Late Spring (Criterion Collection) Review

Late Spring is perhaps the defining film of Yasujiro Ozu’s latter period depictions of family life, set during the post-war years in Japan when the traditional family unit had to undergo great changes. Regardless of the period, the situations are nonetheless universally recognisable - changes brought about by growing older, getting married and starting a new family and the consequent generational differences that give rise to conflicts. Set against the backdrop of the post-war situation in Japan however, they are all the more starkly brought to light in the differences between the formality of Japanese tradition for the older generation and the influence of American attitudes on the younger generation. This is depicted with the utmost precision and eloquence by Ozu in his 1949 film, Late Spring - a film that reaches the heights of greatness through the very simplicity that would become the director’s hallmark.

Living alone with her father, Mr Somiya (Chishu Ryu) a university professor, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is still unmarried at the age of 27 – an age when all her old classmates are married, divorced and producing offspring in alarming numbers. Her father and her aunt (Haruko Sugimura) hope that the professor’s assistant Hattori might be a suitable match for her, but are disappointed to find that, despite their closeness, Hattori is already engaged to another woman. Noriko moreover doesn’t like the idea of marriage at all, and wants to keep living with her father, with whom she has a close attachment on account of the war years that they had to undergo together when Noriko wasn’t particularly well. She wants to keep looking after her father and fears that marriage would leave him alone to cope for himself. Noriko’s aunt however thinks that a match could be made for both father and daughter and sets out to arrange the matter.

The premise of Late Spring couldn’t be any simpler and the manner in which it is presented could hardly be more transparent – simple expository and formal dialogue, functional scenes, static shots and little in the way of expressive facial gestures – yet Ozu nevertheless manages to create a spellbinding situation devoid of contrivance, filled with a wealth of emotions that are instantly recognisable and identifiable. Over and above Chishu Ryu’s customary sympathetic and earnest benevolence, Setsuko Hara is quite remarkable here as Noriko, bashfully smiling throughout while at the same time conveying an enormous complexity of contradictory feelings towards her father, her failure to understand relationships between men and women, and towards an arranged marriage to a man she scarcely knows and whom the viewer never actually sees. Such is the force of Ozu’s directorial ability, to cut down situations to their purest and most simple form, yet lose not a fraction of the essence of all the emotions that family relationships encompass.

This is particularly evident in the revelatory central scene of the Noh play, which is quite unlike anything else in Ozu’s work. The success of the whole film hangs upon what this long sequence can convey through nothing more than music, expressions and glances. It has the same delicacy and precision for mood, emotion and circumstances as any of Ozu’s beautifully crafted scenes, but here he takes it to a different level. The formalised chanting of the traditional play is used as a background against which Noriko’s internal struggle is played out, and everything is conveyed in the most expressive of glances and internalised reactions by Setsuko Hara. The setting also captures something of tradition, of the playing of roles that have been defined for us in life like the characters of a Noh play, as well as the differences between the past traditions and the necessity to move forward in the new post-war world – “the order of human life and history” as Somiya later refers to it. There are many other ways of reading this simple scene where no words are spoken, but even the simplest surface interpretation – underlined by the symbolic separation of Noriko and her father walking down the street after the performance – is effective and deeply moving.

There are similar layers and levels shown throughout, with fine supporting characters who add another dimension in depicting various other differences between the generations and their attitudes towards marriage. There is the traditional marriage of Hattori, the remarriage of Somiya’s old friend and Noriko’s friend Aya, a divorcee who lives a modern lifestyle as a stenographer and lives in a Westernised house. All of these elements support the complexity of the situation for Noriko and the difficulty of the decision she knows she must make.

Late Spring is released in the US as part of The Criterion Collection. The two-disc set is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format.

Late Spring is not the best transfer I have seen on a Criterion disc. It has a number of problems – many undoubtedly down to the age of the film and condition of the original materials available, but others that indicate a less than perfect restoration that seems to have unnecessarily manipulated elements in a manner that is not sympathetic to the original material. Firstly, the image – 1.33:1 aspect ratio – is letterboxed. This is a practice Criterion seem to have recently adopted to protect the image from the overscan on some television sets. It is debatable whether there is any need for this, and the reduction in lines of available resolution this entails is similarly negligible. With the image itself, there is a fair amount of light flicker to contend with, giving the film a rather unsteady aspect. Some frame jumps add to the problem as well as some shimmer in diagonal lines and less than smooth movements which even seem to judder slightly. I only noticed these artefacting problems at the start and end of the film however and it seems rather more stable in the main part of the film. Nevertheless, the overall effect with the flickering light can be rather tiring on the eyes. Contrast levels are generally good, as is clarity and detail, but it does look artificially boosted and the sharpness in the image that you would consequently expect isn’t really there, particularly in wider shots or any scene with any kind of depth of field. It looks like the print has been extensively restored, though as I indicated not always sympathetically. Some marks and scratches remain however, including a few larger tramlines and repetitive lightening and darking of portions of the image. Contrast boosting on occasions has the effect of almost polarising the tones. Overall, the image looks quite good for the main part and is certainly more than adequate, but I think some might feel entitled to have expected more from a Criterion Collection transfer, particularly in comparison to other editions available. A comparison to the UK Tartan edition is detailed further down this page.

The soundtrack is very dull and flat, showing a certain amount of wobble, flutter and hiss in the background, but this is probably the best that could be obtained from the original elements and they are at least relatively clear throughout, with no dropouts or problems.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and are mostly quite clear, though they don’t always stand out well from more cluttered foregrounds. The translation is excellent and seems to handle wordplay and use of metaphors very well indeed.

Commentary by Richard Peña
I’m not fond of Criterion’s academic commentaries in general and find them particularly annoying on Ozu films. Peña, the program director of the New York Society of Lincoln Center, attempts to define and analyse Ozu’s technique and message and it is doomed to appear foolishly over-analytical in complete contrast to Ozu’s transparency and simplicity. No amount of talking around the style is going to make you see anything that isn’t already patently obvious in the film itself. You might find some nuggets of the historical and cultural backgrounds somewhere in this commentary (I really couldn’t listen to more than half an hour of this without being thoroughly bored), but more often it’s explanatory in its interpretation of the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Personally, I find this kind of commentary worthless in an Ozu film.

A much better way of understanding Ozu than criticism and academic analysis is to show rather than tell and to some extend Wim Wenders achieves that in his 1985 film Tokyo-Ga – his love for Ozu taking him to Tokyo to try to film and observe modern day Japan in a way that Ozu might in order to see if that worldview is still appropriate. Many of the images are now clichéd views of Japan, having since been done to death in films like Lost In Translation - following the Japanese people through what look to Western eyes like strange, robotic and almost soulless leisure pursuits. Much more fascinating and moving are the interviews with Chishu Ryu and Ozu’s cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta and the film benefits further from being bookended by the opening and closing scenes from Tokyo Story.

The set also comes with the customary booklet - superbly designed and illustrated – containing a number of first-rate essays by Michael Atkinson on the film and by Donald Ritchie on Ozu’s work with Setsuko Hara – both of them beautifully unpretentious and apposite for Ozu’s work.

Comparison to UK Tartan Region 2 Edition
Late Spring is available in the UK as part of the Ozu Collection Volume 1, which contains the three films of the Noriko Trilogy - Late Spring, Early Summer and Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story. The Tartan edition of Late Spring, an NTSC to PAL transfer, is not particularly good. The image is very soft and dark. However, barring one episode where the image wobbles alarmingly and allowing for the blurring movement artefacts brought on by the standards conversion, the image is overall more stable than the Criterion in terms of brightness flicker. The restoration work on the Tartan is also more complete, with much less noticeable marks and damage. The Criterion however is clearer and brighter than the Tartan edition, allowing more detail and clarity to be seen, with textures much more strongly defined. It would seem that this image however appears to have been brightened artificially by Criterion at the cost of also washing out the whites. In terms of screen captures (see below for comparison, Tartan left, Criterion right - click to view fullscreen images), the Criterion certainly stands out as the superior image over the very soft Tartan, but in real terms during normal playback, it has its own problems with flicker, contrast boosting and damage which counteract any perceived benefits. The audio track on the Tartan edition is extremely poor and is marginally better on the Criterion, who have clearly made the most of the undoubtedly poor original elements. In summary, neither transfer is particularly strong, and neither in my view has sufficient qualities to place one above the other.

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In my introduction I described Late Spring as perhaps Ozu’s defining film and as far as setting the direction of his films from this period on, it certainly is - Ozu moving from here to take in various other aspects of family relationships, births, deaths, marriages and conflicting aspirations and examining them in subsequent films from a number of angles and to varying gradations of emphasis. Stripped down to focus all the more clearly on one aspect of family affairs, Late Spring perhaps does not have the complexity of layers and richness of the variety of tones and emotions that can be found in his masterpiece Tokyo Story, but it is no less a great film, examining his characters, their relationships and interactions with tremendous precision, depicting them with utter simplicity and transparency in a way that touches on their purest essence.
Criterion’s edition of the film disappointingly doesn’t really do enough to improve on the edition already released in the UK by Tartan. It is better in some ways and contains better extra features (although I would argue that Tartan’s presentation of the film benefits and gains greater depth from being packaged alongside the two other films in the Noriko Trilogy), but it also comes with its own issues and problems.

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