by Niall Chithelen
Throughout the film Late Spring (1949), the protagonist, Noriko, hides her emotions behind smiles. She smiles when happy, of course, but does so also through moments we know must be uncomfortable or sad. We take special notice, then, of the few moments in which Noriko’s face truly falls. She cannot smile through the news that her father, with whom she was living contentedly, might be remarrying. Once it seems her living situation will no longer be viable, Noriko agrees reluctantly to get married herself. On the day of her wedding, she sits, tentative in her finery, when her father comes to visit and compliments her. She smiles at him and then looks to the floor and her expression fades.
We might, as one film scholar does, see Noriko’s smiling as a sign she is a “modern girl” (moga). The film was made during the American occupation of Japan, and with the occupation and the postwar moment came cultural changes, new models and advertisements, fashionable women bearing congenial smiles. There are elements of Noriko’s life that suggest a certain modern-ness; she is wary of marriage, her professional skills are such that the work she used to do for her father Shukichi is now taken up by his Western-suited assistant, she wears Western-style clothing and has bobbed hair, she likes Gary Cooper, and she always seems to be smiling.
And if Noriko is a “modern girl,” her aunt Masa seems to represent more traditional values. Aunt Masa pushes Noriko aggressively toward arranged marriage with a candidate of her finding, and ecstatically proclaims her good fortune when Noriko eventually agrees. When Noriko does get married, Masa is unequivocally ecstatic and proclaims her good fortune. She laments certain trends in the “younger generation,” she is only seen wearing a traditional kimono, and in one scene she describes a wedding she attended and criticizes the young bride at length for eating too much; at her wedding, she says, she was “too filled with gratitude to eat a single rice ball.”
As with Noriko’s many smiles, however, the film’s representations of “modern” values and “traditional” ones are layered and not entirely scrutable. Masa also encourages Noriko’s father (Masa’s brother) to remarry, a practice that Noriko describes as “distasteful… indecent… filthy actually” when she meets with her father’s recently remarried friend. This response was instinctual; her initial view comes off as conservative, a defense, ostensibly, of the sanctity of marriage, and it is a conservative view that Masa apparently does not share.
When Noriko actually meets the man’s second wife, she finds the woman lovely and apologizes: “How could I have said they [second marriages] were filthy? … What I said was unthinkable.” She is still not excited about her father’s remarrying, but she understands better—her view on the subject might have been conservative, but it was also unconsidered, easily upended. Masa, meanwhile, might still support remarriage but actually encouraged Noriko’s father to remarry as a ploy to get Noriko to accede to her own marriage. At the end of the film, we learn that Noriko’s father did not actually intend to get remarried. Remarriage becomes a distorting lens for the characters’ values, as it shows both that Noriko has some traditionalist impulses and Masa has more free-floating, scheming ones.
In a similar reversal, when Masa is criticizing the hungry bride, her friend comments that if Masa’s wedding were “today,” she would “eat plenty.” With little pause, Masa admits, “Okay, I would.” Masa might default to conservative values, but she accepts easily that the times are changing and that she is as well.
Rather than depicting characters as resolutely traditional or modern, the film instead emphasizes these confusions and contradictions. This becomes quite clear when Masa and her friend are discussing Noriko’s husband-to-be. Masa expresses reservations about the name of Noriko’s husband-to-be—Kumataro—because this name, “bear boy,” evokes images of “hairy chests” and “mountain bandits.” Her friend responds that this concern is “old-fashioned,” and that Noriko will not be concerned by the name. Earlier in the scene, however, while the two are discussing Noriko’s reluctance to get married, Masa explains, “she’s shy… [she’s] old-fashioned for someone her age.” Masa, then, even as she plots Noriko’s arranged marriage, sees Noriko as being old-fashioned for not being willing to enter such a marriage, and further, Masa sees being old-fashioned as a flaw.
This scene, and the film as a whole, forces us to ask a question: what exactly did it mean to be “old-fashioned” in postwar Japan? Japan was emerging from an era of social, cultural, and political reform and militarism inspired by and to some extent modeled upon Western countries, and it was emerging from an ultranationalist period in which the new values were heralded as being essential to the success of a great, ancient nation. When this film was made, Japan had been thoroughly and soundly defeated, and many of those its new cultural values were evacuated of their meaning. Meanwhile, the country was occupied by American forces who worked to impose their own vision of a democratic, modern nation and upon Japan. Within this context, we find people like Noriko: a wearer of American-style clothing, a rider of bicycles, an assistant and companion to her father, a staunch (but temporary) opponent of remarriage on unknown grounds, pious in her filiality but deeply averse to marriage.
The film does not really allow us to answer the question of old-fashionedness, and when viewers try, they reach opposite conclusions. One film scholar has written that the film shows how the director Yasujirō Ozu was “liberal,” while another sees the film as showing Ozu’s “conservative spirit.” Neither is necessarily incorrect; rather, both are missing the point of a film in which the characters not only are not neatly conservative or liberal, but they also cannot even agree on what would make another person so. The effect of the film is to make us question the meaning of those terms altogether.
Late Spring and some of Ozu’s other occupation-era films might not allow us to simplify and categorize these new values, but one clear and unfortunate statement on those values does emerge: families are being pulled apart, and even if they accept this, it is not what they truly want. The characters negotiate this atomization not through open discussion of norms, but through reflections on happiness. With those reflections, Ozu shows us that, as their families pull apart, people are coming to consider time spent with family members—not monetary or ancestral credit—the main value of having a family. There is little hope in this observation; the characters realize that time with family is so valuable as they recognize that society must take it away.
In Shukichi and Noriko’s final interaction in Late Spring, Noriko is about to ride off to her wedding, and Shukichi gives her a final piece of advice. “Be happy, and be a good wife,” he says, “Be happy.” She nods toward the floor, her face obscured from view. He asks, “You’ll be a good wife, won’t you?” and she looks up and nods again, now smiling falteringly. He smiles too, and they leave. We know Noriko to be conscientious; even if neither character has a firm sense of what a “good wife” is at that time, it seems likely she will do her best to be one. But there is no mistaking that she is not happy.
In the final scene of Late Spring, with Noriko married off Shukichi sits at home peeling an apple. Ozu shows a close-up of Shukichi’s hands, as though he might cut himself, incapable of living alone as Noriko once predicted. Shukichi does not cut himself; he simply stops cutting. He can live alone, but that is not, he now understands, what he wants. He is living out a comment he made earlier to his friend: “It’s pointless to have a daughter. You raise them and then off they go. If they’re unwed, you worry. Yet if they do marry, you feel let down.” Shukichi has done his familial duty in finding a way to make sure Noriko gets married, but he is “let down.” Although the characters still feel beholden to familial norms, their relationship is defined not by obligations or lessons, but rather a collection of interactions, a life lived together. And when Noriko and Shukichi do fulfill their obligations, the result is the film’s ending—a daughter making her melancholy exit and a lonely old man, pausing as he peels an apple in his newly empty house.
Ozu explored the relationship between families and happiness in his later film Early Summer (1951), also focusing on an unmarried young woman named Noriko (also played by Setsuko Hara) whose family pressures her to marry. Noriko’s boss has found a suitable match for her, and her family pushes her to accept, but after being reunited with a childhood friend, Noriko chooses to marry him instead, despite this marriage requiring that she move to the countryside.
The rest of the family, as Noriko’s mother says, already “has been scattered,” but such scattering was by then normal and the family must, as the parents do, adapt and acclimate. Similarly, when they are all together and discussing Noriko’s marriage plans—which they consider a serious mistake—there is no question that Noriko can choose whom she marries. Her brother, who insists most strongly on her marriage, laments, “What can we do if she’s decided?” She is free to choose her own partner, even if that choice seems to be a mistake.
Like Late Spring, Early Summer is a film most fundamentally about familial relationships, not about family members. Early Summer presents the difficulties of navigating new society and trying to figure out what happiness looks like among obligations and norms new and old. While Noriko’s family members still believe she will marry the man recommended by her boss, her father says, “This may be the happiest time for our family.” Their son Koichi has children and Noriko is, they think, marrying well. When Noriko’s mother says, “we can be happier,” the father replies, “we must not want too much.” When Noriko chooses her brother’s coworker, her family comes to terms with the less auspicious union quite quickly. Noriko’s sister-in-law reassures her: “everyone only wants your happiness.” They joke that even though money will be tighter after Noriko leaves her job, they will “compete at economizing.” Noriko even says that she “broke up the family,” but her father replies, “We can’t live together forever … it’s not your fault. It was inevitable.” The father’s happiness was thwarted less by Noriko’s choice than the fact that she is now able to make such a choice.
In the film’s final moment of dialogue, Noriko’s parents sit in their new home looking out across the fields. They see a bride passing by, and Noriko’s mother says, “I hope she’ll be happy,” and then continues, “I wonder how Noriko is.” After a bit of reflection, the mother says the final line of the film: “we’ve been really happy.” Both characters sigh. Earlier, Noriko’s parents had held out for new heights of happiness, but now they have resigned themselves. Their family has been pulled apart, this change was inevitable, and now their best days are behind them.
On November 30th of 2017, the New York Times published an article on the “lonely death” phenomenon in Japan. The reporter, Norimitsu Onishi, describes how older tenants in massive residential complexes get so few visitors now that they often die without anyone realizing until the smell begins to bother their neighbors. The main subject of the article, Ms. Ito, has outlived both her daughter and her husband, and receives few visitors. In order to ensure that she does not die with no one noticing, Ms. Ito has worked out a system with her neighbor across the way: every morning she raises the shade in her apartment; if the shade is not up one morning, her neighbor should call the ambulance.
Ms. Ito has pictures of her early years at the housing complex, flourishing years, when whole families filled its halls and people filled its pools. The reporter writes of these years that they are seen as a “golden age in Japan’s postwar history, when the country, it seemed, was united in a vision of the future.” Accounts have sprung up of life in the housing complexes, largely favorable, but “far removed from actual life in places like Tokiwadaira, where the present [has] broken from the past.”
There may be a greater continuity behind this breakage. After recounting stories from her first years in the complex, Ms. Ito added, “we were happy.” And Ms. Ito divided her memoirs of life in the complex into two volumes: the first volume begins with her wedding and ends with the deaths of her husband and daughter (they died within months of one another), and the second part focuses on her social life and doings since then. Ms. Ito divides her life, and indeed defines it, by her time with family members. She has many relatives now, even great-grandchildren, but, as she tells her stepdaughter on a rare phone call, “there’s no contact.”
In Ozu’s films, characters realize that such contact is what they truly value, while society warps their obligations such that they can no longer make it. Noriko and Shukichi in Late Spring feel that they should separate, and that doing so would be the appropriate daughterly and fatherly action, but it is clear in the end that what made their relationship meaningful was the time they spent together. The parents in Early Summer come to a similar conclusion looking back on days when the family was not so scattered. Both films show how social, cultural, and economic pressures were pulling families apart. This disintegration of families accelerated as Japan’s economy took off. A few years later, Ms. Ito found familial happiness, but notably in an American-style housing complex, built for nuclear, not multigenerational, families. And by today, Ms. Ito and thousands of others have no true family left.
Ozu’s films are not easy parables about tradition and modernity; they are elegies for the relationships lost to the postwar tangle of tradition and modernity. At the end of these films are moments of pause and reflection, a sense that life was better when everyone was together, and the recognition that society’s changes were not, and are not, going away. Perhaps Ozu valued such familial connections more than most—he remained single throughout his life and lived with his mother until her death—but today his films appear both relevant and prescient, his images familiar in the stories of those like Ms. Ito who hold fast to memories, photos of full pools and first volumes on happier days.
Bordwell, David. “Early Summer.” The Criterion Collection. Accessed December 3, 2017. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/675-early-summer.
———. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1988.
Holland, Norman. “Norman Holland on Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, Banshun.” A Sharper Focus: Essays on Film by Norman Holland. Accessed December 3, 2017. http://www.asharperfocus.com/LateSpring.html.
Onishi, Norimitsu. “A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death.” The New York Times, November 30, 2017, sec. Asia Pacific. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/world/asia/japan-lonely-deaths-the-end.html.
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