Criterion // 1949 // 108 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // May 9th, 2012
No director epitomized the Japanese family drama like Yasujirô Ozu (Tokyo Story) and no Ozu film better represents this style better than Late Spring, his first "season" film. Quiet and contemplative while still brimming with emotion, it is one of the greatest accomplishments in his great career, and is now available on Blu-ray on the Criterion Collection.
Noriko (Setsuko Hara, Early Summer) is nearing 30, still unmarried and living with her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishû Ryû, An Autumn Afternoon). Even in the face of multiple quality suitors, Noriko has no real desire to wed and can't bear the thought of leaving her father with nobody to care for him. Shukichi knows, however, how selfish it is to keep her from starting a family of her own, so he begins to take steps to convince her that he will survive without her help.
That summary of the plot of Late Spring is both too much and too little to suffice for the film. While the film is more concerned with the inherent drama of life than the specifics of the plot, there is too much going on to sufficiently detail. There are countless tiny dynamics within the room where we sit watching and listening as the actors play them out.
Late Spring, like much of Ozu's work in this vein, is almost impossibly reserved, so much that it sometimes seems like barely a movie. That might not sound like the best way to sell it in a review that, essentially, is a ringing endorsement of the film, but that's because it's so different from the kind of cinema I normally gravitate toward. I'm a person who desires heightened emotions and extreme situations in his cinema. I don't necessarily know why that is, but I've come to accept it and I don't think I'm alone in this, anyway. Late Spring is the opposite of this and that's exactly what makes the film so refreshing.
Uneventful as the film may be, it's meditative and emotionally resonant. For the most part, parent and child interactions are not met with screaming and flailing of hands. Instead, as Ozu displays here, conversations are short and nearly silent. Few words say plenty when there are decades of history between people and it doesn't take a lot to feel their message. Not everything sits on the surface, but Ozu gives up enough that, when the bigger emotions do start to brim up, it doesn't come as a surprise, but still carries an impact.
Ozu's camera style, which mostly consists of the audience watching the action from the level of sitting on a tatami, gives us the opportunity to watch two of Ozu's greatest performers working together. Ryû, playing a man more than twenty years his senior, perfectly embodies Shukichi's stoicism and wisdom, his knowing grunt sufficing for many sentences of monologue. Hara, who starred in so many Ozu movies, is likewise incredible as Noriko, the daughter who wouldn't leave. In the first half of the movie, she smiles half-sincerely and it's unclear whether she really desires the single life she has chosen or whether it's about some personal obligation. As things start to become clearer for her, the smile changes to tears as she faces quiet revelation after quiet revelation until finally coming to terms with how the dynamics have changed. All of this, of course, happens near silently, but the message comes across smoothly.
Ozu is a master of setting all of this up and, through not only father and daughter, but through all the side relationships, delivers a moving portrayal of a changing Japan. It isn't just the way the family acts, but Coca-Cola signs and new, modern ways of post-war living start to sprinkle the landscape, giving new dimension to the traditional ways of the characters. The film is beautifully put together, with not a scene or even a moment out of place, but you don't need me to tell you that. Late Spring is an unmitigated classic of Japanese cinema and, if you haven't seen it, you should.
Unfortunately, while I have little doubt that Criterion put their best effort possible into the Blu-ray disc for Late Spring, the problems that have existed in previous editions persist. The sound is fine, with a relatively noise-free PCM mono mix. The dialog is often quiet but is placed clearly in the mix and the subtly effective score by Senji Itô (A Hen in the Wind) fairly clear. There's some background noise, but nothing that noticeable. The image takes a real hit, though. At its best, there is fine detail in the 1080p transfer, with a nice bright contrast, but there are so many emulsion scratches that the image will never look as good as fans will want it. It is an improvement over Criterion's DVD of the film, so at least until some new technology comes along, this is as good as it gets.
The extras, while the same as on their DVD, are as valuable as ever. The audio commentary with Richard Peña, program director of New York's Society of Lincoln Center is an informative and fairly interesting listen, at least as far as it goes for film scholars. He knows of what he speaks and gives plenty of valuable insight into the style and historical significance of the film. You can't really do better, however, than the inclusion of Tokyo-ga, Win Wenders's 1985 film about Ozu, made right at the height of the director's talents. In it, he travels to Japan to paint a portrait of Ozu's importance to Japan and to the cinematic record. The interviews with some of the cast and crew and his perspective on Ozu serve as a better documentary than any making-of piece. Finally the customary essays are included in the booklet.
Late Spring isn't some kind of potboiler drama, but it's just as dramatic in its own way. Rarely does a movie so incisively cut into unspoken dynamics of a family; rarer still is the movie that can show this to an audience without comment and remain compelling. Late Spring is one of those rarities. It's a real shame that the image isn't better, but that doesn't change the power of the film one bit.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film