Directed by Yasujir? Ozu
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujir? Ozu (based on the novel Chichi to musume by Kazuo Hirotsu)
Produced by Takeshi Yamamoto
Released in 1949
Released in 1949 just four years after the end of World War Two, Late Spring is an utterly beautiful drama film that explores postwar Japanese family dynamics. Visually, it rejects the trauma and ugly chaos of the lost war which fundamentally changed Japanese society. It does this through the use of stunningly filmed, well-staged, and theatrically-lit scenes that are shot primarily from below waist height, which, when combined with the use of long, static shots – mostly via a 50mm lens, give the film a highly stylised look.
The plot revolves around a beautiful unmarried woman named Noriko Somiya (played by Setsuko Hara), who is romantically pursued by a litany of men. She rejects their advances to instead look after her aging widower father, Professor Shukichi Somiya (the prolific Chishû Ryû, whose 64-year-long career boasts 278 credits!).
Father and daughter live near the seaside on the outskirts of Tokyo in a traditional timber house. Every single shot in the film is wonderfully constructed to give the viewer a sense of their world. Noriko is recovering from a long-standing illness and there is much concern about her ‘missing out’ on marriage if she is not wed soon. Noriko’s aunt drives the discussion on arranged marriage. These scenes, filmed at home, are counterpointed masterfully by scenes shot in modern Tokyo where Noriko and her potential suitor visit galleries, take tea and flirt without a chaperone in sight. In my view, this juxtaposition between the new world and the old works brilliantly both thematically and visually.
There’s a terrific scene between Noriko and a friend from her school days, Aya, who is divorced. The pair gossip about marriage, children born out of wedlock, and the other relationship foibles of the women they went to school with. This discussion reinforces just how much the family unit and society differ from pre-war Japan. Meanwhile, the aunt continues to try to set Noriko up with men – one of whom she describes as looking like Gary Cooper. At the midpoint, a lengthy scene where father and daughter attend a traditional music and dance Noh performance leaves Noriko in tears and sends her to Aya’s house for support.
Through the second half of the film the pressure ramps up on Noriko to go ahead with the arranged marriage at the behest of her aunt and father. Noriko is devastated when Shukichi lies, telling his daughter that he is planning on re-marrying and won’t therefore need her support. This lie forces Noriko to reluctantly marry the Gary Cooper lookalike, who we never see. The second act break is a gorgeous scene between father and daughter where the pair discuss happiness, marriage and family. Completely free of melodrama, the scene gets to the core of the film’s dramatic question. The ending, showing a lonely father, head bowed and seated in his house by the sea is a devastatingly effective image.
There’s not much that didn’t work in this film. Late Spring is a masterpiece of simple, effective visual storytelling paired with sparse, meaningful dialogue. It’s a simple story that resonates with modern audiences that leaves us with an understanding that well-crafted universally-themed stories transcend culture, time and place.