Saturday, June 5, 2021

Late Spring (Banshun)


LATE SPRING (Banshun)        A-                                                                                               Japan  (108 mi)  1949  d:  Yasijirō Ozu

A postwar look at a loving father and daughter relationship that also examines the changing institution of marriage, caught between old-fashioned traditionalism and Western modernism, which includes arranged marriage and freedom of choice, where marriage became a matter of mutual consent only after the war with the signing of a new constitution in 1948, establishing legal equality between men and women on a number of issues, such as inheritance, property rights, and divorce, injecting a new stream of modern values into ordinary life, where the film openly comments on the rapidly changing attitudes of the nation, still coming to grips with losing a war, where the nation as a whole is more open and optimistic about the future, forced to embrace the uncertainty of the times.  Based on the short novel Father and Daughter (Chichi to musume) by 20th century novelist and critic Kazuo Hirotsu, adapted by screenwriter Kōgo Noda, who had not worked with the director since AN INNOCENT MAID (1935), but worked with him consistently for the remainder of his career, the film was made during the American occupation of Japan, with nearly a million troops under the command of General MacArthur patrolling the island for nearly seven years following the war, which included official censorship requirements (American censors initially objected to the subject of arranged marriage), as no public criticism of the American regime was permissible.  You can bet there was plenty of demeaning racist abuse heaped upon the Japanese by the ruling forces, as Japan had no sovereignty or diplomatic relations, while no Japanese were allowed to travel abroad until the occupation was over.  Ozu’s significance as a filmmaker during this period cannot be overemphasized, as he literally redefines the Japanese identity by making a series of ordinary domestic dramas addressing the problems of family relations, primarily the relations between parents and children, where he’s especially attuned to the emotional connection between marriage and child/parent separation, where his unique ability to blend the past into the present, while making it remain personal, yet distinctly Japanese, is what elevates his stature as a filmmaker.  There is literally no sign of American forces in the film, starring Chishū Ryū as the father, who was featured in nearly all of the director’s films, and Setsuko Hara making the first of six appearances in Ozu’s films playing the daughter (in her late 20’s), the first entry of the Noriko Trilogy, which also includes EARLY SUMMER (1951) and TOKYO STORY (1953).  In each Hara plays a young woman named Noriko, though each are distinctly unique and unrelated characters, yet thematically they are linked by her status as a single woman in postwar Japan, with the films reflecting the changing cultural transformations of the times.  Impressively listed at #15 in the 2012 BFI Sight and Sound Critic’s poll of the ten greatest films of all time, Critics' top 100 | BFI, just ahead of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), which may sound overly generous to some, particularly in light of the Directors top 100, as chosen by 358 directors, where Ozu’s film is listed at #174, while SAMURAI is listed at 17th and BALTHAZAR is listed at 21st, which may be more in line with the general viewing consensus.  Nonetheless, the film is universally acclaimed and remains powerfully impactful, as it was the model used for the Claire Denis film, 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #1 35 Shots of Rum, with a few notable alterations, #3. Yasujirō Ozu & Claire Denis YouTube (2:16).  For more you may hear Claire Denis elaborate on the subject, Claire Denis on Yasujiro Ozu YouTube (6:27).  This film set the template for such later reworkings as EARLY SUMMER (1951), LATE AUTUMN (1960), and Ozu’s final film AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962), while the names of the characters would be used again by Ryū and Hara in TOKYO STORY (1953), which is listed at #3 on the Critics' top 100 | BFI and #1 on the Directors top 100.    

Opening in the emptiness of the Kita-Kamakura Train Station which flows into a traditional tea ceremony with Noriko, her Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura), as well as the widowed Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake), with Ozu quickly establishing traditional convention while lightheartedly poking fun of women’s role in taking care of men, as they comically discuss how to extend the life of worn-out clothing, in particular the pants of Shukichi Somiya, Noriko’s father, clearly establishing women’s role of domestic subordination.  Her father is a respected professor, working on a manuscript with his assistant Hattori (Jun Usami) as Noriko returns to a two-story home, showing easy signs of affection, living a comfortable middle-class life.  While shopping in the recently reconstructed Tokyo, Noriko runs into one of her father’s old friends, Professor Onodera (Masao Mishima), a widower who has remarried, with Noriko showing utter repulsion at the idea of an older man remarrying, finding it morally “unclean.”  The traditional view is to remain loyal to your partner even after death, which certainly dates this film, as that sounds culturally archaic in the modern world, but it offers a glimpse into the Japanese psyche at the time.  Onodera, however, while surprised by the aggressive tone of her overly rigid view, kids her about her response for the remainder of the film, as she portrays him as a villain, yet he is overtly kind and playful with her.  Noriko, it should be pointed out, dresses in a modern style while women around her dress in kimonos, even wearing her hair in a Western style, and prefers sitting in a chair to sitting on the floor, taking advantage of new opportunities opening up for women.  In a breezy follow-up, displaying a rare degree of independence, she exhibits the freedom of contemporary attitudes, as we see her taking a pleasant afternoon bicycle ride with Hattori down alongside the ocean, where greeting them along the way is a road sign that proudly proclaims, “Drink Coca Cola.”  While they are largely alone on the beach, there’s nothing romantic implied, as all they do is talk, conveyed in a naturalistic manner.  Yet when he invites her to attend a violin concert with him, having already purchased the tickets, she declines, as he’s already engaged to another woman, establishing acceptable boundaries.  The elephant in the room here is the unseen presence of American troops, many of whom are meeting and pursuing Japanese women sexually, a common practice that was viewed by Japanese society as morally reprehensible (a view still felt today with the continued American presence at the U.S. military base at Okinawa, attracting bars and prostitutes and reported incidents of rape, causing multiple anti-American riots and protests).  In contrast to typical middle-class standards, Aunt Masa has a thing for matchmaking, and tries to hook up Noriko with a potential suitor, supposedly handsome and well-educated, with a good paying job, described as looking “like Gary Cooper,” at least from the nose down, offering an acerbic comment on Asian eyes.  Noriko is flabbergasted at the thought, expressing little interest, revealing she’s quite happy taking care of her father, who would be lost without her.  While the father and daughter characters may seem saintly and overly perfect, in line with Ozu’s extreme formalization, using a restrained, methodical style, yet this director is known for sophisticated subtlety, where the silences in the film are clearly the most dramatically impactful moments, but this interchange between Western influence and traditional Japanese values could hardly be more striking, with Noriko vacillating over her reluctant but inevitable journey towards marriage.  The idea to remain affixed to cultural traditions simply does not supersede one’s moral allegiances to a romantic partner, which is an individual choice, something of a perplexing existential condition, where one is ultimately tasked with creating a new life together.   

While the first half of the film identifies Noriko’s concern for her father and his well-being, the rest of the film switches to her father’s concern for his daughter’s happiness, even at the expense of his own, which is painfully evident in the final shot.  Noriko clearly has a connection established with Hattori, but she’s able to accept his marriage largely because of the strong attachment she has for her father.  But Aunt Masa hits a raw nerve by introducing the idea her father might wish to remarry again, suggesting Mrs. Miwa may be the prospective bride.  The idea doesn’t sit well with Noriko, growing angry at the implied disloyalty shown to her mother, which becomes extremely apparent when she and her father attend the performance of a highly stylized Noh play, with Mrs. Miwa sitting in a different section, with Noriko internalizing contemptuous jealousy and anger.  Inexplicably she walks away from her father afterwards, claiming she wants to go shopping, but really she’s simply fuming.  Her entire world would change drastically without her father to rely upon, as she has no working skills and would find it difficult making her own way.  In this way, she’s actually reliant upon the traditional form of arranged marriages, yet the war has taken the lives of so many eligible men, significantly reducing the pool of eligible suitors.  Her father certainly sees this and encourages her to meet this potential suitor, as he’s concerned for her future.  From a modernist perspective, the idea of not having freedom of choice sounds barbaric, but this is a reflection of Japanese traditions for centuries, where Ozu’s ability to grapple with this issue so seamlessly is a credit to his profession, as throughout the film viewers grow more sympathetic for Noriko, identifying with her father’s perspective, realizing his role is paramount in setting her free on her own path, which is quite different from earlier ideas on how a father should act, where primary importance was placed on making sure she lived under established traditions.  What’s particularly effective is the extent to which each of them value the happiness of the other, as that unconditional love is unquestioned and it dominates the overall tone of the film.  Realizing that without him his daughter would have nothing, so he intentionally lies, telling her that he does wish to remarry, knowing just how uncomfortable this would make her feel, yet this ultimately achieves his goal, as for the first time in her life she decides to think only about herself, and not about him.  Before her marriage, she and her father go on a trip together to Kyoto to visit the shrines, with gorgeous glimpses of contemplative temples (Kōdai-ji), pagodas, and Ryōan-ji, a late 16th century Zen rock garden, which has the effect of reestablishing their family harmony, with both on the same page, spending the night at the inn, culminating with what is arguably the most debated shot in Ozu’s career, a sequence that cuts between Noriko’s face and an empty vase, where her mood changes significantly from joy to tears, while the vase remains unchanged and timeless, like the waves of the ocean.  They run into Onodera again, with Noriko now having met his new wife, feeling aghast at what she was initially thinking, with Onodera, of course, gladly reminding her, showing apparent growth and maturity, yet she makes one final attempt to stay connected with her father, even after his supposed marriage, wondering why she needs to marry or why things have to change, yet he finds that “unnatural,” clearly indicating she needs to transfer the love she shares for him to her new husband, suggesting “Happiness comes only through effort.”  Her response, apologizing for being so selfish, is a startling transition, sadly feeling societally induced, but it achieves her father’s goal.  Ironically, neither Ozu nor Hara ever married, as Hara, known as the “Eternal Virgin” in Japan, retired at age 43 and then lived the rest of her life in seclusion, while Ozu lived at home with his mother until her death, dying just a year after she did, never experiencing the children or family life depicted in his films.  When we see Noriko all dressed up in formal wedding attire (we never see the prospective husband or the wedding itself), she is a changed woman with a hopeful future that awaits her (a metaphor for the future of Japan), while her father must suffer the indignity of knowing he did the right thing, fulfilling his paternal moral obligation, but still he pays for it, silently spending the rest of his life alone.

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