As David Bordwell has pointed out, Early Summer (Bakushu) is an early experiment in the ensemble film - a group of characters connected in some way, instead of a single protagonist. Ozu observes the lives of 19 characters (plus a twentieth one who is not shown but very important to the film), an extended family and their friends and colleagues at work, and their interactions rather than the (nonexistent) plot drive the film forward.
The family consists in the first place of the Mamiyas, father Koichi (Ryu Chishu), mother Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko) and their two young boys - as in I Was Born, But... They live in Kamakura; father is a doctor in a hospital in Tokyo. With them lives the sister of Koichi, Noriko (Hara Setsuko), who works in Tokyo as a secretary. She is a modern young woman, and her income also helps support the family.
Also living together with these characters are the aged parents of Koichi and Noriko, Shukichi (Sugai Ichiro) and Shige (Higashiyama Chieko). They will eventually retire to the ancestral home in the area of "Yamato" (Asuka, south of Nara), but for now they are enjoying life with their children and grandchildren. A visitor in the first part of the film is "old uncle" (Kodo Kokuten), who has come to visit the family from Yamato.
There are several neighbors taking part in the story, the most important one is a subordinate of Koichi, doctor Yabe Kenkichi (Nihonyanagi Hiroshi) who is a widower living with his mother (Sugimura Haruko) and his little daughter. Another often appearing character is Noriko's Tokyo friend Aya (Awashima Chikage).
The first 40 minutes of the film just show these and other characters and their simple interactions. There is an excursion to the Great Buddha in Kamakura, Boy's Day (May 5) is celebrated with a children's party, the parents leisurely visit a park. The second part starts when the family suddenly realizes that Noriko already is 28 and that it is time for her to marry, so they all start pushing her. At the end of the second part she takes her own marriage decision and the final section of the film shows how that works out on the various other characters. An epilogue shows the parents and uncle in Yamato.
Noriko is the kind of modern young woman who often appears in other films of the period of the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), as such types were promoted by the American censorship to introduce democracy. But where other films can be preachy and almost propagandistic (Aoi Sanmyaku by Imai is such an example), Ozu, on a much higher level of artistry, just shows what it means to be a modern, professional woman.
Noriko enjoys her life and her work and has no wish to marry. With her humor she is a bright spot in the house. She likes going out with her friends, although a division has become visible between the unmarried and married ones. With her friend Aya, Noriko preaches the advantages of being a single young woman. Just when the family starts pressing her about marriage, she receives an interesting proposal for an arranged marriage (omiai) via her boss. But the interested ones are Koichi and other family members, not Noriko.
Just at that time the boys have run away after a quarrel and Noriko has been looking for them with the help of their neighbor, Yabe. Yabe has received a proposal to move for a few years to a hospital in Akita, in northern Japan. When Noriko later visits Yabe's mother, the mother suddenly presses her to marry Yabe, as it will be difficult for him to live in Akita alone with his small daughter. Unexpectedly, Noriko immediately accepts and therefore shocks her family members, who were hoping she would make a superior match with a company director, instead of marrying a doctor of a provincial hospital - and on top of that, a widower with a child. By the way, nobody asks what Yabe's wishes are and he seems rather non-committal.
Noriko is a modern woman, for she has made her own decision and rebelled against the wishes of her family. In Japan it was (and is) customary to at least consult the family about such ponderous matters as a marriage partner, but Noriko takes her decision alone. But as modern as she is in the decision making process, in the choice of her partner she is very conservative: the boy from next door, who works for her brother. As she herself agrees, this is a safe choice. She feels at ease with Yabe, and that is all. She is not in love with him, but as she is being pushed to marry, she prefers someone she at least feels comfortable with. So this no modern "love match," as her friend Aya teases her, and she will not have a modern home with Coca Cola bottles lined up in the fridge.
Another reason for selecting Yabe has to do with the absent twentieth protagonist of the film, Shoji, the brother of Noriko and Koichi who was sent to the front in the war and has never returned. His body has also never been found. Yabe was a friend of this brother and that may explain Noriko's feeling of closeness to him. The presence (or rather, absence) of Shoji hangs like shroud over the film.
The parents of course also miss their son with pain in their hearts. In the epilogue, when they have returned to Yamato (Noriko's marriage and departure for Akita has led to the break-up of the extended family), they sit looking at the early summer fields of barley, through which a marriage procession winds it way. They think of Noriko, but also of Shoji, who is symbolized by such an ear of barley. (The literal title of the film is "The Barley Harvest Season.")
- Arranged marriages were the custom in this period, even among "Westernized" Japanese. The prospective marriage partners would be introduced to each other by a CV and a photo; when these were satisfactory, a meeting would follow with both families present, usually in an upscale restaurant or hotel.
- Secretly digging into the background of the prospective partners was also common. Koichi is checking the background of the man proposed by Noriko's boss, and the family hears that a private detective has been around in the neighborhood asking questions about Noriko.
- Yabe's mother gives a nice example of indirect communication: when she is angry at Yabe for accepting the proposal to go to Akita (really the boondocks at that time), she sits silent with stiff shoulders, but refuses to speak.
- The children's party in the film is Boy's Day on May 5, and not a birthday party. We also see the carp streamers (koinobori) that are hung on a tall pole outside the house for this festival: two large ones for the parents and smaller ones for the boys in the family.
- In the 1950s social pressure on both men and women to marry was very strong. Today, the Japanese marry later and later, or not at all.
- Yamato, the area (not the name of a village!) to which the parents return, is famous as the place where the first court that governed the nation was established in the 5th c. It is also a poetic name for Japan, with nationalistic overtones, and here may symbolize a return to old values. The hill in the last shot could be Mt Miwa, a sacred mountain near present Sakurai.