One of the most famed and prolific directors to emerge from Japan during the early 20th century, Yasujiro Ozu quickly made a name for himself while directing a series of domestic family comedy-dramas, each one brimming with authenticity and heart like nothing the medium had seen before. His fame and directing skills would only continue to grow more over the course of his long directing career, and few films in Ozu’s oeuvre (try saying that five times fast) so perfectly display his knack for depicting such raw emotion in an otherwise rigidly polite and mannered setting than the quiet, understated masterpiece Late Spring. And with the recent passing of its lead actress Setsuko Hara (more on her later), there’s no better time to reflect upon one of the greatest films from the post-World War II era of Japanese cinema, so let’s dive right in.
Widely regarded as the first of Ozu’s proposed ‘Noriko Trilogy’, which also includes the equally wonderful Early Summer and Tokyo Story, the story revolves around a woman named Noriko (the aforementioned Setsuko Hara) who is perfectly content living single life at home with her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), and has no plans to get married. But soon enough, her aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) convinces the aging Shukichi to marry her off anyway, or else she will remain unmarried for the rest of her life, according to her at least. When Noriko personally turns down Masa’s attempts at convincing her, Shukichi in turn sacrifices his own happiness and well being in order to do what he is told – by society and his peers – is the societal norms of the time.
One of the strongest aspects of Late Spring is its ability to so tastefully depict a Japan still stuck in the aftermath of a World War. On top of that, one they lost and which also cost them many lives. But it does so with rarely, if ever directly mentioning the war by name, or any of the countries that conquered them. Both in the literal narrative of the film as well as the subtle thematic elements, we’re seeing a forceful return to the (possibly imagined) societal status quo of pre-war Japan after enduring such a costly, humiliating defeat just a few years ago. Also on display is the increasing clash between the progressive, modern values of the time and the more traditional values still being held up by the older generations. The constant tension between these two ideologies is at the heart of Late Spring, mostly in regards to marriage, but also by extension the whole of Japanese culture during the mid-20th century. It’s a constant battle that’s seemingly still being fought today, in many countries around the world, which helps to give this film a sense of thematic timelessness and never-ending social and personal relevance.
And that brings us to the leading lady du jour, Setsuko Hara herself. A frequent collaborator of Ozu’s, the two of them wound up becoming one of the most celebrated actress-director pairings in all of film history during their respective careers. Hara often played similar character types whenever teaming with Ozu; a beleaguered, agreeable housewife (or maid) whom others try to impose their own ideals and wills onto.Late Spring sees this character less as a part of a larger ensemble along the lines of future projects like Early Summer or Tokyo Story, and moreso at the very center of the proceedings. And given this, Hara is more than up to the challenge of carrying this entire film, providing her usual sense of external fragility with ever so subtly a hint of deteriorating psyche bubbling underneath the surface – in other words, the perfect physical embodiment of the deeper underlying subtext of the film.
In conclusion, Late Spring is an essential piece of viewing for anyone wishing to explore world cinema, or the films of Japan in particular. A tender and understated yet ever so powerful familial drama that leaves a very soft albeit incredibly strong impact. Expressing empathy by depicting real people dealing with real issues is one of film’s greatest assets,and Late Spring – as well as everything else made by Yasujiro Ozu, really – is a shining example of this. Do yourself a favor, and treat yourself to this gem if you haven’t already.