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, Yasujirō Ozu‘s Late Spring. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click 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.
One of the reasons that I started this trip through the Sight and Sound Top 250 was that I knew that it would give me both a reason to and a guide to explore many films and directors that I might not otherwise. This week’s entry is a prime example of that.
For a long time now, I’ve been hearing much praise for Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu’s films, but I had not actually watched any of them. The reasons for this are, of course, many. During my younger years it was simply a case of availability. As opposed to today, when it seems that almost any movie or film one might desire to see is available in some form almost instantly (though this isn’t completely true, it’s much more the case now than it was then), the only movies that we got to see then, for the most part, were those that were shown on television or that hit the theater screens, and let’s face it, those were both mass market outlets that were going to show things that would only appeal to huge audiences and subtitled foreign films from obscure (at least from an American perspective) foreign director were simply not on the agenda.
Even in the early VHS days, when the vistas began to open for those of us who lived outside of places like New York and L. A. – which had “arthouse” theaters and the like that might actually show silent or foreign films – suddenly had access to a wider variety of films, the majority of those were limited to older Hollywood offerings.
Plus, there was also the simple problem of knowledge and interest. Sure, as someone who had an interest in exploring different movies and cultures, I quickly became familiar with the more “prestigious” names like Kurosawa or Murnau or Lang, or Fellini, but smaller names like Ozu? Let’s face it, if you don’t know it’s out there you can’t explore it. So that’s why, finally, I decided to pick a list like this to, as I said above, act as a kind of guide to those film makers and films that had gained enough respect over the years from those much more knowledgeable (or at least who had much more familiarity and exposure) in those areas of film that I had overlooked, and to help broaden my horizons.
All of which brings us to Ozu’s incredibly beautiful and thought-provoking work Late Spring.
Late Spring is one of those movies in which the plot is actually quite simple: a 27-year-old woman named Noriko, who has lived all of her life with her widowed father and for whom the very idea of marriage seems repugnant, is pushed by her family and friends to finally accept an arranged marriage to a man she really barely knows.
That’s it. That’s the entirety of the plot. But that’s okay, because, while I’m not going to dismiss it as simply as to say “this is a movie that really isn’t interested in plot” because obviously that is a driving force, there is simply so much more going on that it really doesn’t need anything other than that to proceed and to deliver a true masterwork.
Late Spring – or, to give it it’s Japanese title, Banshun – actually comes from a tradition of Japanese movies known as shomingeki. Translated, shomingeki – or alternatively shomin-geki – is actually not a Japanese word per se, but a genre created by Western film critics and scholars to describe a type of film that is focused on the everyday lives of working-class people. Thus, it is much more interested in watching how these people act and react in certain situations than it is in having a more complex narrative or an intricate plot full of twists and turns that will surprise or somehow shock the viewer. Instead, the art of the film lies more in character study and in exploring the thoughts, passions, and actions of everyday people in ordinary circumstances and developing those characters as they go through these experiences.
In particular, this film sets out to explore the character of Noriko who is presented to the viewer as an incredibly traditional woman who is simply content living with and taking care of her father, Professor Shukichi Somiya. For Noriko, the idea of marriage, and especially an arranged marriage, is something she doesn’t even want to consider. She even chides one of her father’s friends, Professor Jo Onodera, another widower who has recently remarried, for doing so, saying that she finds his action distasteful, and even calling him “filthy” because of it. Rather than being truly offended by her words, however, the professor takes it in stride, even laughs at it, treating it more like the speaking of a child who really doesn’t know any better than to say such things.
At the same time, Noriko finds herself continually confronted by, and under pressure from, both family and friends – including her beloved father – to get married herself. It is really the kind of scenario that we have seen played out over and over, probably one of the oldest story-lines there is: the aging daughter who, for various reasons, everyone wants to see get married, despite her own wishes, desires, or feelings, and their efforts to break down her resistance for what they consider her own good.
Of course, we also have to consider the cultural context within which all of this is taking place. At the time, there was a terrific tension between the traditions being carried over from the older pre-war Japan, in which arranged marriages were much more the norm, to the newer post-war Japan, where western ideas and influences – in large part due to the occupation of the country by western troops – were beginning to take hold. Note, for instance, the Coca-Cola sign which dominates the screen-shot at left, overpowering and overshadowing Noriko and her friend Hatori as they bicycle through the countryside.
Okay, so that’s at least part of the set-up. But really, I haven’t even begun to get into what sets this film apart from others of its genre and what makes Ozu’s treatment of it such an outstandingly incredible example of film-making at its finest and earns it such a prestigious spot on the list. And I really have as much to say about that as I’ve already said thus far. So I think, instead of going on for another 1200 or so words today, I am, for the first time, going to actually split this entry into two parts, tackling the rest next week.
Instead of a trailer for the film (which I really couldn’t find a good example of), I think I’ll leave you with this compilation of images which will give you a taste of just what Ozu brings to the table in terms of his direction, image selection, camera-work, even the actual story-telling itself, – all those things I have yet to really touch on. I will note that I personally am not a fan of the music the compiler has chosen to accompany these clips, but I still encourage you to take a look, and if you find them as gorgeous as I do, to go ahead and seek out the film and watch it, since the full movie is readily available on YouTube, and obviously I’ll be back with more next week.