Late Spring Review

The BFI has begun an ambitious project to release a total of 32 films directed by Yasujiro Ozu on DVD and, when possible, Blu-ray over the next 3 years. This edition of the 1949 film Late Spring, released simultaneously with Early Summer and Tokyo Story (often referred to collectively as the Noriko Trilogy), also includes Ozu's first sound feature The Only Son, a brilliant work in its own right. The two films here act as a true Dual Format double feature, sharing both a Blu-ray disc and a DVD.

My assumption is that the seasoned Ozu admirers will most likely know what they want already and probably be familiar enough with Late Spring that additional praising or prodding won't shift the needle much either way. One quick jab anyway. Late Spring is, more than any other Ozu film, the apotheosis of his preoccupation with the relationship between parent and child. It's the sacred text from which so many of his other pictures can be traced. Nary a major Ozu theme is missing, and much of what would follow in the filmmaker's career tends to dance gracefully around the bold line drawn by Late Spring. Indeed, forgiving personal whims and preferences, it seems almost unthinkable to imagine someone enjoying Ozu's work yet being cold to what can often feel like a template for his career. You might prefer a particular way the material was handled later on but this film can nonetheless be seen as the initial blazing of that trail in full.

It's necessary, then, to expand upon and explore some of the points along that path, particularly for those who might have either not plunged into Ozu or been nonplussed by what they've seen thus far. His style is often defined most by its minimalism, typically requiring the viewer to either be patient and hang on every shot or slowly absorb how conservative the movements and angles can be across his many pictures. People who claim that seeing a single Ozu film is sufficient to get a grasp on his whole body of work probably don't appreciate nuance very much. Late Spring utilizes the same affinity for low-angle shots, a generally static camera and cuts back and forth between medium close-ups of actors having a conversation. The latter technique would be relied on even more by Ozu afterward, often letting the speaking actor face the camera directly. Maybe owing to a slightly less rigid attention to those formalist tendencies, Late Spring can feel a bit looser than some of Ozu's later work. There are, I believe, two tracking shots in the film that might instill a tiny sense of euphoria in anxious viewers. The photography also registers less of the indoor, almost claustrophobic tendency that might be taken away from the films that would follow.

There's certainly nothing I've ever seen that made me think Ozu was incapable of handling more complex stylistic touches. Maybe he would've been lost trying to fit in jump cuts and handheld camera work but how many other directors could have so consistently adhered to what can often come across as a cinematic philosophy as much as a style, particularly one that looks to be so limiting by its nature. Ozu was able to capture a simplicity of everyday life from this insistence on letting the audience meet his characters face to face. That type of welcome was at least as important as the repetition of themes and plots in establishing the overall feeling one takes away from Ozu's domestic dramas. Seeing Chishu Ryu's slender half-smile over and over again in Ozu films as he addresses another actor while facing the camera becomes nothing if not comforting. It also adds some emotional heft by having the same actor play variations of basically the same sort of character, making his continued and always quiet coping with whatever familial alterations arise that much more affecting due to the viewer developing a history with the performer over time. Similar affections might explain why Ozu's three films starring Setsuko Hara as characters named Noriko (her surnames aren't repeated in the trilogy) have become perhaps the most admired and enduring of his career. Hara's charisma and her ability to convey pathos and a veneer of happiness with equal skill make her a deeply sympathetic figure on screen.

Late Spring has Hara play the protective daughter of Professor Somiya (Ryu). The film is framed somewhat around the wedding of her uncle to a younger woman. This inspires speculation as to when the 27-year-old Noriko will marry and the subsequent fate of her widowed father, with particular lobbying from Haruko Sugimura as Somiya's sister in favor of Noriko marrying as soon as she can find a suitable (arranged) husband. Little concern is shown with what Noriko might want, from her choice of spouse to the decision to even marry at all. She is not shown as being lonely or unhappy, but simply a single woman entering her late twenties who is expected to begin a family. The professor plays a fairly passive role in all of this, allowing his sister to more or less decide what is best for Noriko. It's only when Noriko begs her father to be allowed to not marry and continue taking care of him that Somiya takes part in the game. He shows interest in marrying a younger woman, much like Noriko's "impure" uncle, and this both infuriates and crushes Noriko. A long, wordless scene where father and daughter watch a Noh play is a climax of sorts, one that thrives solely on the combination of Ozu's ability to build tension from unlikely places and the raw emotion seen on Hara's face.

At its most basic core, Late Spring is about a woman dealing with the trappings of adulthood somewhat late in the game. Ozu used this theme on multiple occasions, notably repeating it in Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon, which is close enough to Late Spring that it qualifies as a partial remake or revisiting. The character of Noriko hasn't shown any interest in starting her own life and has instead been committed to caring for her father. What develops is that society dictates that Noriko must now find herself a new person, essentially a stranger roughly her own age, to care for instead of her father. Much is often made of Ozu's emphasis on letting Setsuko Hara be an independent woman, but I think that's fairly conditional here. In comparison to what's normally expected, Noriko might display some degree of volition but she's still facing an upheaval not of her own choice so much as one intended to correspond with what's supposedly best for her.

And, yet, it's never quite that simple with Ozu. The subtle exploration of themes and ideas beneath the surface of the main plot strand rarely fail to provoke. For Noriko, living in Japan after World War II has greatly altered how the nation sees itself, maybe this is progress. Perhaps the opportunity to strike out semi-independently is a small victory in itself, even if it comes after a great deal of pressure from those around her. It would seem that Noriko would indeed be better off in the long run by cutting loose from the shadow of her father. All of this, and the way Ozu shows an unquestionably new Japan, portends an interest and maturity that will take him through the decade of the 1950s. There has to be some irony in the fact that the director often considered the most Japanese of filmmakers includes an emphatic shot of a Coca-Cola sign, that most Western of capitalist consumer interferences, in Late Spring.

Apparently, both the BFI and I agree that Ozu's 1936 film The Only Son is quite a good match for Late Spring. It was his first sound effort after stubbornly continuing to make silent features longer than most anyone else in the world, and the transition is mostly seamless. Ozu even takes a self-reflexive moment to comment on "talkies" in one memorable scene. Commonalities with Late Spring include the central relationship between parent and child and how the latter's adulthood can affect the former's sense of worth later in life. It seems like a radical notion to put forth, but The Only Son could be the more interesting of the two films. While Late Spring carries the deserved masterpiece label, the earlier picture finds Ozu in a different, darker place. It's quite possibly the director's most pessimistic film. The Tokyo seen here is uninviting and harsh. It not only lacks opportunities but seems to quell ambition.

An introduction or prologue of sorts sets up the young boy Ryosuke's wish to continue with his studies despite his widowed mother Otsune (Choko Iida) telling him she can't afford it. Ryo's teacher Okubo (Chishu Ryu) visits their home under the impression that Ryo is already set to go to Tokyo, which is also where Okubo is optimistically headed. After Otsune somewhat reluctantly agrees to let her son continue his education at whatever cost, Ozu advances the action from 1923 to 1936. Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori) has landed a job as a math teacher at a night school and is married with a child. It's a complete surprise when his mother arrives from Nagano to stay for a few days, and potentially troubling since Ryo has kept his marriage, fatherhood and career path hidden from Otsune.

Years of sacrifice that have culminated in a depressing form of poverty for Otsune cause her to be greatly disappointed in Ryo. She labored for a lifetime in order to pay for school but his position in Tokyo society is modest at best. Ozu was careful to avoid villains in his films, and Otsune's dismay here is neither supported nor dismissed. Everyone's reasons are portrayed as valid, true, and circumstantial. When Otsune expresses her frustration in a middle-of-the-night talk with Ryo it's heartbreaking, and not just because of how moving Iida's performance is in the scene. Ozu's narratives, often conceived with Kogo Noda, took on the little problems existing near the margins of everyday life that tend to cause much greater stress than the more rare, bigger dramas often portrayed in movies. This attention to greyness makes Ozu's films resonate strongly and across a wide spectrum. There's either a universality to what happens or Ozu's touch is so inviting as to make it seem like the situations in his films expand far beyond the limits of time and culture and geography. Memories of one film can bleed into the next but watching them always feels immediate and specific to that particular picture. The Only Son, with its pace resembling a silent and its location being an especially industrial and closed Tokyo, might actually qualify as the most unexpected of Ozu's films. It's also easily one of his very best.

The Disc(s)

This is, as mentioned above, a Dual Format release from the BFI. It contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD, and the two films share each disc. Of the three simultaneous releases kicking off The Ozu Collection, this is the only one where the secondary feature is also rendered in high definition. The discs are both region-locked, with the Blu-ray encoded for Region B machines and the DVD being R2 and PAL. Aspect ratios are 1.33:1.

The elements used for both Late Spring and The Only Son are clearly in less than ideal condition. As such, the image quality of these films is limited significantly, and they probably look as rough, speaking only of the overall appearance and not the BFI's work, as most anything I've yet seen on Blu-ray. The booklet indicates that Late Spring was "transferred and restored in High Definition from the best available film elements" and that "[m]aster materials have been made available by The Criterion Collection." Even though the BFI used Criterion's master, complete with familiar marks of damage, some additional tweaks from the latter's 2006 (windowboxed) DVD release are noticeable. Most prominent is the difference in contrast, with the BFI opting for a bolder image that shows both brighter whites and deeper blacks. Detail is understandably improved on the 1080p offering. Grain too is prevalent and increased to a pleasing extent. Overwhelmingly, the BFI has made Late Spring look more natural and filmlike than the Criterion DVD. While damage, and there is plenty of it left in, has visibly increased as a consequence, I don't see that as necessarily a bad thing. The improved texture now makes the transfer show qualities of film instead of digital fiddling. Thare are also some stability issues that have to be mentioned. Flickering and a shakiness in the frame, things not really visible in screen captures, hinder the viewing at times.

The BFI's booklet again credits The Criterion Collection for providing the graded master materials for The Only Son, noting too that it "was transferred and restored in High Definition from the best available film elements." Further picture and audio restoration were then completed by the BFI. Criterion's edition of The Only Son, paired with Ozu's There Was a Father, only just came out on DVD so it might be helpful to share some information contained in the R1 edition's booklet as to what kind of issues had to be dealt with to bring this film to viewers. Criterion informs us that the transfer was created from a 16 mm fine-grain master positive that "is the best surviving element made from the original 35 mm nitrate materials, which no longer exist." A further warning states that the 16 mm element "shows every imaginable kind of wear and tear, including splices, chemical and mold stains, and minor instances of missing footage that could not be replaced." The conclusion is that "no amount of digital image restoration can ever return the film to its original condition." Taking all of that into consideration, the image here is still extremely watchable and mostly just marred by occasional and assorted types of damage. It is, as to be expected, rather soft, perhaps even more than Criterion's DVD, but some detail still remains. To actively complain about any of this seems both unrealistic and, frankly, ungrateful considering the BFI's initiative in making the film available on Blu-ray as what is ostensibly a supplement.

The audio for both features is Japanese mono, and the two-channel tracks are lossless. Criterion used the optical track of the 16 mm master positive for The Only Son and the BFI has followed suit. Some distortion and various weaknesses remain in the films. These are very fragile-sounding listens, with low volume and numerous audio deficiencies. There's a point in The Only Son, about an hour into the picture, where it sounds like a rain storm has taken over the track for several seconds. Other, somewhat milder issues abound. The BFI's English subtitles are white in color and use a very small font that I'm not sure I liked. I noticed no typographical errors and quickly realized that the translations for the Criterion and the BFI editions, aside from simple substitutions of spelling differences, vary a little bit. One example of this is in The Only Son when Ryo orders food and asks for "ramen" in the Criterion translation but the more generic "noodles" in the BFI's version. Another is when Okubo is telling Ryo about the charm to stop babies from crying at the night and the BFI's subtitles don't seem to elaborate as much as Criterion's do.

Since Late Spring is emphasized as the primary attraction in this release (indeed The Only Son is only mentioned on the cover via a round sticker that, on my copy at least, is attached directly to the plastic on the case and not the outer shrinkwrap), it seems fair to consider The Only Son as an extra feature, and that's what I've done with my number grade in this review. The only other supplement included is a booklet that runs 24 pages. It features an essay by James Bell covering both films, a four-page biography of Ozu, and recollections by the three main actors on making The Only Son. Wanting further bonus material is surely a valid request, but, ultimately, I think that having another full-length feature like we do here makes for a more valuable package than instead including a few extra pages in the booklet or a scholarly interview on the disc.

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