Saturday, July 28, 2007

Early Summer

Sandwiched between Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), this 1951 feature by Yasujiro Ozu is the least discussed film in his Noriko trilogy, as well as the sunniest--or, more accurately, the least melancholy. Although its plot resembles the earlier film in some respects, here Noriko/Setsuko Hara is much more independent: instead of passively submitting to her relatives' desire for her to marry, here she disobeys her family by choosing to marry Kenkichi Yabe/Ryukan Nimoto, a widower with a small child.

Typical of Ozu's post-war period, there isn't a whole lot of plot. Noriko's boss suggests a match, and although we never see the man (Noriko only gets a peek after refusing to marry him) we're given several indications that he's not a great choice: he's forty, and hires a private detective who shows up at the home of Kenkichi's mother, Tami/Haruko Sugimura, to ask her about Noriko (an encounter that's recounted afterwards in the dialogue). When Tami tells Noriko of her wish that she marry Kenkichi, a childhood friend of Noriko's who's just accepted a position at a hospital far away from Tokyo, she sees an opportunity to escape her family and accepts without consulting either her family or the groom. After leaving, she runs into Kenkichi who's just returning home; they make small talk and go their separate ways without Noriko ever bringing up the subject of marriage. When Tami tells Kenkichi the news his reaction is difficult to gage; it's his mother who's most happy about the arrangement. As much as Noriko's family is thrusting marriage on her against her will, she and Tami are doing the same to Kenkichi.

In both films, Noriko's family puts pressure on her to marry because they believe it's best for her, paying little or no attention to what she wants for herself. In Late Spring, during Noriko's final vacation with her father/Chishu Ryu before marriage, she makes one last plea for things to go on as they have, which her father brushes aside by giving her a lecture on how a happy marriage requires hard work. Here the family is less than thrilled by the idea of Noriko getting married to a man twelve years her senior, but her brother, Koichi/Ryu, views the situation pragmatically: Noriko is too old (twenty-eight) to expect any better and this could be her last chance to get married. When she chooses a husband for herself, the family, convinced they know what's best for her, reacts badly. By asserting her independence Noriko alienates her parents and brother, breaking up the family.

The film never explores the reasons for Noriko's initial resistance to marriage. In Late Spring we learn that she became ill during the war due to forced labor, and during her long recovery became accustomed to taking care of her father. It's also suggested that Noriko is disgusted by sex, and she finds the idea of a family friend getting remarried to be a disgrace. In an essay on the film Roger Ebert sums up her feelings as: "Once is bad enough." Here there's no mention of past illness, and this Noriko appears to have a much healthier view of sex. Even before Tami's proposal, Noriko says she thinks Kenkichi should remarry, and later confides that she doesn't trust a man who's forty and still single, suggesting that he may not be able to satisfy her sexually.

The film contains fewer allusions to the war (we learn that Noriko's mother, Shige/Chieko Higashiyama, hasn't given up hope for a son who hasn't been seen since the end of the war, but that's about it) and I can't recall a single referrence to encroaching Americanization--as opposed to Late Spring where Noriko's prospective husband is rumored to resemble Gary Cooper and her young cousin loves to play baseball--though it's intriguing how the situation for women in Japan seems to improve between the two films. In the earlier film Noriko didn't have any means of income, but here she not only has steady employment as a typist but is also a published writer in her spare time; in any early scene Kenkichi remarks that he found her latest book amusing. However, in choosing to marry him, she must give up her job (when Noriko asks her sister-in-law, Aya/Chikage Awashima, how the family will manage without her income, she replies that they'll compete to see who can do a better job of economizing) and assume the role of primary guardian of Kenkichi's young daughter, meaning that it's unlikely she'll continue to write.

Early Summer may not equal Late Spring or Tokyo Story--two of the most sublime movie ever made--as this Noriko is less fully realized than her other cinematic incarnations, but on its own terms I wouldn't hesistate to call this a major work: subtle, complex, often funny and surely deserving of more attention than its recieved.


  1. I got Late Spring at the library.

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