Early Summer Review

When 18th century scholar Motoori Norinaga researched classic Japanese literature in an attempt to distinguish the defining essence of Japanese culture from traditional Chinese influences, he came up with a term called mono no aware - literally "The awareness of things" - which he believed expressed an emotional sensitivity of man towards something else. The idea was that true Japanese literature expressed emotions that couldn't be defined by words alone, and one of the most popular ways in which the term mono no aware would later be applied would be in expressing the intrinsic sorrow at the transience of all things - ie: the cherry blossom is all the more beautiful because it blooms for just a couple of weeks before falling.

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When it comes to mono no aware in cinema, very few directors seemed to express the concept as successfully as Yasujiro Ozu, who frequently examined the idea of transience within the family unit across a number of great classics, perhaps most successfully through a thematic trilogy of films that is often referred to as The Noriko Trilogy: Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story, each starring Setsuko Hara as a character named Noriko as they examine a family that is on the cusp of major change, either physically and/or emotionally.

Although the themes across each film in the trilogy are extremely similar, Ozu expands his scope with each subsequent entry so they grow from examining the close-knit relationship of a father and daughter in a single-parent unit in Late Spring to the larger family ensembles of Early Summer and Tokyo Story. The dynamics of the families differ subtly but radically as well, from a daughter who cannot bear the idea of leaving her dear father behind in Late Spring to an elderly couple who are visiting their children in Tokyo Story and realising they no longer have a place in their lives anymore.

Early Summer, the middle entry in The Noriko Trilogy forms a thematic bridge between Late Spring and Tokyo Story in that it too features a daughter named Noriko who is reluctant to find a husband and leave her family behind, but also follows the lives and wishes of a large family like in Tokyo Story. This time round Ozu casts his gaze on the Mamiya family, three generations of which live peaceably together under the same roof in Kamakura. Retired grandparents Shukichi and Shige spend their days with daughter- in-law Fumiko and grandsons Minoru and Isamu, while eldest son Koichi and youngest daughter Noriko commute to Tokyo each day for work.

Noriko's bachelorette status at 28 appears to be an unspoken concern for the rest of her family, so when her friendly boss offers to arrange an omiai with a friend of his from an upper-class family it sparks an escalation of pressure from Noriko's family to accept the potential proposal. She remains disinterested though, preferring to spend her time with her family or socialising with best friend Ayako, who joins Noriko in playfully mocking their married friends Takako and Mariko for taking the plunge. Despite seemingly intent on maintaining her independence, Noriko eventually accepts an offhand proposal from the mother of her friend Kenkichi - a widowed doctor with one child who is of lower class and has recently accepted a promotion to a relatively modest position in Akita. The idea that Noriko would soon be raising a stepdaughter in the modest conditions of the Akita countryside does not sit well with her family, and threatens to create a rift within the Mamiya home for the first time.

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The Ozu style is one of the most distinctive and discussed in Japanese cinema. He would often place the viewer subjectively inside the environment the actors inhabit, either through the use of low angle "tatami mat" shots that were taken from the perspective of someone kneeling on the floor like most Japanese families, or the straight-on POV shots of actors during conversations so they appear to be speaking directly to the audience. Long takes and static shots of the characters gazing out on some known or unknown vista off screen, as well as tranquil interjections of local scenery would also place the viewer in contemplative mood. Early Summer bears all his most revered hallmarks, remaining deliberately understated in its examination of rural and city life.

While Ozu's style was often subjective, his scripts were markedly objective, offering numerous points of views without seemingly favouring any one or judging the other. Early Summer's script - co-written by his favourite collaborator Kôgo Noda - juggles three generations of the Mamiya family and their interactions, with each other, their closest circle of friends, co-workers, and neighbours in an impressively large ensemble through which the director explores the generational and culture clashes of post war Japan.

Each viewpoint is meticulously crafted and seems no more or less valid than the next; Noriko's parents and elder brother are stark traditionalists who believe that an attractive, intelligent, well mannered young woman like herself should find a husband before her thirties and also ideally marry up in class, but it's never spelled out exactly why Noriko bashfully evades all mention of marriage on her family and boss's part. Instead Ozu presents a number of likely reasons - not least being that Noriko is content with her place in the family and aware that she's the secondary source of income for the household, and if she were to marry her parents would then retire to the countryside and the whole family would be physically and emotionally separated for the first time. This eventuality is heralded by their elderly uncle's visit at the start of the film.

Another factor explored is rising feminism since the war, bemoaned by Koichi during a meal and argued by Noriko as the natural and right progression of Japanese society, stating that it's her express choice not to marry. This theme is further played out whenever Noriko meets up with her fiercely independent and modernistic best friend Ayako and their two married friends Takako and Mariko. Each pairing playfully mocks the differing values of the other at every opportunity, and it's quite clear that Ayako would become further ostracised if Noriko were to marry.

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The "mono no aware" of Early Summer stems from there being two distinct communities around Noriko that are in a delicate equilibrium because of her independence. Ozu celebrates both and also ensures they remain sympathetic - so whenever there is conflict it is only through banter and not directly assertive. This may come across as all-to-twee but it also lends the drama a subtle power that makes all the relationships somehow vital and important, emphasising that there is something tragically lost whenever we make new lifestyle choices. I believe that as long as people continue to form relationships and make decisions that alter them or leave them behind then Ozu's films will always be relevant and have the power to elicit "mono no aware" in the viewer. In that way a film like Early Summer, which is all about transience, may have achieved a state of permanence.

Presentation

The BFI credit Criterion with providing them with master materials for this release of Early Summer, I've never owned the 2004 US Criterion DVD so I'm not sure how closely these two independent releases match up, but screengrabs on other sites reveal that the BFI have maintained the Criterion "high contrast" look across the whole Noriko Trilogy that has caused some mild fan dispute in the past. Personally I can't say I had any issues with the contrast levels for Early Summer across this dual format release, but then I am viewing on a projector set up with most likely lower contrast levels than your typical LCD/Plasma viewer so perhaps this is a factor, but I have to say after taking screenshots from the DVD/BD on a monitor and checking the levels for each one that I think the contrast is nicely weighted for Early Summer.

It's true that blacks are deep and whites may occasionally look a touch hot, but it's not like they've been clipped to true black/white and it doesn't feel like you're losing much in the way of detail to bloom and shadow. Instead what you have is a crisp, sharp appearance that I would like to think approaches something like how the film would have looked playing in Japanese theatres in the early 50s - although there is quite a bit of brightness flicker in motion.

Flicker aside the print is in decent condition given its age, while damage is inevitable and frequent, it's never overwhelming and mostly confined to pops, flecks, scratches in all manner of orientations, and the occasional vertical line draping down the frame. The progressive DVD exhibits a faint layer of grain seeping through the transfer, which as usual with Standard-Def isn't really defined and further muddled by compression noise, as the MPEG encode feels the strain at times - although again this isn't a major issue. About the only overt artefact I could detect throughout the film in regular playback was some fairly thick Edge Enhancement in a number of shots.

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A certain amount of that Edge Enhancement appears to be inherent to the master source as you can just about spot it at some points in the Blu-ray transfer as well, although I must stress that it's much more muted in the High-Def transfer and shouldn't be particularly perceptible for the majority of viewers. The Early Summer DVD looks very good but the Blu-ray looks excellent, in terms of brightness and contrast it's an even match for the DVD, but this is no bad thing.

The major improvement of the Blu-ray is its sharpness, with greater fine detail bringing the most out of the image - for instance when Noriko and her uncle visit the Great Buddha of Kamakura you can now read the sign in the background asking visitors not to climb on the statue. The only drawback of this extra detail is that it also brings out some of the foibles of the print, like extra damage that is only faintly defined in the DVD transfer, and also a few shots where detail dive-bombs because the print has become very soft and hazy. The major boon of the extra resolution though is that the grain structure now becomes evident as a moderately heavy but sharply defined layer that lends the image a pleasing texture.

Finally, despite the length and age of the film the BFI have decided to squeeze the AVC encode onto just a BD-25 disc, but compression is strong enough to remind us of the true capability of the format. Although you'll spot noise in the image if you look for it (especially if you analyse screenshots), I can't say I noticed anything overt in motion on a large screen.

While the image improvements of the BD are clear, you won't find such a gulf of quality in the audio because the BFI have included a single Japanese LPCM 2.0 Mono audio track on both releases. The difference? The DVD offers 48Khz/16bit LPCM at 1465Mbps and the Blu-ray ups this to 48Khz/24bit at 2304Mbps, and while the audiophiles out there may feel the benefits of the Blu-ray's increased bitrate and sampling rate, I can't say I noticed much of a change when I went through the laborious process of switching from disc-to-disc on my annoyingly slow BD player. When I watched the film on both discs individually I was rewarded with a pleasing sonic presentation that understandably suffers from a heavy dose of hiss, abrasiveness, and muffling of dialogue, but still manages to sound reasonably layered. The dynamics do the job, dialogue is audible at all times and Senji Itô's score is expressed about as well as can be expected. I have no complaints here.

Optional English subtitles are provided across both discs with no grammatical or spelling errors that I can recall. I believe the BFI have tweaked and refined the translation a tiny bit, but I'm not nearly familiar enough with the different DVD releases to state this with any certainty.

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What Did the Lady Forget?

The most significant Extra Feature of this dual BD/DVD release is in fact a 2-for-the-price-of-1 deal with another Ozu feature film presented on the DVD disc. In this case it's one of his early pre-war talkies entitled What Did the Lady Forget? which stars Tetsuo Saito as a medical professor stuck between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea when his rebellious niece Setsuko visits from Osaka and immediately starts to clash with his domineering wife Tokiko. The young niece wants to take the men on at their own game by smoking, boozing, and staying out all hours of the night, but the reality her uncle presents to her is one of a generation of middle-aged men who are hen-pecked by their opinionated, fussy wives who keep their socialising to the daytime while their husbands are at work - and if they aren't at work, well they can be coerced into overnight golfing trips so the wives can visit the local Kabuki house together!

After Tokiko asserts that the exercise would do him good, Professor Komiya escapes from the house on the pretext of a golfing trip but in fact visits his assistant Okada and asks to stay the night so he can pop down to his local western-style boozer and unwind. These plans are scarpered when Setsuko - figuring out his ruse - arrives at the bar and demands he takes her to a Geisha house in Ginza, where she proceeds to get blindingly drunk and has to be taken home. After these events and some unfortunate climate change on the day of the supposed trip it's not long before Tokiko starts to suspect her husband has been up to no good!

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In stark contrast to his first talking film The Only Son, Ozu's 2nd talking feature What Did the Lady Forget? is a satirical comedy in an upper class district of Tokyo where many of the director's typical themes of inter-family politics, rising feminism and generational clashes are given an amusing and affable slant. As always with Ozu the characters are everything and at the heart of this film are three distinct representations of pre-war society: The traditionalist wife Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima) who rules with an iron fist and has strong opinions on how everyone should behave - particularly young women. The young woman Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano) who is clearly well groomed but seems intent on living the same life of leisure she thinks men are leading, and the mild-mannered professor who is as intent on keeping his wife happy whilst sympathising with his niece and escaping down the pub on the sly.

Ozu may not be weaving one of his poignant family sagas, but What Did the Lady Forget? still makes some insightful points about family values and how the differing sexes and generations are just as prone to miscommunication and selfishness as each other and can also be overzealous in their beliefs and expectations. More than that it is genuinely funny; albeit in a much more subdued way than contemporary comedies.

What Did the Lady Forget? is presented in its original aspect ratio of 4:3 with Japanese DD2.0 mono audio. This is a 1937 film so the transfer is understandably much more muted, softer and suffers from far more print damage than Early Summer, in fact so much print damage that scratches and lines are a constant presence and a few shots exhibit a brief rain of starbursts. When you factor in the film's age and the fact this is here purely as a secondary feature then there's not really a lot to complain about, contrast and brightness levels are not so high as in Early Summer (which some fans may prefer), black levels are faded and whites can lack definition but never detrimentally so. Image detail also isn't too bad for the most part either. The only real criticism I have about the transfer is the compression, as obtrusive banding crops up far more times than I would like.

The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio, like the transfer, is very noisy and lacks definition. The sound is generally hollow, dialogue is muffled and tears frequently but it is always audible and understandable - you can't ask for more than that really in pre-war Japanese film. Optional English subtitles are included with a good translation provided by the BFI.


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Extras

Sadly there are no Extra Features on either of the discs beyond the 2nd feature, but included with this release is a BFI mini-booklet that features a duel review of What Did the Lady Forget? and Early Summer by Michael Atkinson, an Ozu Biography written by Asian film expert Tony Rayns, and an article on Yasukiro Ozu written by the late Chishû Ryû back in 1964. Also in the booklet are credits for both films and a Technical Info page on the discs themselves. The articles are a welcome and informative read, but alas no substitution for a good featurette or say a Tony Rayns commentary track. Much better than nothing though!

Overall

Ozu's Noriko Trilogy contains three undoubted masterpieces of Japanese cinema, of which Early Summer is probably my personal favourite. Given their age and esteem it is absolutely vital that they come to any home format in the best possible quality, and I believe that in terms of presentation this dual format release of Early Summer from the BFI offers a very satisfying package indeed - my only gripe is that there are no featurettes or commentaries to accompany the film. We do get one significant companion on the DVD disc only with another Ozu feature included: What Did the Lady Forget?, which is a delightful satirical comedy that would be worth buying at full price on its own, it's just a shame it's not presented in High-Definition!

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Film
10 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

10

out of 10

Last updated: 15/06/2018 00:26:56

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