EARLY SPRING: A NEW AGE
Yasujiro Ozu had already directed forty-five features by the time he started work on Early Spring, in 1955, but the artistic and commercial success of his previous film, Tokyo Story (1953), had rejuvenated him. Considered an emotional and technical refinement of the motifs he had honed over a twenty-six-year career, Tokyo Story became a catalyst for what many Ozu scholars consider his most accomplished, and certainly one of his most fertile, periods. Beginning with Early Spring, Ozu directed at least one film a year until his death, in 1962, a narrative cycle that extended his recurrent themes of intergenerational conflict and familial crisis but with an increasing respect and sympathy for the younger characters. This marked a break following Tokyo Story, which viewed the dissolution of family through the eyes of an elder generation (albeit one shown as increasingly inessential). With his signature aesthetic minimalism, Ozu delicately calibrated many of his final films as ongoing dialogues between children trying to navigate burgeoning adulthood and parents still set in a more traditional frame of mind.
This shift in perspective was not simply the result of the evolving sensibilities of Ozu and longtime coscreenwriter Kogo Noda. At first, there were also practical, studio-imposed reasons. For Early Spring, Ozu was encouraged by executives at Shochiku Company to skew younger and cast bigger names, to appeal to Japan’s newly emerging youth culture. And initially, Ozu’s films of this period reflected a certain hesitancy to completely engage with this new generation. Somewhat anomalous in Ozu’s career, for this reason and for their more overtly sensationalist elements, Early Spring and Tokyo Twilight (1957) feature twentysomething protagonists and lack dominant parental authority figures. Yet their conflicted or traumatized central characters, put through unrelentingly grim narratives, are unable to achieve complete independence from family or societal expectations. Early Spring deviates the most from the familial narratives of this late cycle of Ozu’s work, more reminiscent of the Japanese salaryman film tradition. For Early Spring, Ozu stated, “I tried to portray the pathos of the salaryman’s life as society undergoes transformation.”
That transformation, to a postwar economy, is clearly evoked in the film’s explicit recollection of World War II. Though Ozu had made films in the salary-man genre before the war, Early Spring takes on an entirely different, melancholy tone, one informed by a newfound shiftlessness and estrangement in the culture, represented here by the young, unhappily married Shoji (Ryo Ikebe), just starting out on his office-bound career and already dissatisfied. The economic miracle supposedly bolstering Japan in the 1950s is portrayed as no more than workaday drudgery and domestic alienation. Perhaps Ozu’s take on white-collar life is best expressed in two brief cutaways in which the camera, low angled, creeps ever closer to Shoji’s closed office door. It’s one of the few times in any of Ozu’s late films that the camera moves at all—a crawl down a long, vacant hallway stretching out into a future that for Shoji is all too defined.
TOKYO TWILIGHT: WINTER BREAK
With its characters’ quotidian desperation and tragic pasts, Early Spring (1956) paved the way for Yasujiro Ozu’s even more melodramatic next film, Tokyo Twilight (1957). Like Early Spring, Tokyo Twilight is something of an updated shomin-geki—the lower-middle-class family drama, a Shochiku specialty—with the drama more weighted to the lives of the children than the parents. Yet at the time, Ozu resisted fully embracing this shift in perspective, claiming that “the focus was directed at the older generation.”
Still, Ozu’s assertions notwithstanding, most of the screen time in Tokyo Twilight is devoted to the parallel narratives of sisters Takako (Setsuko Hara) and Akiko (Ineko Arima), whose father, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), has grown increasingly disillusioned and weary with both his own choices in life and those of his daughters. The pessimism that marked Early Spring is thus brought back to the realm of the family unit. And while the younger generation in Tokyo Twilight is shown to be increasingly independent, the daughters themselves remain tied to their family’s past, as exemplified in the film’s climactic revelation about their mother, who long ago abandoned the family. “I should never have been born,” weeps Akiko, in response to finding out about her mother’s past indiscretions and therefore her own sullied reputation. Tokyo Twilight thus evinces a certain inability on Ozu’s part to allow his younger protagonists to break free from the clutches of tradition without imposing some sort of moral code—with the sins of the mother coming to define the legacy of her children.
The events of the story (abortion, separation, suicide) make it the darkest and most sensationalist of Ozu’s career, and the public and critical community reacted negatively. The first Ozu film in twenty-one years not to appear in the top ten of Japan’s esteemed annual Kinema junpo film poll, Tokyo Twilight was considered at the time one of the great failures of the filmmaker’s career. Yet today the film retains an enormous dramatic power, perhaps because of those very divergences from the Ozu oeuvre: with its shadowy downtown setting, populated by smoky mahjong parlors and Ginza bars, Tokyo Twilight feels like an entirely new milieu for the filmmaker. And its evocative, almost sinister, landscape is matched with an intense narrative that has the grip and eventual catharsis of classical tragedy.
Of course, Ozu accomplishes all this with a minimum of flourish, allowing the seasons, as in so many of his films, to speak to the characters’ emotions. Tokyo Twilight expresses itself greatly through its oppressively cold atmosphere. Lit by lamps, framed by dark, frosted windows and snowy exteriors, and largely characterized by nighttime scenes, it is, appropriately, Ozu’s only postwar film to take place in the dead of winter.
EQUINOX FLOWER: IN FULL BLOOM
From the darkness into the light. Immediately following the desolation and somber black-and-white tones of Tokyo Twilight (1957), Equinox Flower (1958) was a major emotional shift for Yasujiro Ozu, heightened by the fact that it was his first film shot in color. Although the decision to film it in Agfacolor was imposed by the studio (in part to more glowingly render star Fujiko Yamamoto, who had come to Shochiku from rival film company Daiei), Ozu couldn’t have found a better narrative with which to dabble in his newfound palette: Equinox Flower is bright, modern, and forthright in its depiction of children standing up for their own beliefs even as their parents are taking baby steps toward recognizing their offspring’s individuality.
Everything seems to blossom anew in Equinox Flower. The younger generation no longer sees marriage as their parents’ business, a point of view announced early in the film by Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), whose bright pink sweater, blazing amid the brown tones of her home, speaks to her charming individuality. “I wouldn’t want to have an arranged marriage with a stranger,” Hisako confidently states, moving Ozu’s lifelong examination of Japanese family life into its most modern stance. Of course, with such new, liberal attitudes comes a widening chasm between parents and children. But instead of a major intergenerational conflict—as Ozu had depicted in the past—we get the delicate hypocrisy of Wataru Hirayama (former matinee idol Shin Saburi), the film’s endlessly self-contradicting protagonist and dominating patriarch. With a complacent streak of gray across his temples, Hirayama embodies the traditional values of Japanese society slowly coming to terms with cultural change. Near the film’s opening, at the wedding of a friend’s son, Hirayama makes an alternately wistful and condemnatory speech in which he recalls the limited romantic opportunities of his generation, because of the custom of arranged marriage. Though Hirayama praises the youngsters’ love match as an example of progress, he spends the rest of the film trying to deny his daughter Setsuko (Ineko Arima) the same freedom. It becomes clear as the film floats along that Hirayama’s opposition to Setsuko’s choice of husband merely represents his last grasp at his fleeting authority. Ozu’s critique of conservative family values is gentle rather than radical, perhaps reflected in Hirayama’s own evolving mind-set.
Equinox Flower’s bemused look at the collision between the old and the new feels truly liberated, both narratively and aesthetically. Properly placed red teakettles, yellow bundles of fresh flowers, glass bottles of sweet tangerine-colored soda pop: it’s a new world for Ozu, as it is for Hirayama. Even Ozu’s famed pillow shots (those fleeting, poetically placed images of environment that transport us between scenes) suddenly have new expressive capability, as when we cut from an expanse of red carpet to the blazing red and blue neon signs of the Ginza district. Though he had resisted using color for many years, much as he had sound in the mid-1930s, Ozu found the transition to be a smooth one, enjoying the ways in which the properties of the reds, in particular, enhanced his vision of a changing society. Something had clicked, and from this point on, all of Ozu’s films would exploit this new, vibrant spectrum.
LATE AUTUMN: FAMILY REUNION
Equinox Flower (1958) marked a critical and commercial rebound for Yasujiro Ozu, and throughout the rest of the 1950s, he would continue on this artistic path, with epiphanies both comic (1959’s Good Morning, a breezy suburban farce) and aesthetic (that same year’s Floating Weeds, which vibrantly remade his silent 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds). At the start of the new decade, which would be his last, Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda decided to reimagine their 1949 masterpiece Late Spring as Late Autumn (1960), the story of a mother marrying off her reticent daughter, as opposed to the father-daughter pairing of the earlier film. Adding to the poignancy of this revision is the appearance of genteel Ozu stalwart Setsuko Hara as the mother, Akiko. Hara had performed the part of the daughter in the earlier film, and this progression speaks eloquently of the passing of time, of children growing up, leaving home, and becoming parents.
The differences between the films hardly end there. Late Autumn follows Late Spring’s narrative trajectory—a widowed parent tries to persuade a loyal child to get married by considering remarriage—yet unlike the more contemplative, somber earlier film, Late Autumn reflects Ozu’s new alignment with the younger generation. Though the film’s most amusing characters, a trio of meddlesome wannabe matchmaker businessmen, happen to be middle-aged fathers, the youngsters, particularly the women, are in control here: daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa), stubborn and resistant to marriage, wants to decide her own future, which, for the time being, means taking care of her widowed mother; while her best friend, Yuriko (Mariko Okada), to whom the film’s perspective shifts at a crucial point in the story, turns out to be the ultimate puppet master, much like Equinox Flower’s Yukiko, who decides the resolution of that film.
As in so many of his earlier works, Ozu here is fascinated with the politics of intergenerational communication. The three businessmen, old family friends of Akiko and her deceased husband’s, serve both as something of a Greek chorus and as a nattering sewing circle: undone by masculine pride, they take us further down the path set upon in Equinox Flower, which hinted at the increasing irrelevance of the old patriarchal ways. (It’s noteworthy that Akiko, seen teaching at a local dressmaking school, is depicted as financially independent.) When Yuriko definitively dresses down the three men in a climactic scene, for their unintendedly destructive rumors regarding Akiko’s engagement, the torch seems to have been officially passed from the old to the young.
“I want people to feel without resorting to drama,” Ozu said regarding Late Autumn, a statement best exemplified by Akiko’s simultaneously sensible and heartbreaking response to her daughter’s question about what would happen if she got married and moved away: “I’d miss you, but it can’t be helped. I’d have to make do. That’s how it is with parents and children.” At this point in his career, Ozu was so adept at eliciting profound emotion with minimal fanfare, either dramatic or stylistic, that his artistry can only be deemed invisible.
THE END OF SUMMER: MOVING ON
To develop the script for what would be his penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961), Yasujiro Ozu and coscreenwriter Kogo Noda retreated to the warm climes of Tateshina, in Nagano. Between February and April of 1961, according to Ozu, the two men enjoyed lovely spring weather every day and, with no guests to call on them, were able to get drunk and boisterous whenever they wanted to, which was often. This rowdy, carefree attitude seems to have informed the end result: like Late Autumn (1960), which depicted its three middle-aged male characters as older versions of the playful schoolboys of his earlier films, The End of Summer again paints the father figure as regressing to a youthful state—much to the chagrin of his three daughters.
Yet here, the disappearing patriarch represents something even grander: the decline of a traditional way of life for a family. While attempting to find a suitable husband for the youngest of its three daughters, Noriko, as well as, tangentially, for her widowed sister, Akiko, the Kohayagawa clan is also struggling to run its faltering sake brewing company, which has survived generations. (Akiko and Noriko are played by Setsuko Hara and Yoko Tsukasa, who had so movingly portrayed mother and daughter in Late Autumn.) The family faces hardships both emotional and financial when the impish father, Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura), begins to behave in an increasingly erratic way, taking off in the middle of the working day to reunite with his former mistress. When he becomes ill, the future of the business and the family unit is thrown into question, and the possibility of selling out to a larger corporate interest becomes an attractive prospect for the children.
It’s quite obvious, from its buoyant, almost romantic-comic, opening to its funereal ending, that The End of Summer is primarily concerned with the younger Kohayagawas—with what happens when the children take over from their parents, with the pain of letting go versus the possibility of moving on. There’s such a fine, elegantly drawn line between hope and sadness in The End of Summer, between the celebratory and the benedictory, that even as the film ends on disturbing images of smoke wafting from the top of a crematorium and crows perched ominously on gravestones, there remains the distinct sense of life drifting forward (“It’s the cycle of nature,” remarks a peasant woman, watching the ashes pour from the chimney stack).
The anecdote that supplied the main inspiration for the film also speaks of a balance between the comic and the painful—the true tale of an acquaintance of Ozu’s whose father suddenly rose from bed, hale and hearty, the morning after he had suffered a serious heart attack. Such a moment occurs in The End of Summer, although this instance of humorous resurrection remains tinged with the inevitability of death. Retrospectively, it seems a poignantly fitting attitude, both anxious and accepting, for a man who was coming to the close of his life.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.