Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu has been rated one of the best film directors of all time by his peers. Toward the end of his career, he produced three films (Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953)) that are variations on a theme. The three stories have as their center a young woman named Noriko. Actually, the three films are about three different Norikos. But they are all played by the same actress, Setsuko Hara and all three of the women are each living through the contradictions and confusion of a young woman’s life in post-war Japan.
In “Late Spring” the Noriko character is in her late twenties, the only child of Professor Shukichi Somiya. Her mother had died sometime earlier and Noriko has been keeping her father’s house. But her father and her aunt are concerned that she won’t get married and will end up alone once her father dies. But Noriko feels that she would be happiest caring for her father and rejects the idea of marriage. But the Professor decides to take away her rationale by claiming he is remarrying. Noriko is outraged by this development considering the idea almost obscene. But once she adjusts to this situation she relents and meets the suitor her aunt has picked out for her. And maybe unsurprisingly she finds herself interested in this man. The aunt takes this interest as acceptance and sets up the wedding.
Now father and daughter travel for one last holiday together to the cultural center Kyoto. While there Noriko begs her father to allow her to stay with him regardless of whether he remarries. She declares that she believes she will be happiest remaining in his home. But her father corrects her. He explains that human life has its own structure that cannot be profitably ignored. He indicates that her marriage is the next step in her life and that his part in her life must end for that to proceed. And she accepts his argument and agrees to marriage. But it is clear that she feels great sorrow at leaving him. The marriage is celebrated and Professor Shukichi returns home and there we end the movie with him grief stricken by the loss of his dear daughter.
Americans will find many conventions in Japanese manners strange especially those of the women which seem quite affected. And one scene that takes place in a Noh theater with the odd appearance of the actors and the weird chanting seemed absolutely bizarre to me.
But the deep affection of the father and daughter shine through the movie and make the double-sided heartbreak of their separation real for us. For the Japanese women of that generation the disruptions of traditional life caused by the American Occupation, the economic hardships of their defeat in war and the introduction of western customs and practices like divorce and women in the workplace made their place in society confusing and frightening and losing the stability and familiarity of the family setting was disorienting. Ozu showcases these new realities throughout the movie in the persons of the supporting cast but Noriko and her father are the center around which these aunts, cousins and friends revolve.
Although Tokyo Story is considered the strongest of the three movies in this series, I confess that I like “Late Spring” best. I guess I’m a rank sentimentalist. I find myself approving the old man’s wisdom in explaining to his daughter the necessities that time and biological life place especially on young women. And at the same time, I can submerge myself in the awful grief that a father could feel at the loss of a daughter, a daughter that has become his only companion in old age. This paradox is at the heart of what it means to be a mortal. We each have only a short window to wear the various parts that we can play. Son or daughter, brother or sister, grandson or granddaughter, husband or wife, father or mother, aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother. And if we hesitate too long the chance is lost. And even if we are willing to play our part fate can deny us our chance.
I don’t know if this is one of the “greatest films of all time” but I think it’s a thoughtful and moving portrayal of a father and a daughter. If that might interest you and you are willing to read subtitles you might enjoy this film. I recommend it.