Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953)

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The 12 Classics for 2016/ Blind Spot project is a great way for movie bloggers to broaden viewing horizons and/or catch up with important films. When I put together my list for this year I thought I was being too ambitious, but it’s been the opposite of “homework”– it’s been a lot of fun to explore these new-to-me movie areas, and this month’s selection was especially fulfilling.

Instead of just watching my one pick from Yasujiro Ozu I saw all three movies in his so-called Spiritual or Noriko Trilogy: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953). The stories seem basic, a focus on a life event like a single woman being urged to marry, as in LS and ES, or, in TS a last visit by parents to the big city where their busy grown children have little time for them. But these “simple” plots (some call these movies plotless) subtly, beautifully examine shifting family dynamics and conflicts, the way time, the big city, and new ideas threaten to alienate people and change tradition, the painful, secret sacrifices made for the good and the growth of the next generation, guilt over the neglect of elders, and so much more. The style and the particulars of these films may be of postwar Japanese society and culture, but the themes and emotions are anything but foreign. It’s so easy to relate to these realistic people, and the inevitable life events they deal with are universal and depicted in profound and deeply moving ways.

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These films are wonderfully understated and subtle, with a calm, quiet, comforting feel. They proceed at a steady, even pace, lingering for nearly equal time on each shot and detail, allowing us to watch people enter or exit rooms, discuss their days and futures, sometimes talk around the important but touchy subjects, and travel from place to place much like the viewer travels into and out of their lives. These films communicate deep emotion without manipulation or dramatics, and are most touching when characters try hardest to hide their true feelings behind a polite smile. The solid settings and framing, and the mostly grounded, static camera give the impression that all concerns and people will pass, and we’re here for just an instant, on a permanent landscape, among scores of others with the very same issues.

By featuring many of the same actors and some of the same character names, these stories play like alternate universe versions of the same (and therefore any) family. Sestuko Hara is subtle and luminous, a joy to watch in all three movies as Noriko, a different woman in each, but with the same sensitivity, warmth and honesty: in LS she’s dutiful and reluctant to leave her aging father, in ES she’s more independent and playful, picking a suitor instead of going with her family’s selection, and in TS a kind, generous and modest daughter-in-law. Chishu Ryu is fantastic playing Hara’s widowed father in LS, her stern brother in ES and her father-in-law in TS. People told me I’d love Ozu’s movies but nobody warned me about those heart-wrenching final scenes in LS and TS, both of which have Ryu’s characters facing his future alone. In LS he’s convinced his daughter to marry and move out, and finally lets out his sadness while peeling an apple. In TS he’s just lost his wife to a sudden illness, and tells a neighbour he wishes he’d been kinder to her. Such small and precise, but hugely powerful moments, two of many in a trio of movies I loved.

Click to see many more discoveries in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.

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12 thoughts on “Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953)”

  1. I only recently discovered Tokyo Story and now consider it one of my very favorite movies. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Make Way for Tomorrow (another favorite) served as a sort of influence.
    I seriously considered writing about Hara’s performance in Tokyo Story for the recent Reel Infatuation blogathon.
    Looking forward to watching the other films in this ‘trilogy’.

    1. Same here, easily some of my new fave films in here, and will revisit soon. Enjoyed Hara’s work in these, my first exposure to her, and what a nice showcase, to see her do these delightful “variations” on a woman dealing with family issues ranging from sad to funny. Thanks!

  2. Very beautifully evoked, Kristina. You grasped his aesthetics and his world very quickly. I especially enjoyed reading this because I now have all three Criterion editions in my collection and haven’t watched any of them in awhile. And somehow, because I saw them at wide intervals early on (a number of times with Tokyo Story too), it wasn’t until recently that I really got that they are a “Noriko trilogy”–obvious though this is. So, when Setsuko Hara died last year, I felt I wanted to get back to them together and that’s on my fall viewing schedule. Will maybe do them a month apart then, just to allow a little reflective time in between. Right now, I’m waiting for new glasses after cataract surgery–that’s a few weeks away and it’s fun to think about which movies I’ll be getting back to then.

    Of all the great directors, Ozu is the one that has gained most for me over the years. It isn’t that there is anything different about him–it’s just that I have come to more and more appreciate a quiet, subtle, contemplative and seemingly simple style and how much expressiveness can come from that, and in his case, even more, that his movies are kind of what life is really all about–and in a profound way. Like most people I find that one exchange between the two young women late in Tokyo Story to be kind of devastating and yet beautiful in the quiet, accepting way they share that insight (you know what I’m talking about since you’ve seen it)–that was a moment that always moved me but when you get older it cuts even deeper.

    You started at the top with these three. I’m guessing you probably know that and chose them carefully and taken together, they are the best way in to his world. But please rest assured, there are many other great Ozu films awaiting you–and some of them are very unexpected. I only saw Early Spring (1956) for the first time about six years ago and have now seen it twice–it’s not exactly his usual subject (though it is a common one in movies) but I never saw it done with more grace and humanity, and the last sequence alone is about as sublime as movies get

    1. I so enjoyed these, their technique and emotion, and I’m eager to explore more and read up further, already have a few more lined up for my next little binge. I know which part between the women you mean and another thing that reminds me of, is how, for something that seems easy, natural and almost plotless, the web of character interactions are actually very intricate and so expertly done that even the “late-comer” characters are easy to keep track of in a large group, and have as much impact and presence as ones you see from the start. There’s a lot going on in these worth studying and I know they’ll be rewarding to look at again. Thanks, best for a quick return to viewing, and I really appreciate your thoughts.

    1. Thank you, I had no idea what to expect but so many people had raved about these and they totally lived up to all that. From the very first shot you just know you’re in good hands, then the stories unfold at such a nice pace, really rewarding and a nice discovery!

  3. Hi Kristina,

    Just a note to say how glad I am you enjoyed these movies, and how much I enjoyed your post (as well as Blake’s further thoughts!). I liked the way you expressed the film’s themes — I love that they are fascinating glimpses into Japanese culture and postwar Westernization while also being universal. My favorite thing you wrote above was this: “The solid settings and framing, and the mostly grounded, static camera give the impression that all concerns and people will pass, and we’re here for just an instant, on a permanent landscape, among scores of others with the very same issues.”

    So well expressed!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. Going into all the techniques that I noticed (or didn’t this time) would take ten times more post than I have time for or am capable of, but that really impressed me, how meticulously and yet simply the images are created, so that your eye is directed to the humans in their environment. It’s such an unhurried, calm way to focus us and tell their stories. Then, the times the camera wasn’t still, like that stroll home in LS where Noriko walks away from her father, are all the more striking and meaningful. You were one of the people who raved about these and they lived up to all the hype! Very eager to see more Ozu, already have Autumn Afternoon ready 🙂 Thank you!

  4. These sound like beautiful films. Thanks for the introduction!

    I want to echo what Laura said with your striking observation about the static camera. I’m really looking forward to these!

    1. They really are great, such poignant and funny family stories, like I said, sound so simple but manage to contain all the familiar aspects of family life and big changes. Thanks, and do see them, I think you’d enjoy.

  5. I’m glad that you enjoyed these so much, and I love reading your wonderful insights! The Noriko trilogy is a great place to start with Ozu. From my experience, anyway, I think that if you liked them, you’ll like Ozu’s other work too, as a lot of his films are very similar (in a good way). You might want to check out some of his color movies — Late Autumn, for example, is almost the same story as Late Spring, except that Hara plays the parent — or possibly his silents, where his style and themes were still evolving.

    1. Thank you, that’s nice to hear! I’m glad I made it clear how much I enjoyed these, (I was sure I wouldn’t be able to articulate it well). Such poignant, emotional stories but so understated, as much an art as the visuals. Very eager to see more, I have a few on hand and just rented Autumn Afternoon, can’t wait. Thanks for the tips, love to get them!

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