Late Spring [Banshun] (1949)

Sometimes It Snows In April

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For some directors, it can take time before they hit their full stride. Alfred Hitchcock had been directing movies for 25 years prior to directing his most iconic works in the 1950s and ’60s. Correspondingly, Japanese filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu had been directing for 22 years before he made Late Spring, in my opinion, his magnum opus (although I know others will argue in favour of Tokyo Story) and the beginning of his golden age in which he created a profound series of films about Japanese middle-class domesticity (whereas his work pre-1949 tended to focus more towards poverty-stricken families).

Late Spring is also the first entry of The Noriko Trilogy (alongside Early Summer and Tokyo Story), with all three films starring Setsuko Hara, often named The Eternal Virgin in her country of origin, and it’s not hard to see why. I would defy anyone to watch Late Spring and not fall in love with this capital G Goddess of feminine virtue – with her angelic, shy demeanour emanating a slightly bent over posture alongside a smile that could kill. Late Spring showcases her as an actress of amazing depth and able to convey such deep emotional range in the role of Noriko Somiya. There is somewhat of a contradictory nature to the character of Noriko when it comes to her conservative views. Noriko finds her uncle’s remarrying to be “distasteful” and “impure” and not afraid to say it to his face (albeit in a kindly manner) and can’t bear the idea of her widowed father doing the same thing. Hara is able to portray a character of such saintly purity (it’s even mentioned she does not drink) without it ever becoming sickenly so. Yet contradicting this is the reluctance she holds to get married herself. 

The relationship Noriko shares with her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishū Ryū) is both odd and endearing. She is unemployed and takes joy in looking after her old father, acting as a housewife minus any incestuous implications. Details presented in Late Spring are scant about the character’s histories, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. I can assume the young woman would be inclined to share this kind of a relationship with her father due to their time during the war. It is mentioned during the course of the film that Noriko endured forced labour during this period and “had to run around to get food on her day off”, and is required to receive regular blood tests as a result. Chishū Ryū on-the-other-hand feels like he was born an old man, made to look older than he was in all three films of The Noriko Trilogy, and convincingly so.

At the age of 27 and still single, Noriko is approaching the “late spring” of her shelf life, reaching the age she would no longer be considered marriageable, but is unwilling to part from the status-quo arrangement she has with her father. Like a number of Ozu films, the story of Late Spring centers around arranged marriage, although anathema to viewers in the west, it does not detract from the universality of his work. A scene that really hits home for me is that in which Noriko’s aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) has a talk with Noriko about marrying. We’ve all been there, when an elder tells us to stop what we are doing and sit down to have a serious chat in which we feel uncomfortable but deep down we know they are correct even if one, like Noriko, signifies their objections but later comes to an eventual acceptance. Noriko’s arranged partner, Mr Kumataro Satake (aka Bear Boy), remains an off screen character, with the only detail passed onto the viewer about his physical appearance is that he looks like Gary Cooper, especially around the mouth but not the top half – allowing the viewer to once again fill in the blanks. 

On a further personal note, I first watched Late Spring at the age of 28, only 1 year older than the character of Noriko, and despite this being a film about a young Japanese women’s pressure to get married in the years following the war, it still spoke to me on the basis that life is passing you by, that change is an inevitable part of life with the pain and heartache which comes with that must be endured. When Noriko speaks to her father at the end of a trip to Kyoto just before the wedding, she speaks of how “I just want to be with you, like this. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m happy being with you like this.” – Just ensure you have a box of Kleenex handy.

When watching any film of Ozu’s later period, the viewer will immediately be put into a great sense of ease with his trademark use of pillow shots (two or three quiet compositions usually showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky) alongside the ever tranquil music scores. Unique however to the opening pillow shots of a railway station in Late Spring is the quaint, English feel to it, aided by the images of a gentle breeze in the leaves and the sound of birds chirping. If I was shown this opening out of context, I could swear it was neo-realist footage of a quiet, remote part of the English countryside. Likewise, the geometric nature of the interior of Japanese homes along with Ozu’s unique style of composition with use of the so called tatami shot is very pleasing to the eyes. This look into another culture extends to the film’s documentary-like aspects as we are treated to slices of everyday post-war Japanese life from kids playing baseball to the inclusion of a Noh play. The westernization present in Japanese films from this period can come off as a shock for first-time viewers of Japanese cinema such as the sight of Tokyo’s classical European architecture as seen in Late Spring.

The scene in which Noriko and Hattori (Jun Usami) go for a recreational cycle by the seaside is the cinematic encapsulation for the joy of living. A scene bustling with freedom and a lust for life with the sight of a smiling Setsuko Hara with her hair blowing in the wind alongside the quirky, upbeat music which accompanies the scene should be in the pantheon of cinema’s most iconic moments. It also contains the unexpected but memorable inclusion of a Coca-Cola sign featured prominently in the foreground – one of the most memorable pieces of product placement I’ve seen in a film. This sign along with another road sign in English warning that the weight capacity of the bridge the duo are riding over is 30 tons (irrelevant information for the two cyclists but necessary for any military vehicles to pass over) could be interpreted as signs to the otherwise unseen US occupation. Concurrently, I believe it’s not unreasonable to assume that Aya’s (Yumeji Tsukioka) ex-husband of whom she speaks of throughout the course of the film is a US serviceman. Aya refers to him by the name “Ken”, which Shukichi assumes is short for “Kenkichi” however Aya never corrects him. The other significant clue is Aya’s difficulty in sitting in a traditional Japanese manner without her legs getting numb, suggesting she has become more used to the western manner of sitting.

The Wikipedia page for Late Spring is bizarrely long and extremely detailed, more famous films have less in-depth articles – the work of an eager fan perhaps? In my research, I have found Late Spring only received its first home video release in the United States in 1994 and the mass availability of the films from this master of cinema has only become reality within the last decade. Perhaps the discovery of Yasujirō Ozu‘s work in the west outside of film circles has only begun?

The Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice [Ochazuke no aji] (1952)

He Supports You, He Provides For You And Darling You Can’t Support Yourself

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The practice of arranged marriage was bizarre to the west come the 20th century however according to the website FactsAndDetails.com; “[Japan] In the 1950s, about 70 percent of all marriages were arranged. In 1973, the figure was only 37 percent. Today only around 10 percent are”. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (or “Flavor” as you yanks spell it) is one of several domestic sagas by director Yasujirō Ozu which focuses on arranged marriages, and it’s fascinating to see how such an arcane practice was still commonplace in a world which is otherwise very westernised. However, like Late Spring and Early Summer, the focus on arranged marriage doesn’t detract from the universality of these films nor do I get any impression Ozu is attacking the practice in any of his pictures. In The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice, the young girl Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) outright refuses to partake in an arranged marriage however come the film’s conclusion, the story’s main couple Taeko & Mokichi Satake (Michiyo Kogure and Shin Saburi) do find happiness within their arranged marriage. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice holds similar plot threads to Ozu’s earlier comedy What Did The Lady Forget? – both of which feature a childless, married couple and a rebellious niece named Setsuko.

Taeko Satake very much fits the mould of a wine aunt – a woman of privilege who is unemployed, childless and is able to live a rather luxurious life (symbolized from her preferred attire of kimono) from living off her husband as well as receiving money from her upper-middle-class parents. The film doesn’t indicate if the relationship between Taeko and her husband Mokichi was ever strong. She is only seen acting like a loving wife in the lead up to lying to her husband in order to go to the hot springs with her friends for the night, nor does he make any effort to confront these obvious lies. Upon first watching the film I wasn’t quite sure if Mokichi just accepted these lies and did nothing about it or was just thick. Taeko even calls her husband Mr. Bonehead when he’s not around and compares him to a big, sluggish carp on one occasion. Likewise, there is the hypocrisy of her refusing to speak to her husband for days on end after he lied to her even though she has previously lied to him on many occasions – ah women, amirite? I know I’m going quite hard on this character, but I by no means dislike her. Prior to the film’s conclusion, her character does receive some redemption in being a doting and caring aunt to Setsuko (of whom it’s somewhat odd that the young girl spends the entire movie hanging out with older women), plus I couldn’t bring myself to dislike the ever-gorgeous Michiyo Kogure. Despite collaborating with many actors on multiple occasions, The Falvour Of Green Tea Over Rice would be Michiyo Kogure’s only film with Ozu.

The other point of contention amidst Mr. & Mrs. Satake is the class difference between the two, with Mokchi coming from a more working-class background. This conflict becomes most pronounced when Taeko chastises her husband over his primitive manner of eating, “wolfing his food down like a dog” as she describes it. This class difference ties into the meaning behind the film’s title. Mokchi is a man who derives simple pleasures from life much to his wife’s displeasure. In a monologue, he speaks of how he likes things “cosy and down-to-earth” and “without ceremony or affectation” (which in itself is a perfect description of Ozu as a filmmaker). The pharse “flavour of green tea over rice” is a capitulation to the simple life with green tea over rice itself being a simple delicacy. What would be the western equivalent – the flavour of bread over butter? The other husband featured in The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice is that of Toichiro (Hisao Toake), the husband of Aya (Chikage Awashima). The awkward and cucked little man is spotted having an affair with another woman at a baseball game (despite the claim that he doesn’t like baseball very much) and even comes to his wife’s place of work in order to ask her for money (it’s not indicated if he actually works himself). Aya herself has a job of some prestige, appearing to be a clothes designer and it’s clear who wears the pants in this couple. Men, be more like Mokichi and don’t in any way emulate the pathetic Toichiro. Mokchi may not be the most exciting man in the world but he is a reliable husband ala green tea over rice. As Taeko states at the film’s conclusion – “What’s most important is whether he’s reliable or not”.

Taeko and Mokichi’s marriage is ultimately saved by what else, the making a late-night snack. After Taeko had to leave the country for Uruguay and was unable to say goodbye to his wife as she had unexpectedly left for a few days, the two then find themselves reunited at home when Taeko’s plane has to return due to mechanical troubles. In one of the most beautiful scenes in an Ozu film, the pair must find their way around the kitchen as their servant Fumi (Yôko Kosono) has gone to bed and they have never prepared food for themselves. The couple display a look of pure joy on their faces while they prepare a snack of (you guessed it) green tea over rice as the two fall-in-love with each other and Mokichi’s comes to understand Taeko’s philosophy of “cosy and down-to-earth”. The scene is not in any way unbelievable or contrived and demonstrates there still lies hope for damaged marriages and relationships. Their kitchen itself is pure interior decorating goals with its slight Bauhaus vibe and one which is illuminated with a beautiful, dark and hazy light. The final shot of the kitchen lingers as the couple leaves the room and turns off the lights, letting the viewer absorb the pure cinematic magic which just unfolded. Previously, I would have ranked the best ever scene in a movie centered around a kitchen to have been the comical climax in Woman Of The Year (1942), which can now hold the number 2 position of such an honour. 

Another interesting point of note is Aya’s question to Setsuko as to whether she prefers the upper or lower part of actor Jean Marais’ face after Setsuko speaks of going to see one of his pictures. The same reference was made in Late Spring to a Japanese man having the same facial features as Gary Cooper on the lower part of his face, with the significance being the upper part of the face being what most significantly distinguishes asians from caucasians. Conversely, in a slightly odd change of pace for an Ozu film, the camera moves with a total of 7 pans throughout the film – rare for Ozu considering his aversion to camera movement. This however does not include camera shots stationed on moving vehicles unless that in itself can be classified as a moving shot? Correspondingly, like other Ozu films, the film provides some documentary-like moments of post-war Japan such as shots of a baseball game as-well-as a cycling race in a purpose-built stadium. Also featured is a pachinko parlour, a coin-operated game and a predecessor to the modern-day coin-operated arcade game. The owner of the parlour known as the Bittersweet School Of Life, Sadao Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) thinks the addictive game is a bad trend that will die out, only history would go on to prove him very wrong. – Ah the nostalgia one can experience for a world never lived in.