June 20, 2024

This is the first in what will hopefully be a (long) series of posts about films in the Criterion Collection. (If you have never heard of the Criterion Collection, there is a description of what they are about on their website, here). As I said in my post about my movie-watching in 2012, I tend to be a very unsystematic viewer; watching the Criterion films is just a way to give this some structure, and to make my viewing broader than it might otherwise be. It’s not really an original idea— there was in fact a website called The Criterion Project, run by some guy who was doing the same thing, though it seems not to have been updated in a long time. I am not doing these in any particular order, and I am not RE-watching any of the 65 or so films on their list that I had already seen before deciding to do this— at least, not yet. There are over 600 Criterion movies so far, and they add new ones all the time, so it’s a losing battle, but it seems like it will be interesting anyway. So here we go: Criterion Project #1: Late Spring, directed by Yasujiro Ozu. 

(By the way: it’s probably a good idea to assume that all, or almost all, of these posts will include spoilers of some kind. Be advised.)

Late Spring is a ultimately a very simple story about an older man (it is later revealed that is is 56, though he looks much older and refers to himself as “nearing the end of my life”) and his daughter, who live alone together. They have a comfortable and happy life, but the daughter, Noriko, is reaching an age at which people begin to worry about her getting married. There is an obvious candidate, a man named Hattori, but we discover (as Noriko already knows) that he already engaged to someone else. Eventually, the subject is broached openly, and her aunt provides a prospect, a man named Satake (whom we never see). Noriko is very resistant to the idea of marriage, in large part (she says) because she does not want to leave her father on his own. Her aunt also has a prosper for her father, however, and once he tells Noriko that he intends to remarry, this objection loses its teeth. Eventually, Noriko consents to the marriage, though she never seems enthusiastic about it; only after the wedding is over do we learn that her father has lied about getting remarried, and so will, in fact, be on his own. The film ends with him at home by himself, slowly peeling an apple and looking forlorn. 

Ozu is known for making quiet, slow films, and that description certainly fits this one; virtually all of the action consists of conversation, over dinner or tea or while preparing for bed in the evening. There are longish shots of wooded hillsides, waves rolling across a beach, and the rooftops of old Kyoto interspersed with the interior shots where most of the development occurs. The conflict is motley internal, and the most visible indication of it is on Noriko’s face: through the first third of the movie, she is never seen without a wide smile; it is only when the prospect of marriage arises that she looks troubled by anything at all. 

It’s never totally cleat how much of Noriko’s opposition to marriage is due to her own desires (to continue in a life in which she is happy— a desire she will, by the end of the film, describe as selfish) and how much really comes out of concern for her father. She (mostly) stops her resistance to the plan when he says that he will remarry (though, at first, she is upset, even disgusted by this idea— she has told a friend of her father’s, who has taken a second wife, that he is “indecent” and even “filthy”; she changes her mind once she has met his new wife). At the same time, she never really seems happy about it; at best one might describe her as “reconciled.”

The film can easily be read as being about the conflict between “tradition” and (Western) “modernity”: the pressure for Noriko to marry seems to come entirely from the assumption that this is what women do, once they reach a certain age, and the fact that Noriko dresses (mostly) in Western-style dresses, goes to the city on her own, and spends the day with a male friend (the already-engaged Hattori) suggests a inclination to the “modern” side of this divide. That reading is supported, as well, by the fact that when Noriko is pushing back against the marriage, she asks her friend, Aya, about working as a stenographer— a job which allows Aya, who is divorced, financial independence, and when she finally does marry, she does so in traditional dress. 

At the same time, though, the film resists an easy dichotomy of this kind; Noriko’s father seems anything but dogmatic about what is right for his daughter, seeming concerned first and foremost with her own happiness (though apparently convinced that this cannot be what she thinks it should be); nor does he voice any objection to her dress, time spent with Hattori, etc. When Noriko’s aunt complains about “young girls today,” describing how the bride at a wedding she had just attended having “plowed into the food, and even drank sake,” Noriko’s father is more forgiving, attributing the woman’s appetite to having lived through wartime shortages; later, after Noriko’s wedding is over, he himself drinks Sake with Aya. So it does not work to read the movie as portraying a stifling tradition crushing the individuality of a young woman; Ozu seems more interested in the fact that these tensions— exacerbated in the aftermath of the War by and increased American presence (indicated here by, among other things, an advertisement for Coca-Cola) exist, and the ways in which they map on to the eternal conflict between generations.  There are no real bad guys in this film; Noriko’s aunt is a bit of a busybody, but that is the worst you can say about anyone. Instead, it’s a study in the conflicts that arise among people with good intentions.

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