Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Early Summer (1951)

Note: This post is my contribution to the Criterion Blogathon being hosted by Aaron at Criterion Blues, Kristina at Speakeasy, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. The blogathon runs all week, from November 16th through the 20th. Be sure to visit all three sites for lots of links on movies available from the Criterion Collection. There are dozens of participants! My post will be found linked at the blogathon under "Japan" on Thursday, November 19th.

EARLY SUMMER (1951), known as BAKUSHU in the film's native Japan, is a marvelous movie directed by one of Japan's greatest directors, Yasujiro Ozu. It's available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

28-year-old Noriko (Setsuko Hara) lives in Tokyo with her physician brother (Chishu Ryu), his wife (Kuniko Miyake), her two nephews, and her parents (Ichiro Sugai and Chieko Higashiyama). Noriko is a modern miss who wears Western dress and is content with her life as a working girl, helping to support the family. However, the family is concerned that Noriko is not yet married, on the verge of becoming an "old maid."

One day Noriko's boss (Shûji Sano) gives her photos of a friend of his who is 40 and looking for a wife. Noriko's family all support the idea of an arranged marriage between Noriko and her employer's friend, but Noriko surprises her family by taking her destiny into her own hands. (Spoiler alert, major plot details follow.)

This was a wonderful film, cowritten by the director and Kogu Noda. Although the themes in the Ozu films I've seen tend to be the same -- the importance of marriage, the "circle of life," the Westernization of Japan -- and he uses a familiar stock company of actors, it's the variations on the themes which make each film so individually interesting.

While it has serious and moving moments, the overall tone of EARLY SUMMER is in a more lighthearted vein than some Ozu films. The characters include bossy little boys who foreshadow the TV-obsessed children in Ozu's GOOD MORNING (1959) half a dozen years later; this time around they're obsessed with model trains! A scene where the grownups giddily hide an expensive cake from one of the boys was one of my favorite moments.

A movie like EARLY SUMMER is deceptively simple; at times it may seem not much is happening, yet moments and images from Ozu films stay with the viewer, still resonating months or years later. Ozu's movies are unhurried enough for the viewer to carefully explore every nuance and every bit of the frame, yet the pace is never too slow; his films demand attention from the opening credits music straight through to the end.

David Bordwell's essay in the Criterion Collection DVD set likens the opening of EARLY SUMMER to MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), with its gradual introduction of a multigenerational family going about their daily lives. Since MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is one of my favorite films, that caught my attention, and I felt his description was apt. In fact, it's worth noting that the "boy next door," Kenkichi (Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi), is a key character. Kenkichi is a widowed doctor who lives with his mother and two-year-old daughter.

Other reviewers have likened Noriko's independence and intelligence to Elizabeth Bennett of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Despite the pressure to marry, she has her own ideas. Setsuko Hara is utterly endearing in the role. Hara is still living today, age 95; rather like Deanna Durbin, when she retired in the '60s she was determined to put her career behind her and, as far as I can tell, went completely "off the grid."

The scene where the neighbor's mother (Haruko Sugimura) confides to Noriko that her dream has been for her widowed son to marry Noriko and Noriko spontaneously says "I accept" is wonderfully startling, because to a great extent the viewer hasn't known what's going on behind Noriko's ever-cheerful smile. In fact, it seems that Noriko herself doesn't realize her feelings for Kenkichi until confronted with the knowledge that he must move away.

That scene is also fascinating from a cultural perspective, that two women could settle this matter without a word from the intended groom! The mother's sobbing gratitude and relief is most touching, asking Noriko over and over whether she really means it, meanwhile I'm thinking "What about Kenkichi?" He comes home and his mother announces he's going to marry Noriko, and he doesn't even seem very startled that it's been settled for him, he simply quietly absorbs the news. I loved this scene as it's one of those which illustrates how important it is to watch carefully -- oh, so slowly, a hint of a smile emerges on Kenkichi's face.

Her family is unhappy about her choice, because Kenkichi has a child -- and perhaps even more so because she took control of her own situation instead of yielding to her family's preferred candidate. Yet as Noriko sensibly points out, she has more reason to trust a family man than a 40-year-old who was still unmarried; her decision seems wise and logical.

One of the things which struck me about EARLY SUMMER was that the "elliptical" storytelling style in vogue today, most notably in TV's MAD MEN, was perfected by Ozu decades ago. Things are left unexplained or happen offscreen, there are jumps forward in time, and so on. It's an interesting paradox that a film as patiently, carefully detailed as EARLY SUMMER also leaves a great deal to the viewer's imagination. For example, as with other Ozu films, we don't actually get to see the wedding!

The postwar Westernization undercurrent threaded through Ozu's movies is always very interesting to me. Here we see the older ladies in traditional Japanese kimonos, while Noriko's older sister-in-law goes back and forth between traditional and Western styles; Noriko herself is only seen in Western dress.

Coca-Cola is a prominent symbol of the West in at least a couple of Ozu's films; in LATE SPRING characters ride their bikes past a Coca-Cola roadside sign. In a charming scene in EARLY SUMMER, Noriko's friend Aya (Chikage Awashima) confides she thought Noriko would marry a wealthy man and have a refrigerator filled with Coca-Cola!

It's also interesting to note that while two of the characters are doctors, that did not guarantee financial security in postwar Japan; both doctors' families are comfortable, but only just. Noriko and her sister-in-law discuss the strict economizing which will be necessary without Noriko's salary -- no more cakes!

A side note, it was a bit startling recognizing Chishu Ryu as Noriko's brother; I thought of him as an elderly man due to his performance as Hara's father in LATE SPRING (1949). He was actually only in his 40s when he made LATE SPRING, which makes his performance in that movie all the more remarkable.

EARLY SUMMER was beautiful filmed in black and white by Yuharu Atsuta. The movie runs 124 minutes.

Very highly recommended.

Previously reviewed Ozu films: LATE SPRING (1949), EQUINOX FLOWER (1958), GOOD MORNING (1959), and LATE AUTUMN (1960).


Blogger Silver Screenings said...

You've sold me on this film! I'm intrigued by the story and characters, and also by the elliptical style you described. When I do have the chance to see this film, I'll also take note of Coca Cola's prominence. :)

Thanks for joining the blogathon and for the introduction to this film. Sounds like a Must See!

7:08 PM  
Blogger Aaron West said...

I was just talking with someone else about Ozu yesterday, about how he is a peaceful and calming director to watch, but sometimes his themes are dark and he challenges his viewers more than his contemporaries. I haven't seen this one, so did my best to dodge the spoilers here, but I am pretty sure it is up my alley. The mystery of Setsuko Hara is strange, but apparently she just didn't want to work after Ozu passed.

Thanks for participating! This wouldn't be a Blogathon without you.

5:06 AM  
Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

Hi Laura, as you know I'm very intrigued by the Ozu movies, they seem to have such an effect on viewers, besides being praised for their visual beauty. I'll be adding a lot more of these films (plus some other "finds" during this blogathon) to my must-see films next year :) So glad you joined us in this event, thanks!

7:34 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Ruth, Aaron, and Kristina, Given the sheer volume of participants in your hugely successful blogathon, I'm honored that all three of you took the time to stop by and comment!

You all have a real treat ahead of you and if this post encourages you to try it in the coming months then I've done my job! :) Kristina, an Ozu film would be a terrific idea for your list of classics to see in 2016!

Thank you so much for hosting a wonderful blogathon!

Best wishes,

12:03 AM  
Blogger  said...

Since I wrote about Late Spring, now I want to see Early Summer and compare both. Setsuko is a great actress, and the marriage theme sparkled a lot of questions and reflections in my mind. Oh, and nice to know there is Coca-Cola in this film too (but I imagine there is no Gary Cooper, right?)
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

9:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Le! No Gary Cooper, but they talk about Audrey Hepburn!

Been slowly catching up on some of the great blogathon posts, I'll be sure to read yours!! Thanks so much for coming by to read this and taking the time to comment. :)

Best wishes,

10:05 AM  

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