Then, when it's over, I'm reminded how a great film can gets its hooks in you. I find myself captivated by something so perfect, so elegant, so simple, so totally lacking in anything but a camera recording pure human emotion: in this case, a father explaining to a daughter why she must leave him and get married. It doesn't sound like much, maybe, but in Ozu's hands, it breaks the heart.
Late Spring is part of Ozu's "Noriko trilogy," along with Early Summer and Tokyo Story. All star Setsuko Hara, playing three different characters named Noriko; different, that is, in that she's a daughter in a different family. Her character, though, is the same: a young woman who is pressed by her family to accept a marriage proposal.
(Intriguing short biography of Setsuko Hara.)
In the criticism I've read of Ozu, the point is often made that his titles and plots are all quite similar. (There's also Early Spring, Late Summer, and Autumn Afternoon, among many others.)
Late Spring is one of those films where, 30 minutes or so in, you may still find yourself wondering what it's about. It's the type of film that all kind of culminates gradually in an overpowering scene that brings everything together.
Here, Noriko lives with her father, and doesn't want to leave him. He wants her to get married because she's 27, already past her prime in 1948 (when the film was released) but she doesn't want to leave her father's side. They've built a life together where she looks after him, and as far as she's concerned it ought to stay that way. Dismiss all thoughts of incest -- that's not Ozu's game. Noriko simply likes life as it is. She's comfortable living with her father and doesn't want change.
One of the subtle themes of the film -- which is worth bearing in mind as you watch it -- is that it's partly about life under American occupation, and it involves people who have already been through upheaval enough for a lifetime. We're told, for example, that Noriko had a rough go of it during the war, and although she's a very buoyant young woman she seems to be still suffering from the effects of the war. (Possibly radiation poisoning.)
Here is where it gets touching. As her father sees it, she simply must get married, and he and Noriko's aunt set out to find a suitor. It doesn't matter that Noriko likes staying with her father or that he likes staying with her -- the two of them must move on. (The father wants to get remarried as well.)
It's what life is about, as the father sees it: young women are supposed to get married and have children, not look after aging fathers. It doesn't matter that she doesn't like it, and it doesn't greatly matter that her arranged marriage may not be 100 percent happy at first; maybe in a few years, it will be. But it must occur.
Ozu lets situations develop with great patience, and doesn't go out of his way to exacerbate scenes or puff them up, or give you a clear side to root for, as you expect in a typical romance about marriage. You can't look at it and say Noriko's right and her father is wrong. The father is doing what he believes is right: pushing his young one from the nest.
Critic Michael Atkinson addresses this well:
Far from a Manichaean take on the oppressive power of lingering social norms, Late Spring is a hushed battlefield where no one is right or wrong. We watch the infliction roll out inexorably, wishing there were a cheesy, American-style resolution somewhere on the horizon in which all of the well-meaning characters could be happy. But that’s not Ozu. Ozu is the natural energy of Noriko’s generous grin, dispensed selflessly in all social situations, until she realizes where her life is helplessly headed—and the blood-cooling shock of seeing that resilient smile finally drop.
I was relieved to hear on the excellent commentary on the Criterion disc -- relieved because there were times I thought I had missed something -- that Ozu plants a lot of subtle mysteries in the film, that there are suggestive absences. We don't know what jhappened to Noriko's mother, for example, and it may be that she had a brother lost in the war -- which may help explain the father's tenderness toward his daughter. There are things in it, in other words, that are hinted at, left unsaid, much in the way people who understand each other don't say things in real life.
The Criterion expert said that almost all Ozu's films are about facing and overcoming disappointment, which seems to me to about cover it.
More later on some technical aspects of Ozu's style.