Early Summer (1951, Yasujiro Ozu)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It took multiple nights for me to make it through Early Summer, not at all a boring film and hardly a long one (just over two hours), first because it has been a very troubling and stressful few days, secondly because I was so overwhelmed by its beauty and gravity that I found it helpful to stop and savor and contemplate what it was giving me. Moreover, I felt that I wanted to delay my departure from its world for as long as possible. I’m in a lucky position because, with the exception of Tokyo Story which I saw some time before the others, I have experienced the key phases of Yasujiro Ozu’s storied career up to this point in something like a chronological fashion. It has been thrilling to watch the gentle comedies of his silent and early sound period (I Was Born, But…; The Only Son) give way to somewhat more melancholic dramas of interpersonal relationships such as Record of a Tenement Gentleman and A Story of Floating Weeds. Coming to the stirring Late Spring, to this film and to the deservedly celebrated Tokyo Story, there is the sensation of a world opening up, to Ozu becoming so fluent in the language of his modest, familial stories that they suddenly seem to capture, with the illusion of the incidental, a remarkably clear-eyed and direct appreciation of day-to-day life in all its natural rhythms and earth-shaking feeling, utterly free of artificial sentiment.

The picture revolves around the sprawling, three-generation Mamiya household, where the independent-minded secretary Noriko lives with her parents, brother and sister-in-law, and two nephews. At 28, she is regarded by the rest of her family as overdue for marriage, a situation pointed out by an aged uncle who comes to visit. These disparate characters and their friends and neighbors — all of them distinctive and vivid — all become intimate with us, helped along by a serious of performances that are frankly as good as film acting gets. Every movement, every vocalization, every subtle turn of head or eye is the full embodiment of something that seems instinctive enough to be totally free of any kind of pretense, but also considered enough that each moment — no matter how seemingly small — tells us something important. Few directors can filter reality so gorgeously as Ozu; William Wyler and Frank Borzage are two that come to mind, and Ozu was passionate about how studio-era Hollywood influenced his output (he references Katharine Hepburn in the dialogue here, and his most famous film is a remake of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow), but like those filmmakers, his job was made vastly more painless by his dependable crew of performers whose work is irreducibly miraculous.

Despite the formidable presences of Chieko Higashiyama (whose portrayal of Shige is so perfectly sustained and believable), Ichirō Sugai, Haruko Sugimura and others, clearly the heart and soul here is the same as that of Late Spring and Tokyo Story: Setsuko Hara, whose legend in some quarters has approached a ridiculous kind of immaculate worship, as though she were some invulnerable doll to be encased in memory for eternity after her retirement (which coincided with Ozu’s death in 1963), which ignores the toughness, sophistication and particularly the variance within her signature performances for Ozu’s films. Here she permits bursts of clear emotion and impulsiveness that would be unthinkable from her character in Late Spring, and displays a philosophical maturity even beyond the world-weariness she would exhibit in Tokyo Story. She also presents a striking contrast to Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1936 portrait of a young female professional in his Osaka Elegy via Isuzu Yamada’s exquisite performance as a beleaguered telephone operator in that film: we are given no evidence that she is nearly as troubled by the cheerfully solitary nature of her personal life as her family, and in fact she openly celebrates her singlehood with her stylish pal Aya (Chikage Awashima), both of whom mock the staid normies in their friend group for all their romantic devotions and strict family schedules.

Early Summer is not the story of Noriko’s will being worn down by outside pressures, but nor is it entirely the story of a woman making a decisive movement that is fully her own — for all its understated yearnings, it does not have the tragic undertones of Late Spring, wherein kindness precludes personal self-interest to the detriment of overall happiness, and Tokyo Story, in which the march of time dooms seemingly everyone to ultimate loneliness. However, it also doesn’t fully escape the sense of the crush of time, the inherent despair in the inevitability of change, and of course the lingering death and fear of the war that hangs devastatingly over it. But in truth it is simply an honest, unsparing but by no means hopeless portrait of life simply moving in the only direction it can. Its people are not broadly right or wrong, their “motives” (if that’s even the right word) anything so simplistic; you can object to the way Noriko’s parents try to gently push her in certain directions without condemning them or the norms they propagate. There’s no doubt that, like all of Ozu’s major works, this is very specifically a film about a time and place — postwar Japan — but even more than in his other films of this period, it seems that the basic, heartfelt interpersonal dramas it explores could not possibly feel more universal or ring more with the truth of the complexity of familial love.

Ozu’s cinema is often almost indistinguishable from human memory — he films a day at the beach between Noriko and her sister-in-law with the casual, unforced beauty such a moment might take on as experienced or witnessed in real life, captures goofing-off conversations between friends that feel so intimate they could be home movies, and adeptly moves his camera (an abnormal technique in his case) to satiate our gentle curiosity while pulling back just when a lesser director might threaten to violate the integrity of his characters, might tell us more than we need to know or remove the mystery that reveals more than any explicit information could. Watching it is like replaying a series of longed-for moments in which one recalls feeling understood, perhaps by those who are no longer intimates but whose kindnesses hang over us in perpetuity. Early Summer is deeply invested in the languid, comfortable pacing of real life, but it’s also reserved completely for moments of enormous, soulful importance: what could be a smaller narrative than a lot of whispers about who a certain lady is going to marry? But conversely, what could be bigger or more shattering? That is the essence of melodrama as an art form; Ozu and Douglas Sirk have more in common than may be immediately obvious. Even if their methodology could scarcely be more different, Ozu is no shyer about the unspeakable poignance of his story than Sirk or Nicholas Ray might be, which you can sense any time Senji Itō’s score wells up from a seemingly insignificant moment, knowing that you as an observer will catch up quickly.

I’m left in awe, basically; I’m left wondering, how do you create something like this? How do you capture a moment as palpably lived-in as a family cheerfully, awkwardly shaping themselves up for the portrait shown above, when the line between performance and reality almost seems nonexistent? Because you don’t fully lose the consciousness that it is created; it doesn’t have the unfiltered, showy intensity of a Cassavetes film, for example, or (of course) a piece of cinema verité. Ozu shows his hand with the things he withholds, like certain characters who remain offscreen but are incessantly discussed, the willingness to incorporate a tangent of a man watching nostalgically as a train cruises by without explicitly calling out its meaning or purpose, or more pointedly, the fact that we are never given any real clue of how the relationship between Noriko and her ultimate betrothed will play out — their last conversation something as mundane as a discussion of a train schedule — because with the disbanding of the household, Ozu’s story, for better or worse, is finished. There is also the easy, naturalistic humor that’s brought in (much of it involving the child characters) which would never have a place in a film that was more self-consciously obsessed over “realism.” There is an appropriate, impeccable balance here between complexity and structure, and much of it is born of the sheer act of taking human emotions seriously and following their track. More abstract concerns are absent because within these lives are held the largest concerns of all. Even when the past, the larger world and the sadness in it are addressed, it is always with a depth of feeling that no more explicitly political film could likely ever muster, because the connections it fosters are more elemental than that. Everything and nothing happens within these two hours, just a pure immersion in people and a cautious optimism about their destiny, which is something that could only be carried to us so elegantly by cinema.

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