Any season is the right season for Judge Mike Pinsky to extol the virtues of this classic family drama set in post-WWII Japan.
"Leave this house to the young people."—Great Uncle
Noriko Mamiya (Setsuko Hara) is 28 years old, in the summer of her life. She has a job with a sympathetic boss (Shuji Sano). She lives with her parents (Ichiro Sagai and Chieko Higashiyama), as well as her brother (Chishu Ryu), his wife (Kuniko Miyake) and children (Zen Murase and Isao Shirosawa). In this cocoon, Noriko is comfortable. She works, visits friends both single and married, and goes calmly about her life in Kita Kamakura.
But this is Japan in 1951, the end of the Occupation and the beginning of a new summer for the country. Everyone in the family has a role to play in the new world. A young lady should be married, starting her own family. Should Noriko marry that friend of her boss, even though she has never met him? What about her childhood friend (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi), a widower with a young daughter?
And what will happen to the Mamiya family if and when Noriko does get married?
The first image of Yasujiro Ozu's Early Summer: the surf's edge and a stray dog. Erosion, calmly working in accord with nature. A lost soul outside the comfort and safety of the pack. Inside the Mamiya home, Koichi (Chishu Ryu) keeps songbirds in cages. But apart from their twittering, the house is placid and rectangular.
In Ozu's world, everything is well composed. The camera sits low to the ground and maintains its distance. Ozu allows the film to set its own pace, as if naturally emerging in much the same way Michelangelo thought of his statues as emerging from the marble. We follow Noriko's day as a secretary. Meanwhile, everyone in the family enjoys a visit from Uncle, the embodiment of Japan's old life, now dying out. Ozu portrays this evolution in Japanese culture without resentment or rancor. The old ways die; new traditions begin. There is a matter-of-fact quality to his appraisal, a sadness that turns up the corner of its mouth into a bittersweet smile. When the youngest son, on a dare from his brother, comes up to Uncle and calls him an idiot, there is at first silence. Then Uncle laughs. Later the boy gives Uncle some candy at the feet of the Kamakura Buddha, and they pat one another's faces. When the Noriko's parents reminisce about a son missing since the war, father Shukichi (Ichiro Sagai) says calmly, "He won't be coming back…There's no hope now." Is he half-smiling with nostalgia? Past and future seem amused by one another.
Ozu's films (of which Early Summer was his forty-fourth, and somewhat of a comeback after a brief post-war slump) are often lumped in with shomen-geki genre films, sentimental domestic weepers that validate tradition and family harmony. But Ozu's better films, and Early Summer certainly fits into this category, are not blindly sentimental. We meet Noriko's friend Taka (Kuniko Igawa), whose troubled marriage is brushed off with mild jokes and forced smiles. Everyone pressures Noriko to marry (even her boss) to the point where it becomes rather comical, if not a little creepy. And Noriko's two little brothers are spoiled brats, making us a little suspicious of the next generation.
Noriko's own problem is marriage. Her boss, Satake, has offered his friend, although all she has is a picture and glowing recommendations. But there is also Kenkichi, her friend and next door neighbor. He has always been a part of the family in a way. He was best friends with her lost brother, and most importantly, she feels comfortable with him. But if she marries him and moves away, her family, dependent on her income, will fall apart. Change is inevitable, but its effects are bittersweet.
All this could easily veer into melodrama. But Early Summer is like the rhythm of the ocean surf: relaxing and precise, rolling over the viewer. Ozu's mastery of composition and precise timing means that the film never lulls the viewer to sleep, as so many family melodramas can do. The characters are complex, and their social situation as members of Japan's lower-middle class is painstakingly realized. Consider Noriko's situation. Does she get engaged to Kenkichi because she feels grateful to his doting mother? Is it because of his connection to her dead brother? Is it because the Yabes are so close to family that it seems like she is still staying home?
Or is it because she simply trusts him?
The real appeal of Ozu's film, though, would be the small, elegant moments. Father goes for a walk, sits on a curb, and watches a train roll by. It is time itself, you can see him think. And then we notice the wisps of cloud in the sky. Narrative drive is not an issue for Ozu: He hated plot and overt causality. Instead, Early Summer unfolds organically, relying on "anecdote" (the term Ozu favored) and the interactions of a fine ensemble cast. The ensemble approach is unusual for Ozu, who tended to keep his films compact and focused. Ozu often used the same actors, the same settings (many of his films are set in Kamakura, where he lived), and constructed meticulous variations on the struggles of bourgeois families.
The struggles in question are both economic and philosophical. That is, how do these families juggle the transition from traditional Japanese culture and its focus on family interdependence to the modern world? Noriko is, in the words of her boss, "old fashioned for a modern girl." The key to our empathy with Noriko is the performance of Setsuko Hara, who conveys her independence without making Noriko seem impudent. She does not so much rebel against her parents than fulfill their real wishes without them being able to recognize it. She also manages to stand out in a film that juggles an almost dizzying number of characters, many of whom only get a few key moments on screen to shine. Oddly (and perhaps this is the most noticeable flaw in the picture), we see perhaps too little of Kenkichi to really trust him as much as Noriko. He seems to get crowded out. Or maybe this was Ozu's intention, that the focus is on Noriko and her relationship to her friends and family, and not really on her future life.
Early Summer may not be Ozu's most famous or even his best film, but its appearance on DVD is welcome. Ozu's lengthy oeuvre has only recently begun trickling out on DVD. While Early Summer is usually placed right at the edge of Ozu's major works, Criterion does an admirable job making the film accessible as an introduction to one of Japan's finest directors. The film itself is in respectable shape, with no flaws worse than a little periodic flicker. A 47-minute television interview from 2003 (the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth) features surviving Ozu collaborators Kojiro Suematsu (a child actor for Ozu, who later became his sound technician) and Takashi Kawamata (Ozu's assistant cameraman) discussing their years working on his films. Because this is a survey of his career, little time is devoted to Early Summer (more critically acclaimed films like Tokyo Story deservedly rate more analysis). But we do get a strong sense of the man behind the camera: well prepared, soft-spoken (if occasionally demanding), and fond of his sake.
Japanese film scholar Donald Richie turns in an informative, if somewhat dry, commentary that does not overanalyze the film. He places Early Summer in the context of Ozu's style and body of work. His assessment is interesting and articulate, as he discusses the film's place in Japanese culture, particularly how the characters deal with change and Ozu's conservatism.
As I noted above, Early Summer was Ozu's forty-fourth film and explores his favorite theme: the dissolution of a family. Most directors might be willing to experiment, to stretch a bit, after so many movies. But not Ozu. He was a man of routine. Indeed, many of the characters and situations from this film are in fact imported from his 1949 Late Spring (including Setsuko Hara as a different Noriko), suggesting that his families may all be alternate-world variations on one another. Although the title of this 1951 film, Bakushû, more closely translates as "barley harvest season," early summer is the appropriate setting for the film. The spring bloom has gone, but the chill winds of autumn have not yet arrived. Noriko is long past childhood but still as giggly as a schoolgirl when she teases her married friends about their duties as wives. The promise of post-war independence hovers over the Mamiya household with the same anxiety as Noriko's would-be marriage. Will the transition from old Japan to the new age be a good one? Will the marriage between East and the unseen West (as Noriko's intended suitor is never seen) be solid? If Noriko marries the boy next door, is this the safe and conservative choice, or the radical and unexpected one?
Ozu would probably have shrugged off any suggestion that Early Summer might be read as a metaphor for post-war Japan's search for identity. But he certainly would have accepted our reading the film as an examination of Japan's ambivalence toward its own traditions. The Mamiya family is petit bourgeois, dependent on money to survive. While this family conforms to tradition by keeping its members under one roof, the very fact that Noriko can be 28 and unmarried, working at an office job, suggests that they are more pragmatic than dogmatic. They have accepted change as inevitable.
Audiences at the times came to Ozu's films expecting them to be reassuring (as was the standard for domestic melodrama), when in fact his families are usually fragmented and unhappy. But the crises they undergo are not ponderous: Ozu trained originally in comedy and adds light touches to Early Summer. The film becomes a fascinating, poignant examination of how we deal with change. Criterion should be commended on making available yet another masterpiece that can tell us more about our own lives than we expected.
The film's trailer describes Early Summer as "uplifting and heartwarming with a touch of sadness." Yep, that's it. I cannot really say it better than that. Ozu has crafted a film that seems effortless and smooth and unpretentious. And with interviews and a helpful commentary track, Criterion has made this a fine introduction to Ozu's carefully crafted family dramas.
The Mamiya family may not prosper, but they survival their travails with honor and humor. In turn, Criterion has performed with honor in their release of this film. Case dismissed.
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• Audio Commentary by Japanese Film Scholar Donald Richie
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