Late Spring (1949)

Yasujirō Ozu | 1hr 48min

The cycles of human life in Yasujirō Ozu’s domestic dramas are as natural as seasonal changes. Parents grow old, children move out of home, and their youthful innocence matures into worldly wisdom, guiding them forward into new experiences. This is the transitory period represented in the title Late Spring, where the period of birth and youth for 27-year-old Noriko is coming to an end. Chishū Ryū’s gently spoken widower Shukichi is not the obstacle to his daughter’s inevitable departure, but it is rather her own reservations about marriage and abandoning her father which creates friction in their household.

Setsuko Hara is radiant here in her first of many fruitful collaborations with Ozu, becoming the emotional centre around which the layers of his mise-en-scène and narrative are delicately formed. Her perpetual, beaming smile draws the camera’s attention in wide and mid-shots alike, and even continues through her savage digs at her father’s friend’s remarriage, calling it “filthy” and “indecent” without so much as a scowl cross her face.

Even outside his perfectly arranged interiors, Ozu keeps his eye for framing with exterior modern architecture.

From Noriko’s perspective, building a new life outside of her current home would be a selfish act. Just the thought alone is deeply upsetting, threatening to undermine the security she shares with her father. As far as she is concerned, “Marriage is life’s graveyard” – or at least, those are the words her friend puts in her mouth. At the moment that Aunt Masa starts pushing her strongly in this direction and reveals that her own father is planning to remarry their widowed neighbour, that smile that Hara is known for is wiped from her face, and it is a long time before it reappears.

When she’s smiling, it’s impossible to imagine Hara’s face with any other expression, and then there is a marked shift in her demeanour upon discovering her father’s plans to remarry. This shot mirrors nicely with the shot in the final scene with Ryū in a strikingly similar position.

Indeed, Ozu’s thoughtful framing of Noriko in his open doorways, funnelled corridors, and shoji screens essentially forms a protective shell around her, deeply connecting the young woman and her family to each book, chair, and piece of laundry on the clothesline. There is substantial beauty in this mundanity, and it is here where he develops his formally rigorous aesthetic as extensions of his characters. Even why they aren’t visible, their presence is still suggested by the pieces of themselves left behind – a pair of sitting cushions on the floor, a coat left hanging on a rack, and a hat resting on a briefcase collectively break up the harsh angles and lines of the living room’s architecture with hints of humanity. Though Noriko possesses no romantic interest in her engaged friend Hattori, Ozu still underscores their tender pairing through his framing of their parallel bikes in the foreground of one particularly elegant composition, mirroring the couple as they walk off into the distance together.

Ozu is a master of mise-en-scène, but his talent doesn’t announce itself loudly. There is precision in the placement of each cushion, coat, and hat, leaving traces of characters around the scene even when they aren’t present.
Ozu segmenting the frame through these vertical lines.
There is also of course a depth of field to Ozu’s staging as well, containing characters within their frames, and returning to the hanging laundry here as a consistent visual presence.

Ozu continues this still life artistry in more mystifying imagery as well, most famously that which briefly lingers on a vase in an inn where Noriko lies next to her father, coming to terms with their inevitable separation. Generations of film scholars would go on to pick apart the meaning of this simple cutaway, but on a purely formal level, it ruptures the scene’s pacing like a comma halfway through a sentence, gently splitting up a pair of close-ups that are almost identical, besides her smile which vanishes from one shot to the next.

The infamous, enigmatic vase cutaway. So much has been written on its meaning, though formally it fits effortlessly into the pacing and flow of the scene.

In the consistently low angles as well, there is also a deep humility baked into Ozu’s perspective that never let us look down on any character or their environment. The seconds before an actor enters a scene and the seconds after they exit are spent in quiet reflection with the room, finding traces of life that exist beyond human drama. These are also frequently blended in with his trademark pillow shots, drifting across still images of ancient Japanese pagodas, commercial trainlines, and modern interiors, leaving us never quite sure if a shot stands alone as a quiet observation, or whether it is about to open a scene. All we can do when they appear is consider both with equal significance. Ozu may be just as equally skilled an editor as his Japanese contemporary Akira Kurosawa, but rather than cutting to drive forward his plotting, he uses it as a tool to step back and contemplate the narrative from afar.

Pagodas, train lines, domestic interiors – Ozu’s pillow shots do an immense amount of work laying out the coexistence of tradition and modernity.

By sensitising us to the intricacies of the world around his characters, Ozu is also doing a lot of work to show the specific setting of the post-war society they live in – one which is striving for the future, while trying to hang onto its nostalgic heritage. Given this context, it’s easy to empathise with both sides of Late Spring’s core conflict, though as Noriko finds herself falling for the man she has been set up with, the harmony Ozu settles on possesses a strange melancholy.

Here, his pillow shots step up in frequency, floating us along lyrical meditations of the fate that has befallen this engaged woman once doggedly against getting married, and the lonely father who now mourns the void left in his home. Not that he would ever let that show – the notion that he would be remarrying was merely a lie he constructed to nudge her along without feelings of guilt, and now as she departs, he gifts her his own words of wisdom in her search for contentment.

“Happiness isn’t something you wait around for. It’s something you create yourself. Getting married isn’t happiness. Happiness lies in the forging of a new life shared together. It may take a year or two, maybe even five or ten. Happiness comes only through effort. Only then can you claim to be man and wife.”

Late Spring settles on a strange melancholy in its final minutes, returning to an iconic Ozu shot though now with its frame darkened.

As he sits alone in his now-dark home, he slowly and methodically peels an apple, silently recognising that Noriko’s happiness is no longer his to hold onto. Ryū doesn’t need any words to express the sorrow that has overtaken his life. In the final seconds, he bows his head in resignation, and Ozu inserts one last cutaway to waves rolling onto a beach, like a reminder of life’s gentle cycles that carry his characters along. With such thoughtful editing and curated imagery guiding Late Spring’s lyrical rhythms forward, there is both profound joy and sadness to be found in this father-daughter love, dominant for the years one spends in their youth, though never able to carry the longevity of romantic, lifelong partnership.

Ending with the powerful image of Ryū peeling the apple, delivering a poignant silent performance as he is left alone.

Late Spring is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


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