DVD Review Of Early Summer

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/07


  Early Summer (Bakushû) is the middle entry in what has been called director Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy (bookended by Late Spring and Tokyo Story). All three films feature women named Noriko (all played by Setsuko Hara), who are without husbands, and embroiled in family dramas. The names of many of the other major characters recur in the trilogy, as well, which gives the films a feeling of almost being alternate world versions of each other- ala the way comic books have ‘canonical’ superhero tales, and those set in alternate universes. Released in 1951, the 124 minute black and white film was written by Ozu and his co-writer Kôgo Noda, and is every bit as great a film as its two more celebrated companion pieces. The film featured many of Ozu’s actors from the two other films, and in many ways is a variation on the narrative of Late Spring, which revolves around the family plotting to marry off the ‘old maid’ Noriko. Naturally, a suspension of disbelief is needed to believe that a character played by Hara- Japan’s mid-Twentieth Century answer to Julia Roberts, aka ‘the girl next door,’ would have any trouble finding male companionship. And all of the trilogy films are predicated on the changing role of the Japanese family in the postwar world, where the ideas of giri (duty) and ninjo (emotion) come into conflict.

  The basics of the narrative follow the tri-generational Mamiya family, who all share a suburban Tokyo home. The oldest generation is wary of change, but accepts it. The middle generation takes it or leaves it, and the youngest generation are just self-centered brats. There are the mother and father, Shukichi and Shige (played by Ichirô Sugai and Chieko Higashiyama); their doctor son Koichi (Chishu Ryu), his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and their two bratty sons, the older Minoru (Zen Murase)- about eight or nine, and the younger Isamu (Isao Shirosawa)- about four or five; and the parents’ daughter, Noriko. Another son, never seen in the film, Shoji, died in World War Two, and the parents still lament and feel his absence. A missing member of the family is another Ozu standby. All of the family members share the expense of the household, and Noriko, who is twenty-eight, feels in no great hurry to marry. Yet, the bulk of the film is not devoted to this pursuit, but rather the exposition of individual character through small scenes that do not relate directly to the plot. Ozu often eschewed plot driven tales’ heavyhandedness in favor of an anecdotal style that allowed things to emerge as a tale more organically, or naturally, without the contrivances that often occur in film.

  As example, there are ‘subplots’ involving Noriko’s boss, Sotaro Satake (Shuji Sano), and her best friend, Aya Tamura (Chikage Awashima), who works at a restaurant frequented by her boss; or those where the parents go off to a park and lament Shoji’s death; or that of a neighbor family- the Yabes, who are comprised of a mother, her widowered son, Kenkichi (Ryukan Nimoto)- a doctor who was Shoji’s best friend, Noriko’s classmate, and works under Koichi, and his baby girl. Even though her family, as well as boss and best friend, try to set her up with one of her boss’s business acquaintances, Manabe- who is never seen in the film (a standard Ozu tack for some characters, just as some key emotional moments are elided)- but who hires a detective to check out Noriko’s background, Noriko eventually chooses Kenkichi as her mate, when his mother reveals to her that she always wished that she would end up marrying her lonely son, after Koichi has assigned him to work at a rural hospital in Akita. The mother is stunned when Noriko quickly accepts the arrangement. Interestingly, we never see Noriko’s face when she accepts, only her back, as the mother is overjoyed. Thus, we are still in a bit of a gray area as to her real emotions and motivations. Kenkichi is stunned into emotionlessness when his mother tells him of the arrangement, as are the Mamiyas, who find aspects of Kenkichi- mostly his widower status and child, to not be attractive. But they also objected to the businessman friend of her boss’s, because he was ‘too old’ at forty, so their opinions are not well founded.

  Noriko’s choice, at first, seems whimsical, but when she explains that she did not realize her feelings for Kenkichi until she knew he would be leaving, the distinct possibility emerges that he also represents to her a vestige of her dead brother that she refuses to lose. Regardless, her marriage and move to Akita facilitates the breakup of the Mamiya clan, as her father and mother move to a rural town to live with her father’s deaf brother (whom Minoru and Isamu mercilessly ridicule for his deafness and ability to eat candy with the wrapper on as an ‘idiot’), and his wife. The film ends with the old couple ruminating of their lives, and then we get a rare panning motion from Ozu’s camera, as it rolls by wheat fields, much as if viewed from a passing train- Ozu’s symbol of modernity and passage. There are few other rare breaks in the film from Ozu’s preferred cinematographic style- the ‘tatami shot’, where the camera of cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta is about three feet off the ground, and static, to remove special depth and allow the ‘action’ to often seem as if its occurring in two dimensional frames, like a comic strip. The framing within framing within framing device also suggests the great interior plunge that many of the scenes expose within their characters. Some critics have felt that this flattening out of the image is because Ozu wanted to explore exterior space, or form. While true, to a certain extent, Ozu’s films are far more searing and probing of the interior space of the characters than the exterior space of their world or homes. Yes, the material space is often a deep and multi-layered composition, dense with knick knacks, and suffused with Japanese geometric designs, but these would not have such significance were not the characters’ interior worlds also rigidly composed, and forced to change within the course of the films’ unfolding.

  The best example of this in Early Summer is Noriko’s desire for Kenkichi not being explicitly portrayed in the film. They only share one notable and important scene together in the film, after Noriko has accepted his mother’s proposal, and she leaves for home. She politely greets her unsuspecting future husband with small talk, and is on her way. Yet, what seems like a rash choice, or one designed merely to stifle her family’s and friend’s inquiries, in retrospect, seems a more mature decision, for it is a practical one, not based upon mushy ideas of romance. Indeed, in a scene with her best friend, Aya, Noriko has to be confronted with the fact that her decision is evidence that she is in love with Kenkichi. It is no whim, like her two bratty nephews’ desire for train toys, nor even her parents’ hopes for recovering their dead son. When her father later remarks, to her mother, that ‘we must not expect too much from life,’ after her mother says their lives could be better, it is his daughter whose decision provides the proof of his wisdom. Noriko has ‘settled’ in her life, but that is not to be viewed as a negative.

  Ozu also makes abundant use of symbolism in this film, more so than in the other entries in the trilogy. This film opens on a beach, as surf pounds away, which directly connects it to Late Spring, which ended on a beach. We see a lone pooch walking along, and immediately the sea connects to freedom and the life force within all living creatures. This is a powerful metaphor, and contrasts strongly with the meaning of the sea in European art films and Hollywood films. Think of the depressions that the sea connotes in Federico Fellini films like La Strada or La Dolce Vita, which both end on a beach with wasted protagonists. Think of how Ingmar Bergman uses the sea as symbolic of death and or threatening mystery in films like The Seventh Seal, Hour Of The Wolf, or Shame. Then think of all the banal Hollywood love films and how they employ the ocean’s waves as symbols. Later in the film, in another departure from the tatami camera shot, we see Noriko and her sister-in-law discussing the family’s future on a beach. Thus, we not only get the symbol of Noriko’s liberation and release from her past, but in the rising crane shot from behind a sand dune, we viscerally sense it as almost disorienting.

  There are two more great symbolic shots. One is of the parents ruminating over Shoji, when the mother spots a balloon rising free, far above them in the sky, and the father comments that some child must be crying. The rise of the balloon mimics the sundering of the family as Noriko moves away from them, and Shoji fades into the past. Then there is the final shot, of a pan over wheat fields, as if from a train, again a visible symbol of liberation. By contrast to the powerful visual imagery, the soundtrack by Senji Ito is fairly innocuous, save for opening scenes where the tinkling music sounds almost child-like, from a music box, during the first half hour of character exposition.

  What really sets an Ozu film apart is the terrific acting. Hara is perfect in the role of the obedient yet modern daughter coming to terms with a desire for freedom she does not realize, and Chishu Ryu (who played Hara’s father and father-in-law in the other two films in the trilogy) plays his own age here, as her older brother. Instead of the kindly old man from the other pictures, we have him as a buttinsky brother with an attitude, but one who acts more traditionally fatherly than her father. Also giving good performances are Chieko Higashiyama, as Hara’s and Ryu’s mother (although she would later play Ryu’s wife in Tokyo Story), and Haruko Sugimura as Tomi, the mother of Kenkichi- the only role in the trilogy where she’s likable.

  The DVD is put out by The Criterion Collection, and the transfer is in really good shape, with few scratches or defects. It is in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but only comes with English subtitles in white, which makes it difficult to read in outdoor shots. A little extra money spent on a dub session would have been appreciated, for subtitles always distract from the visuals. There’s also an error in the subtitling, when Noriko and her brother refer to an American actress named Audrey Hepburn. Either they mean ‘Katherine’ Hepburn, or they mean ‘British’ actress. As for extras, there is a four minute theatrical film trailer, and a forty-seven minute conversation with Ozu colleagues, called Ozu’s Films From Behind The Scenes, featuring reminiscences by cameraman Takashi Kawamata, editing assistant Kojiro Suematsu, and film producer Shizuo Yamanouchi. The audio commentary is by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, who is very hit and miss in his commentaries. This one splits the difference. While informative, the comments are too heavily scripted, and Richie sounds like he is half asleep during the session. He compares Noriko to Jane Austen heroines, and chimes in that so much of the critical focus on Ozu’s films is on how sublime they are, yet there are also prosaic moments, like farting, or the grandchildren’s ridicule and snottiness toward their elders, which is also present in Ozu’s later Good Morning; as is the two boys’ running away in a snit. Unfortunately, Richie also goes off into pointless digressions and butchers the English language. The two most annoying examples are when he constantly pronounces the word autonomous as ‘automonous,’ and when he keeps using the incorrect ‘symbolical’ for symbolic. The insert features essays by film critic David Bordwell and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

  Ozu’s films rise or fall on their little moments, when people do little things. There are scenes where the grandfather cuts Isamu’s toenails, or when he tries to bribe Isamu into saying he loves him. He does it four times, but when grandpa stops bribing him Isamu gets snotty and says he hates the old man. Then the two brothers show their disappointment when Koichi comes home with a package they assume are toy train tracks. When they find out it’s bread, call their father a liar, and kick the bread till the package breaks, Koichi spanks Minoru, and scolds him for abusing food- a no-no in a nation where food was still scarce after the war. Then there’s a scene when the adults eat cake, and hide it from the boys, lest have to share it with them. These are the prosaic moments which aid in contrasting the greater moments. The very fact that so few other filmmakers include such ‘down’ dramatic times, which are nevertheless fascinating, goes a long way in explaining the empyreal heights Ozu reaches in his films.

  Early Summer is an unjustly neglected classic, and a great film, every bit the equal of its two more celebrated cousins in the Noriko Trilogy, which takes its place alongside Ingmar Bergman’s Spider Trilogy, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Alienation Trilogy, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy as one of the great accomplishments of cinema. In fact, it is probably the best of the trilogies mentioned, for it is the only one where all three films that comprise it are unequivocally great films. While it’s great to be in good company, to rise above that company is even better. Ozu does, no matter where or when you watch his films.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unspoken Cinema website.]

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