Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #015 on the list, here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click
Last week I began my look at ‘s 149 film Late Spring, so if you missed that, you can get caught up by clicking here.
Last time, I spent a lot of time writing about the set-up of this film, my personal history with the works of Ozu, his place in Japanese cinematic history, the plot of the film, and some of the set-up dealing with the evolving tensions between older Japanese traditions and new, more Western ideas that were “invading” the country, largely due to the post-WWII occupation by troops from the U.S. and other countries.
Today I want to take more of a look at the film itself, and spend some time on the expertise, innovation, and beauty that Ozu brings to the screen.
All one really has to do is looks at some of the stills from the film to see that Ozu, along with his cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta had an incredible eye not only for the natural beauty that surrounded the city of Tokyo at the time, but also for interior shots and set-ups that made the most of the glorious black and white imagery they were creating.
Whether it is a set-up shot of the mountains, an interior shot that shows the household life of Noriko and her family, or a close-up of one of the characters, each scene is deftly composed, and the focus is just right to convey not only the actions that are taking place, but even the most subtle shifts of thought and mood that are occurring and that inform not only what is going on in the moment, but what is to follow.
At the same time, Ozu seems to bring a special touch to drawing out from his actors not only what is necessary to convey the actions they are taking, but the reasoning and feeling behind those actions, making them not just characters, but living, breathing people, who are not just going through motions to further the plot, but actually being affected internally by not only what is being done and said by them but also what is being said to them and what is happening around them, which is a huge part of what makes Ozu perfectly suited for and a master of the shomingeki genre. (As noted last time, or for those just catching up, shomingeki refers to a genre of film dealing mainly with the ordinary daily lives of the working and middle class people of the times and their personal trials and tribulations.)
Nowhere is this skill more apparent than in the performance that Ozu gets from his main star Setsuko Hara, who plays Noriko.
Noriko is a woman who is deeply conflicted by not only her personal desires and feelings, but by the pressure that is put on her by society at large, and by almost all of those surrounding her, including her most intimate family and friends. She makes it clear very early on that she, personally, does not want to get married, as she would be perfectly content and happy to simply live out her days in her father’s house, loving and caring only for him, and that she is, in many ways, opposed to the idea of marriage in general, especially a marriage to a man who she barely knows and for whom she feels no real affection.
In the hands of a less skillful director, this would be the stuff of melodrama, and would be conveyed mostly though the actions and words of Noriko, and there are times when Ozu walks right up to that line, but he always manages to pull back, instead focusing quite often on the face and features of his actress, a face which reveals that what is going on inside both her mind and her heart is quite often very much opposed to what she is saying and agreeing to.
Of course, in choosing this way to portray the character, Ozu also has to trust Ms. Hara to be able to show us this inner conflict, which she often does simply via a subtle shift in her facial features or the look in her eyes rf the set of her mouth. This is truly a collaboration between a director who knows exactly what he is trying to get from his performer and an actress who has the necessary skill to give him just that.
If it were only a case of the performance of Setsuko Hara being so strong, we could perhaps mark it down as an incredibly skilled actress bringing her “A-game” to a film and thus elevating it, a situation which often happens in movies which have become renowned. However, there really isn’t a false note portrayed by any of the actors in the movie, which again brings the focus back to Ozu and his skill at drawing these performances out of those whom he has chosen to populate this small slice of the world.
Chishu Ryu, who plays Noriko’s father, Professor Shukichi Somiya, and with whom Ozu worked in most of his films, also shows his ability to walk a fine line here, giving us a portrait of a loving and caring father who doesn’t wish to break the independent spirit or heart of his daughter, but at the same time doing, and trying to get her to do, what he sees as best for her, even if he knows that she doesn’t truly desire it or see it the same way. He is a man who ultimately shows that he is, in the end, even willing to lie to her if it will cause her to follow what he sees as the right path. Yet again, director Ozu is not willing to let the Professor be a one-note character, determined to force his will upon his daughter at all costs, thereby allowing the audience to see him as a sort of villain in the piece, but, just as we do with Noriko, we really get a sense of the struggle that is taking place in the heart and mind of the Professor, again raising the movie beyond the level of mere melodrama and into classic status.
I could easily go on about the other performances that Ozu gets from the supporting actors in his company, but there is one other aspect of this film that I want to get to before I begin wrapping things up.
But that’s going to have to wait for next time, I think. (Yep, folks, it looks like this is going to a part three, and honestly no one’s more surprised than I am.)
In the meantime, here’s a short clip from the film showing some of the interaction between Noriko and her father:
- A Japanese Film Series, Brought to You by John Zorn (nytimes.com)
- ‘Early Spring, Kyoto’: Mumbai Review (hollywoodreporter.com)