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November 23, 2011

Japanese Film: "Late Spring" (1949) by Ozu Yasujiro

Banshun is quintessential Ozu: a daughter is living a happy, quiet life with her widowed father; a meddling aunt warns that it is time for her to marry; the daughter is less than enthusiastic, so the father pretends he himself is going to remarry; jealous, the daughter agrees to an arranged marriage; the father remains behind alone.

Also the characters are typical: Ryu Chishu as the father, an elderly professor (Ryu was only 45 at the time, but he was good at playing aged persons); Hara Setsuko as the daughter, more radiant than ever; and Sugimura Haruko as the meddling aunt.

And so is the style: the stationary camera position, the low angle shot, the conscious arrangement of characters and careful composition of each shot, the avoidance of movement, the many distance shots/low number of close-ups, the camera running on for a few moments even after people have left a room, the clearly spoken, unhurried and uninterrupted dialogues, the disregard for eye matches in dialogues, the full-face shot of the speaker, the use of curtain shots, etc. This formalistic way of filming helps to make the viewpoint more neutral and unsentimental. It also serves to set off the characters with greater clarity. And it is interesting because it is a decidedly non-Hollywood film grammar.

But it goes too far to call Ozu's techical style "typically Japanese" as Western observers have done. For in that case it would have to be shared by many other Japanese directors, and that is only partially the case (Shimizu Hiroshi and Mizoguchi Kenji for long takes and low camera angles). Stylistically, Ozu is first and for all "typically Ozu." Even in Japan nobody else comes even close to Ozu's style. (It is in another aspect, his adherence to traditional values, that Ozu was indeed "typically Japanese").

Ozu is interested in characters, not in plot, so the slight story I have sketched in the above, suits him just fine. Anyway, in Ozu' case stories do not do justice to the films, which are incredibly richer than the quotidian events that happen in them.

As in all later films by Ozu, the subject of Banshun is the loss of traditional family values, especially the care family members used to have for each other, and which used to be more important than personal gratification. This was for example the main theme in Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), where most family members are shown as too egoistic to take proper care for the homeless mother and younger sister. In Banshun Ozu turns this theme humorously on its head: Noriko is the traditional one who wants to go on taking care of her widowed father, but the father himself sees that such behavior would be too large a sacrifice - she must have her own life and her own family.

There is a secondary theme, too, that of a "rite of passage:" life consists of several stages and we have to move on, even if that means leaving loved ones. The time comes that children have to leave their parents (something Ozu never practiced, he lived unmarried with his mother almost until his death!).

It is a common idea in Japan that both men and women should marry in order to take their proper position in society (only now this is being hollowed out by the increasing number of singles). Men, once they have the financial means to do so, and women before their mid-twenties. Noriko in the film is 27 (the "late spring" of the title), and although there is a suggestion she may be still single because men her age died in great numbers at the war front, in the Japanese thinking of 60 years ago, it is definitely time for her to take the next step. The aunt fulfills the role of the absent mother - the father is too busy with his research to notice. And thanks to the system of arranged marriages, after Hattori, a friend of Noriko and her father's research assistant, already appears to be engaged, another suitable partner can soon be found.

Banshun was made under the Occupation when films often preached the new "democracy." Ozu does that too, but in a very soft way. The father, for example, is no dictator, even with the arranged marriage system, the daughter can make her own, free choice, as he stresses. After all, the legal underpinnings to the family system (ie) had been abolished by the Occupation and small, nuclear families were a fact of life.

The miai system works as follows (it still exists, although now less than 10% of marriages are still arranged). Photos and CVs are exchanged, after which a meeting in the presence of family members is set up, usually in a restaurant or a hotel. Here, the prospective partners can see each other and talk without committing themselves. They can also have more meetings if they like. Noriko can still say no if she doesn't fancy her future husband (in The Makioka Sisters, filmed by Ichikawa Kon, the second sister Yukiko has a whole string of miai where she routinely rejects the proposed partner!).

But in Banshun the guy is found to be alright, thanks to some slight facial resemblance to Gary Cooper. By the way, we never see the marriage prospect nor the miai, nor also the final wedding. All these scenes are elided to concentrate on the story of Noriko leaving her father. The last time we see Noriko is when she has dressed in her heavy wedding kimono, which seems to press her down not only physically, but also mentally...

Japanese traditional culture is also re-evaluated and shown to fit well into a modernized, democratic Japan: the film starts with a tea ceremony, there is a Noh performance, and a visit to Kyoto with the Kiyomizu temple and the rock garden of Ryoanji. But these are the outward aspects of Japanese culture, of culture as a pastime. We should realize that the underlying traditional value system was damaged by leading the nation into war and defeat, even to a conservative as Ozu. He just tried to salvage the positive aspects.

By the way, Banshun does not contain any "Zen" elements as some Western writers wrongly infer due to a tendency to equate Japanese culture with Zen (Mr Daisetz Suzuki is to blame for this!). Japanese culture is not a Zen culture - it is much too varied, and the most important Buddhist groups are the Pure Land sects, not Zen. On top of that Zen Buddhism had firmly allied itself with the military during the war and was therefore in the years immediately after '45 rather suspect among ordinary Japanese. (This very different view of Zen in Japan and in the West also caused the surprise many Japanese felt when the first American and European Zen students arrived and started knocking on temple doors).

Also the "still-life cutaways" such as the famous (because much discussed) flower vase in the inn in Kyoto, have no "Zen connotation." These neutral "curtain shots" just serve to separate different scenes and are not themselves filled with a specific  meaning. The fun comes, when Ozu plays with this system: after showing the vase at night in the inn, where Noriko is sleeping beside her father, instead of cutting to the next scene as expected, we are returned to Noriko whose smiling face now looks pensive. But the vase is just a neutral interior object here, not a "vessel filled with meaning."

Some other cultural points:
  • Noriko and her father live in a detached house in Kamakura, now a quiet temple town (except for the tourists) and residential area. Kamakura is about an hour from Tokyo by train, a train ride which is actually shown in the film.
  • A bell is attached to the sliding door at the entrance to the house. This announces visitors - in a very safe Japan in 1949, the front door is not locked. When the father comes home after the wedding, the bell rings to an empty house.
  • In a discussion with his research assistant, Hattori, the father mentions the economist Friedrich List. The assistant thinks wrongly the father is talking about the composer Franz Liszt. Foreign names are often difficult for the Japanese, just as Japanese names are difficult for Westerners.
  • When Noriko is cycling with her friend, they pass a Coca Cola sign, in the middle of nowhere. Besides the obvious symbol of Westernization, this was also a token of the in 1949 still ongoing Occupation (it lasted until 1952). 
  • In their place of work, Japanese men wore Western clothes, but on coming home they changed quickly into informal Japanese dress. Lots of clothes are changed in Ozu's films!
This film made in 1949 is the most serene film Ozu ever made. Nothing negative happens, as if Ozu wanted to show the public that four years after the end of WWII, peace had finally come to Japan.