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Today, ambitious directors experiment with the ensemble plot. More and more they shift away from a single protagonist and toward a group of characters connected by kinship, friendship, or some striking event. The structure isn’t unknown in studio-era Hollywood (Grand Hotel, 1932; Dinner at Eight, 1933), but now many filmmakers find it particularly appealing. From Nashville (1975) to Traffic (2000) and Amores Perros (2000), this “converging fates” pattern can evoke life’s breadth, surveying a range of emotions and comparing various reactions to shared situations. Perhaps soap operas and long-running story arcs on television dramas have made us willing to skip from one story line to another, dividing our emotional allegiance among quite different characters.
As with so much else, Ozu got here early. From The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) to the end of his career, he experimented with the ensemble movie. In his hands, the extended-family drama widened its focus to encompass friends, neighbors, and employers. The most famous example is Tokyo Story (1953), but two years before that, Early Summer (1951) offers a more audacious effort. The movie features nineteen characters (twenty, if you count one who’s mentioned but never appears), and every one, it turns out, is poised between the idyllic prewar years and the new world they now inhabit. Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda make each person vividly memorable, then weave all the characters together in a leisurely series of conversations and confrontations.
Of course, Ozu is always about more than structure, but the firmness and finesse of his architecture anchor the emotional reverberations of the individual scenes. Unlike many ensemble dramas, Early Summer does not want to keep us guessing about how characters will connect. From the start, we know each character’s place in the social network, and this readies us to follow each character’s psychological trajectory.
Early Summer offers a carefully balanced construction. The first act, running about forty minutes, concentrates on Uncle’s visit to the Mamiya family. Here all the major characters are introduced, not only the family but also Noriko’s boss, Satake, and the Yabes next door. We take a leisurely tour of these people’s routines thanks to scenes linked by mood, minor appointments, and sheer succession. Conflicts don’t surface; the pace is unhurried. As in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), this introduction to family and friends sinks us into a warm rhythm of household life.
At the very end of this section, a plot launches itself. Fumiko and Noriko, in the kitchen, discuss marriage prospects. Act two gains its impetus from the efforts to find Noriko a husband. There are still some slices of everyday life, but now even trivial actions play a role in Noriko’s marriage plot. For example, the boys’ tantrum over toy railroad tracks makes them willfully leave home. The search for them generates a scene between Noriko and Kenkichi, preparing us for his importance later.
Act three is full of twists. Noriko abruptly picks a groom, with results that shake the family. Yet the conflicts are reconciled, and the mood overall remains serene—not least because each “act” contains one moment where characters contemplate nature and seem to realize the pettiness of the moment’s problems.
This solid architecture allows Ozu and Noda to play some storytelling tricks on us. The opening sequences, laying out expository information with maximum clarity, lull us into trusting the film’s narration; but as it goes on, the plot becomes more eccentric and elliptical. Sometimes the very shot contains a joke, such as the portentous track up to a broken loaf of bread. Sometimes a key piece of information—or rather, the identity of a major character—is simply omitted. Across the film, Ozu makes his transitions ever bolder, so that by the end an apparent point-of-view shot turns into something rather different. A shot may make us expect someone to fill the empty center of the composition, all the while tucking the key piece of information, such as a radio broadcasting kabuki, into the corner of the frame. And sometimes a character’s reaction takes us utterly by surprise, as when Kenkichi becomes the last to learn about a life-changing decision.
Each moment in Early Summer becomes an exercise in precise storytelling and unforced emotion. How to pluck high points out of a stream of such poignant and funny scenes? The grandfather rests radiantly by the railroad crossing, glimpsed in the flicker of a passing train. The hands of Noriko’s friend Aya sketch out racks of Coca-Cola in an imaginary refrigerator. The boys quarrel with their father, Koichi, kicking the bread he’s brought home. He snaps: “Don’t kick food!”
Past and present are fused with utter naturalness. No need for flashbacks (Ozu never uses them) when you can summon up grade-school teasing through the banter between married and unmarried women, or when a trip to a coffee shop can trigger memories of adolescent friendship. Ozu’s preoccupation with what is irretrievably gone, a particularly important theme in his postwar work, takes on a new poignancy when so many generations muse on the past and the future. Grandfather and grandmother lunch in the park and recall their MIA son. They look to the sky as a balloon drifts off. “Some child must be crying.” Cut to the Boy’s Day party, reintroducing their bratty grandsons.
Ozu’s characteristic blend of tones—humor, melancholy, yearning, resignation, serenity—here achieves perhaps its greatest richness. In this world, elders hide cake so kids won’t get any, and an obtuse employer startles us by sensing a staff member’s uneasiness. The pacing gives us time to search every shot for details, to weigh every facial expression, and to reflect on each character’s attitude. Trying for happiness is like trying to win at the racetrack, says Aya. Koichi urges Noriko to take the best suitor she has; she can’t do better. And as for finding the lost son? “There’s no hope now,” says Grandfather, smiling.
Ozu filters urban, suburban, and rural life through his distinct pictorial vision. The shots outside Noriko’s office building turn a street lamp into a barometric needle marking various camera positions. He manages to make a crane shot (the only one in his surviving work) an exercise in seaside geometry. The shots that take us into and out of the Uncle’s home across fields of grain evoke the original Japanese title (The Barley Harvest Season) while also playing a sophisticated game with shot scale.
A film that begins with “There’s No Place Like Home” tinkling on the soundtrack ends with a vision of a family scattered. Ozu’s ensemble plot portrays the relentlessness of passing time and the way it strains and frays human ties. The social networks we have sampled—the family and friends whom we have come to love—turn out to embody a grand cycle of life. And Ozu’s characters come to accept that rhythm of change with a good-humored, slightly troubled tranquility.
David Bordwell is a professor of cinema studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema.