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.
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.