu threads his bird motif through the film in pillow shots, marking the significant underlying metaphor of Noriko’s restricted life.

On virtually every level of her characterisation, Ozu defines Noriko as a modern woman. It is clear in the mention of her Audrey Hepburn idolisation that the seeping of Western culture into 1950s Japan is not merely limited to the relationship values that Early Summer most prominently explores, and quite surprisingly, the question of her queerness even arises with relatively little judgement. Though she works in an office and intelligently asserts her own independence, none of this takes away from the warmth of Setsuko Hara’s radiant performance. She is a bright beam of sunlight in this cast, sincerely offering support to her family with a smile that, for at least the first couple of acts, seems impossible to wipe away.

Ozu blocks bodies like land formations, crafting gorgeous landscapes in interior settings.

The unity in her family interactions is thoughtfully painted out in Ozu’s staging, drawing comparisons to his creative contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, in the way arrangements of bodies become landscapes in their staggered blocking, rising up like hills across the scenery. Admittedly though, this is where the similarities end. Ozu is happier to dwell on static shots for longer than his Japanese counterpart, quite literally sitting in shots that hover only barely above ground level, equally absorbing the comfort of family gatherings and the sorrow of Noriko’s imminent departure. On top of this, his editing veers sharply away from Kurosawa’s fast-paced action, and instead manifests in languidly paced pillow shots, delivering formal cutaways between scenes that elaborate on the social context of this modern world of brick office buildings and sleek automobiles.

Modernist architecture is prominent in Early Summer, visually displaying the new Japanese society of progress and functionality that is gradually displacing older traditions.

It is within this tension between Japan’s past and future that Ozu’s narrative precariously lingers, as we watch Shige almost get hit by a car while nervously crossing a street, and Shūkichi being forced to pause mid-walk at a level crossing while a train passes, inspiring an impromptu meditation on this new, unfamiliar society. Within their home though, it is a strain which tugs at Noriko’s mind, with her arranged marriage to an older, wealthy man feeling more like a reduction of her value to a mere pawn in some social game she has no interest in. It is not this discontentment though which drives her impulsive acceptance of an informal marriage proposal to her widowed childhood friend, Kenkichi Yabe, who has recently accepted a new work placement in the countryside and must now move away from the city with his daughter. Above all else, she is swayed by the sudden realisation that this is simply the right choice for her. Though she claims that the feeling she can “trust him with all my heart and be happy” is not love, Aya begs to differ – from an outsider’s perspective, that is exactly what love is.

Creating frames out of cars and boom gates, using the full depth of field to trap older characters within a modern society beyond their understanding.

Naturally, Noriko’s family is not so keen on this unexpected prospect given its significant deviation from Japanese tradition. To them, it is a purely thoughtless act, and even in Ozu’s blocking there is a sudden turn towards a quiet disconnection that we haven’t seen on this level before, lingering painfully in grating silences. The only time we have previously seen Noriko’s bright smile waver was while facing the growing separation in her friendship group, and so her devastation over her family’s disappointment feels all the more heartbreaking for the immense shift we witness in Hara’s disposition. In the time spent mulling over this internal conflict, Ozu instils her character with real depth, letting her cry over the pain she has inflicted on her loved ones, even while she recognises it as the best thing to do.

The shift in family dynamics echoes silently through the atmosphere, as eye contact disappears and Noriko becomes lonelier than ever.

Noriko is a self-proclaimed optimist after all, unafraid of poverty and refusing to be scared off by the prospect of becoming a stepmother. As she wanders handsomely bare landscapes of beaches and streets with Fumiko, Ozu gradually sets in motion a gradual reparation between the modernists and traditionalists of the family, and though there is not a single point where everything is suddenly set right, there is the realisation that understanding is not needed for cooperation. Perhaps the beautifully harmonious family photo he stages right before her departure marks the closest these generations will ever get to complete unity again. At the same time though, there is also a promise of new beginnings in the film that lifts its bittersweet conclusion into something a little purer in its hopefulness. “Our family has been scattered. But we’ve done better than average,” her mother ponders, and therein lies the sobering acceptance of time’s forward march that underlies Early Summer, and which Ozu introspectively embraces with both wistful reminiscence and eager inspiration.

Not always a filmmaker known for his natural landscapes, and yet Ozu keeps reminding us that he can operate comfortably here too, setting a key conversation in the film’s closing minutes on this bleak, monochrome beach.

Early Summer is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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