Late Spring and Tokyo Story
This past week, I watched my first films directed by Yasujiro Ozu: Late Spring and Tokyo Story. The films are both examples of shomin-geki, a Japanese genre that deals largely with the normal lives of middle-class and working people in modern times. Both pictures end up being about loss. The father loses his wife in Tokyo Story while the young daughter loses her way of life in Late Spring. The theme of loss could reflect Japan’s loss in World War II.
Filmed during the Allies’ occupation of Japan, Late Spring was released in 1949 and was Ozu’s first movie of the postwar period. It is about a young woman who does not want to get married and deals with the Japanese custom of miai where two people meet to consider the prospect of marriage. Noriko is opposed to this custom. However, she only smiles and politely defends her stance as her aunt and her friend pester her. Even when she deals with an inappropriate suitor, she continues to smile and laugh. However, once it becomes clear that her father has arranged for her to marry, she loses her smile.
The final suitor (referred to as a Gary Cooper type) remains unseen. Having major plot points go unseen in a movie is not unheard of and should not be thought of as unique. Since at least The Public Enemy in the 1930s, which decided to not show the penultimate shootout that leads to James Cagney’s death, the technique of omission has been utilized by filmmakers to let the audience’s imagination run wild while not inflating the film’s budget.
Tokyo Story was released in 1953. It is regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece, and it is his best-known film in both the East and West. Tokyo Story tells the story of an older couple who go to visit their adult children in Tokyo. It deals largely with the changing times and how the parents feel out of place in modern Tokyo.
Ozu preferred to keep the camera stationary and believed strongly in a minimalist style. He tended to shoot from a low angle with the camera often being set at a height just above the floor, as if on a sitting mat.
Both films are steeped in Japanese tradition. Late Spring opens with a tea ceremony and includes a Noh performance, a Japanese dance drama. Both films feature sake, a Japanese liquor drink. There is a Japanese funeral near the end of Tokyo Story, which includes monks chanting/singing. While being steeped in Japanese tradition, there is also the influence of America. Whether it’s a Bridgestone tire in Tokyo Story or a Coca-Cola sign in Late Spring, the lingering ghost of a former enemy is prevalent. It’s hard to know how much of this was done on purpose and how much was simply signs of the times.
There is a tug of war between American and Japanese cultures prevalent in both movies, primarily with the line in the sand drawn between the older generation and the newer generation. In Late Spring, the kids play baseball while the parents visit the Zen Garden. The men in Tokyo Story wear Westernized suits while the women continue to wear their kimonos.
Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story make up Ozu’s Noriko trilogy. Each of these films include Setsuko Hara as a young woman named Noriko. Although each Noriko is a different and distinct character, they share the common ground of being single women in postwar Japan. In Tokyo Story, Setsuko portrays the daughter-in-law of Chichu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama. This Noriko was made a widow by the war. In Late Spring, Noriko is the unmarried daughter of Chichu and it is noted that she was put into forced work during the war. Late Spring was Setsuko’s first of six appearances in Ozu’s movies. However, Setsuko was famous prior to starring in Ozu’s films. She was a heroine in many Japanese propaganda films during World War II.