Thursday, September 26, 2019

Late Spring (Banshun, Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

Father knows best

(Warning--plot details openly discussed. If you haven't seen this (and An Autumn Afternoon) see em first!)

September 19 marks 70 years since Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring (Banshun) was released in 1949--the first entry in his 'Noriko Trilogy' (quintessential Ozu muse Setsuko Hara playing a character named Noriko) and generally considered the first masterpiece of his final period (rigorous pared-down style, softspoken focus on domestic tensions).

The film is more than that I think--a graphic chart of Noriko's smile as she playfully chides family friend Professor Onodera (Masao Mishima) for remarrying ("It seems distasteful." "Distasteful?" "Filthy, even." "Now I'm really in trouble!"); cheekily blows off her father Shukichi Somiya, played by fellow Ozu regular Chishu Ryu ("We'll play a round." "Have you finished writing?" "Yes. Well--almost." "No game then!"); casually flirts with her father's assistant Hattori, played by Jun Usami ("I'd say you're not the jealous type" "O but I am!" "You sure?" "As the saying goes when I slice pickled radish it comes out all strung together.")

That unflappable grin starts to look beleaguered when her Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) badgers her about marrying. "I can't do that to father." "Then you can never get married." "I don't care!") The lines of her plump cheeks--so endearing when making a witty remark--deepen into petulance when she's unable to deliver an appropriate comeback. 

Richard Pena in the Criterion commentary notes that Noriko having survived World War 2 never had a proper childhood, that this willfully extended single status may be her second chance at that lost childhood, serving as daughter companion wife to her similarly childlike if more reserved father. When her status is threatened--when Aunt Masa or Shukichi want to talk marriage--Noriko leads them on a chase through one room after another up the stairs to the not-so-inviolate sanctuary of her own room (complete with tea table and lowslung rattan chairs), where she sits and glares into a corner. Sometimes she looks back smiling and your eyes can't help but be drawn to that smile: often sunny, ever playful, in many ways sphinxlike opaque. What's she thinking? What's she feeling? What does she really want? 

In a pivotal scene Noriko and Shukichi watch a Noh play and Shukichi nods at a woman. Noriko recognizes her--Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake), her father's prospective bride. Ozu takes his cue from Noh tradition: static near-frozen tableau where the slightest gesture suggests great import, in this case a stray glance that flips Noriko's world upside down. Noriko has the fire and spirit to defy the world but when her father betrays her--when the one person she cares about seems to prefer or at least acknowledge the presence of another--she lowers her head, the only onscreen hint to what's happening inside: total devastation; vast frozen landscapes; unending wind. "When I slice pickled radish it comes out all strung together"--Noriko doesn't do jealousy in discrete half-measures but all strung out together, fermented fiercely in brine. 

As for Shukichi--he sounds gruff trying to boss his daughter around ("Where's my tea?" "How about a towel?") but Noriko sees right through him and serves him cheerfully sarcastically, like a mother indulging her sullen child. Later when Noriko turns defiant--crossing a street after the Noh performance to avoid walking with him--Shukichi is oddly nonchalant. There's turning a blind eye to your beloved's occasional flaw and then there's putting on an elaborate show of obliviousness--Shukichi appears to be putting on such a show, to the point of seeming callous. 

Ozu is famous for his tatami-level shots (the camera fixed at the eye level of a man sitting on a mat, looking slightly upwards) his continuous use of direct address (the actor looking straight at the camera while talking) his elliptical editing (after fussing over Noriko's marital status for most of the picture Ozu leaves out both the groom ("He looks like that American. The man in that baseball movie.") and the actual ceremony). I've read many elaborate theories why but Ozu's reasons for this technique may actually be simple: he uses 50 mm lenses because its focal length is generally considered the closest to the human eye; uses direct-address because this is how we talk to others, by looking straight into their faces; uses tatami-level shots because that's how Japanese of his generation would conduct everyday conversation, cross-legged on a mat. He in short developed his visual style to invite you to his living room, sit and sip sake, ask questions, listen to a story. 

As for the editing--his way I suspect of keeping you on your toes. He wants you at ease and comfortable but up to a point: you must also follow. 

Late Spring starts out as delicately wrought as a sunlit cherry blossom, all funny vignettes and one-liners; when Aunt Masa (an initially comic character) looms over Noriko's life the film's tone darkens, though the girl's tantrums (impulsively leaving Shukichi at home to go shopping, angrily cutting short a sleepover date with her best friend) help relieve the encroaching solemnity. 

Part of Ozu's onscreen achievement is in attaining an evenness of look pace feel, a smooth palimpsest on which the slightest course correction registers like the crack of a rifle across an evening forest. Late Spring is the prototype not the perfected model, mind: he would pare away the closeups, the focus on single or even pairs of characters, the outbursts (the strongest emotion I remember an Ozu character expressing in subsequent works is resigned irritation). The filmmaker would add color in Equinox Flower (1958) but rigorously applied, precise spots of brilliant red or hot pink on a Mondrian grid; otherwise he if anything remains as geometrically disciplined as ever. 

Not that there isn't intensity in that later career: in An Autumn Afternoon yet another father (Shuhei Hirayama, again played by Chishu Ryu) tries marrying off yet another daughter and is once more left alone (he has a son somewhere in the house but the boy has already gone to bed). Ozu ends his final feature (he would die a year later) with the image of Shuhei sitting in his kitchen, consoling himself with a cup of cold tea. 

But if the filmmaking in Late Spring isn't as perfected it is I think just as if not more effective. With frequent script collaborator Kogo Noda he adapts Kazuo Hirotsu's short novel Fathers and Daughter for the big screen; something in the story must have struck a chord because he remade the story into Late Autumn (1960) with a mother (Setsuko Hara!) instead of father, and the aforementioned An Autumn Afternoon (emphasis shifted towards the father over the daughter), with further variations elsewhere (Equinox Flower includes a marriageable daughter subplot).

Some filmmakers get the story right after the second try (Walsh remade High Sierra as Colorado Territory and improved on Virginia Mayo's fate; Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much with a morally murkier marriage) or even third (Hawks remade Rio Bravo into El Dorado and then Rio Lobo, tho it's debatable if the story improved any)--in Ozu's case I think he got it right the first time: Late Spring is simple and direct, the story fresher the trauma rawer. He would have more to say on the same subject, would see things from a different perspective, come up with differently flavored comedy and pathos, but would never I think be as compactly powerful. 

Might note that while Ozu's most famous film Tokyo Story is generally acknowledged to be a loose remake of Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow ("(T)he saddest movie ever made," Orson Welles once declared; "it would make a stone cry") I submit Ozu had already borrowed from McCarey's masterpiece when in Late Spring he had father and daughter take one last vacation trip to Kyoto before her marriage. Suddenly the carefree Noriko is back, slapping Onodera's shoulder as he teases her mercilessly about her 'filthy' remark, handing her father a glass of water while he brushes his teeth, confiding an embarrassing secret as they lie beside each other, father and daughter intimate without being in any way lurid.* Ozu needed this pause in progression to contrast with what is about to happen, to remind us of what is about to be lost; needed this brief respite before the film takes its irrecoverable plunge.

*(Sex in Ozu's films being a subject more alluded to and joked about than actually demonstrated. Not (I believe) that the director meant to suggest that sex is distasteful, but anything explicit would disturb the delicate texture of his palimpsest)

When Noriko agrees to marriage Ozu prepares for the occasion with appropriate fanfare: impatient kids loiter beside waiting rental cars, reach in to blow the car horn; Hattori and Shukichi sit in the living room smoking, discussing weather and Hattori's recent honeymoon (typical that the honeymoon itself gets scant mention--they went to Yugawara, a hot-spring town--before the two move on to the subject of available local transport). The housekeeper interrupts by walking into the shot and announcing that Noriko is ready ("Your daughter's such a beautiful bride!"); the father may be allowed a peek. 

Ozu cuts to the base of the stairs and Aunt Masa rushing down to confirm (yes she's ready) and check on the cars (they're ready too). Noriko is first seen in profile, in full bridal regalia, sitting on a stool with head bowed; Shukichi punctuates the moment by rushing in (it's her mini-living room, with tea table and chairs removed) but our eyes are on the would-be bride. Cut to a frontal shot: she's resplendent in an elaborate silk kakeshita caught round the waist with a wide brocaded maru obi tied in a tateya musubi (even in black and white the colors swirl in a riot of patterns round her slim form). Her head is bound up in a tsunokakushi, an elaborate bridal headdress meant to hide the horns that can grow out of a woman's head, her hair a garden of kanzashi--wire butterflies and filigree blossoms that tremble at every nod.

Horns? In Japanese tradition the woman is believed to become a demon when jealous ("when I slice pickled radish it comes out all strung together"); Noriko's headdress is meant to hide the diabolical spikes of selfishness and ego--to signify her willingness to submit to another man's will for the rest of her life.

All this of course rendered almost insignificant by Noriko's expression. If as the saying goes 'you're never fully dressed without a smile,' the bride's is a ghastly grimace, a startling rictus carefully pinned from one cheek to another presumably to placate her dad. That it seems sincere--that she seems serenely accepting of the fate about to fall on her head only adds to the horror. "I thank you," she tells him and you wonder: is there bitterness in that voice? No, but we've come to know Noriko through the course of the film and this is a Noriko we have never met before, formal and reserved--a hollowed-out figure where the bright young woman once stood, a mannequin with lacquered mask meant to hide the howling wilderness within.

At one point in their Kyoto trip Noriko makes the piercingly humble plea: "Being with you like this is my greatest happiness. Please father why can't we stay just as we are?" Is Shukichi right? Father and daughter staying "just as we are" might mean immediate happiness but also, in the long term, stagnancy. Change would bring suffering but also the possibility of the new--if as Shukichi argues Noriko can accept her life as a married woman she'll have grown out of her extended childhood; she'll have some kind of future beyond the already sputtering candle of his life. 

Shukichi's argument doesn't hold much water today, when unmarried career women are not just common but accepted. Of course there's the example of Noriko's best friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), a happy divorcee--but also (as Ozu quietly makes clear) a wealthy happy divorcee. Noriko is comfortably middle class, partly due to Shukichi's income; how would she fare financially on her own?

In an odd way Ozu did listen to Noriko's plea: he never married. Odder still neither did Hara; she retired the year Ozu died and moved to Kamakura, the town where they made many of their films--where Ozu died and was buried, in an unmarked grave with his beloved mother. It's as if the two made a promise to themselves to heed Noriko's example--that they would live life the way they saw fit, in a state of lifelong immaturity if necessary.

Is Shukichi right? Ozu subtly coaxes our feelings in such a way that we know he isn't--it's all we can do to keep from yelling at the screen, trying to warn him (and her) of their doom--and yet there's this small stubborn voice echoing from a far corner of one's mind, coaxed out of that corner by the director's sublimely stylized ambiguity, suggesting that maybe he isn't wrong, that this isn't a question of right or wrong but of what does and doesn't happen, what sadly is and poignantly could have been.  We're just tagging along to enjoy (maybe agonize over) the ride. 

Or as Bresson once put it in yet another great early masterpiece: "Does it matter? All is grace."

What more to say? Not just Ozu's masterpiece or my favorite of his works but easily one of the greatest films ever made.

First published in Businessworld 9.20.19


J Cronan said...

Beautifully written. I will make time to watch this Ozu.

Noel Vera said...