Early Summer Reviews
In Ozu's world, the cake is not a lie. The cake is, as in "MacArthur Park," a metaphor, but this is actually a good and worthwhile metaphor. For one thing, cake as it appears here is a Western import. There are various sweets in Japanese tradition, but that isn't what they're eating here. Frankly, I'm not sure baking is a real Japanese traditional cooking method, though I must confess to a general lack of interest in Japanese cuisine. (I don't like fish or vegetables, so a lot of Asian food is right out for me.) This is also an extremely elaborate cake, by the look of it, and not a cheap one, by the reactions of various characters to the price. This is not cake for every day consumption. If you are not going to be marrying a rich man, you are not going to get to have this cake very often. But there's cake now, and who knows? Maybe there will be cake again, and if not, there's the memory of cake!
Noriko Mamiya (Setsuko Hara) is another one of those women in Ozu films who are being pressured by their families to marry. She is twenty-eight, so they think it's high time. She's not as determined as they are, being perfectly content to live with her brother (Chishű Ryű) and sister-in-law (Kuniko Miyake) and her parents (Ichir˘ Sugai and Chieko Higashiyama). However, her boss (Shűji Sano) has a friend who's looking for a wife. Word gets out, and the family decides that Noriko will marry him. Half of Noriko's friends are married, and they're in a sort of battle of wits with the unmarried half; it's clear which group thinks she should marry this total stranger. She is also friends with Kenkichi Yabe (Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi), who had been friends with another brother of hers before the war; that brother was killed. Yabe is himself a widower and doctor who works at the same hospital with Koichi, the living brother. When Yabe is offered a good job at a far-off hospital, his mother (Haruko Sugimura) asks Noriko to marry her son and come north with them.
Now, in an American film of the same era, the family would be thrilled to bits that Noriko had sorted her problem on her own--and, of course, the Americans of that era would also see an unmarried twenty-eight-year-old woman as a problem. But of course the extended Mamiya family was not consulted by Noriko before she agreed to marry Yabe. It's true that he's a long-time friend of the family, but that doesn't mean they think he deserves to be allowed to marry Noriko. Especially given that Koichi has just gotten him a job in a total backwater. Everyone says it will only be a few years, and then they'll be back to Tokyo, but of course there's no guarantee of that. Besides, the reason he agreed to take the position was that it was a better opportunity for advancement than he'd seen in many a year. Opportunities in Tokyo will probably open again when he gets back, but there's that "probably" again.
It is also true that this was a Japan in conflict, though not the one in which Noriko's brother died. The influence of the Americans was changing Japanese culture from things which had been the same for literally thousands of years, some of it. Everyone expected Noriko to want a modern, Western home and marriage, but they seem rather taken aback by the idea that she would be Western enough to want to choose her own husband without help. Yes, all right, she accepted an arranged marriage to the extent that she was willing to be asked by the man's husband, but that was as much a case of who had the nerve and who didn't as anything else. I have only seen a very few of the films of Yasujir˘ Ozu, probably the second-best-known of Japanese filmmakers, but it seems what he excelled at was quiet slices of ordinary Japanese life, and I think in particular he worked with people dealing with the incredible changes that the twentieth century brought to his native land.
As always, of course, any film in which Japanese women are getting married reminds me of my college days and my friends stuck in Alternative Calendars, who spent more time on the subject than they had any reason to have expected. Probably the sheer frustration they would have had with the subject matter would have meant that they would not have had the slightest interest in the film. However, if they did watch it in class, it might also have been a welcome relief. Ozu is not as flashy as Akira Kurosawa, it's true. However, as you may have noticed, a lot of my favourite Kurosawa films aren't anywhere near as flashy as the films people think of when they think Kurosawa. Not that even [i]Seven Samurai[/i] is all that flashy. I think, on further consideration, that the art of Japanese film, at least in the middle of the twentieth century, had to do with doing a lot with a little. Even Kurosawa never really got as much cake as you'd think, given how famous he is, and Ozu got even less cake than Kurosawa.
I LOVE Setsuko Hara!
The opening of Early Summer, featuring Setsuko Hara's slightly irritating smile and such merrymaking musical score, made me feel as if I was embarking on a two-hour voyage where I would witness the mundane tales of a perfect family - Usual for an Ozu film. I was wrong, in fact, I was diving into an abyss of reality, the reality that Ozu loved to color in his post-war work...The war's effect on the Japanese people (women who object the male prospects chosen by their families); The assimilation of western culture (drinking coca-cola; how about some tea or sake instead?); The arrogance of younger generations towards the elder (at every and any age level), which is also the leading motif of what is acclaimed to be his chef d'oeuvre: Tokyo Story. Its also important to know where Ozu stood in order to understand what message he attempted to convey (that is if you are not able to discern it from watching a couple of his films). He supported traditional standards and felt that society, as he and the Japanese knew it, began to collapse as the westerns stormed their nation with their liberal views. Hence the recurring theme of the widowed wife, or the mother losing a child, to make it short, the irremediable sundering of families.
I previously mentioned Setsuko Hara's irritating smile. It is not my intention to suggest that she has no talent, or that I find her performances to be irritating. However, after going through six hours of her just smiling I have realized two things: one, the constant smiling can really become annoying after the first hour, and two, people are not wrong when they refer to her as one of the world's all-time greatest performers. There is a reason why she was Ozu's biggest star. Her smile tells a different story every time: in late spring we see a naive girl too optimistic for the world, thus arriving at a rather unfortunate and traditional denouement; in Tokyo Story, a widow whose altruistic demeanor disabled her from sincerely expressing her sadness to her in-laws who adopted her as a member of their family although she did not rear any children; and ultimately in early summer, a woman with concerning behavior towards marriage, who suddenly must face the decision of her family concerning her marriage to a man she has not even met. Not only do we see her smile for two hours in this one, there are a lot more realistic sequences involving sad conversations and hardcore weeping, present from the second fourth of the film, unlike other Ozu films where such sequences about the sorrow of her character are non-existent until a few minutes before the credits roll.
Ozu's specially large cast in this film makes it the more intriguing. I have been used to the multitude of characters he likes to feature but this time the distribution was much more balanced across a much larger cast. We learn more about the overall background of all of the families and have a better chance of analyzing all the themes he wants to expose. Also, when a grand part of the ensemble cast is conformed by some of the greatest performers from Japanese, and world cinema, from every age level, what erupts is an incredible plot which only a talented and celebrated Auteur such as Yasujiru Ozu is able to compose so equivalently - in terms of screen time, and character significance.
I love Ozu's simplicity, and his very low 3-feet-above-ground shots. His interior sequences are just overwhelming. also the scenes with the oldest family members alone, so harmonious. The children walking along the coast, and the flagpole challenged by the strong wind...ultimately, the ending, probably my favorite Ozu ending, although they all have been extremely amazing, and to some extent sad.
Yet this exaggeration of similarity is one of Ozu's main points: there are a dozen Norikos in every city, town and village all over Japan, all in similar, awkward situations. As a result we see 'Late Spring's family structure shift sideways so now Noriko is surrounded by members pressuring her into marrying, as opposed to the inevitable rejection from her father in the last film.
In 1951 the American occupation of Japan ended and an economic depression resulted, making life rugged again for its inhabitants. But also from this time we now see the influence of equality and emancipation the Western powers had brought, and Noriko's story this time is one of independent choice and motive. Though her fmailay obsesses over her marrying before she gets 'too old', Noriko selects for herself her own husband, based on her own wants and desires. Though the sexual politics of 'Early Summer' had a very long way to go at the time this was seen as a huge step forward from a dictatorial past.
For Western audiences, they'll find that this, like 'Late Spring', has virtually no action at all and almost completely takes place in living rooms, offices and cafes, rarely moving outside the house and home. It's very talky, and the camerawork is intensely measured and intimately placed, capturing each and every vocal and physical nuance. These are stories about human emotions conjured from relationships, how people subtly change and alter, or how they don't, in the face of such permanent issues as marriage. Some may call it extremely boring, but it's not about thrills or even entertainment. Ozu's movies carry a refreshingly honest profundity about life without any histrionics. Like Satyajit Ray's later 'Apu' trilogy these films generate a colossal weight in terms of looking at the real meaning behind humanity and how we all interact with each other. It's this humble transition from the intimate to the universal that makes Ozu such a brilliant director and how his characters and situations are so versatile and mercurial, shifting between problems and contexts and yet retaining much of their intention and meaning.
With an attractive cast providing an impressive amount of class, none more so than the eternally beautiful Setsuko Hara, 'Early Summer' is as gentle, lyrical and expecting as its title. A movie to lay back and enjoy time with.