With the New Yorker Theater's opening yesterday of "Late Spring," five films by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) have received commercial release here—the most recent being "Tokyo Story," which played the New Yorker in March and April. After neglecting Ozu for years, we now seem about to embalm his reputation with flattery, with the kind of fulsome praise that makes him sound like this year's Ermanno Olmi, a man to discover, devour, and then forget.
The difficulty with Ozu is not in appreciating his films, nor which are always beautifully lucid, nor even in attaching the right film to the right title, though it's somewhat confusing remembering whether "End of Summer" is actually "Early Autumn" or whether "Late Spring" is just another name for "Early Summer." The difficulty is in describing an Ozu work in a way that doesn't diminish it, that doesn't reduce it to an inventory of his austere techniques, and that accurately reflects the unsentimental humanism of his discipline.
Perhaps the only proper Ozu review would be one from which all adverbs and adjectives had been excised—they being the prose equivalents to the kind of subjectivism that he so rigorously avoids in his films. Don't ever go to Ozu and expect to participate in someone's nightmare or to share a flashback to a remembered time. We're lucky occasionally to share a view from the window of a moving train, which, in the context of Ozu, is practically an early Cinerama roller-coaster ride.
"Late Spring" was made in 1949, only four years after the end of the war, when General MacArthur was still very much in residence in Tokyo. Yet the only reminders we have of the period are the passing views of a road sign in English and a "Drink Coca-Cola" ad. Ozu's concern is middle-class family life seen through relationships that certainly are not removed from great social changes but, rather, not immediately connected to them. Or, more to the point, the great social changes in Ozu are the changes in the family that is his cosmos.
In "Late Spring," Ozu's family is an irreducible two, consisting of an aging professor (Chisu Ryu), a wid-owner, and his daughter (Setsuka Hara), a lovely woman in her late 20's who probably would have married some years before if life with her father hadn't been so serene. They are joined from time to time by the professor's practical, bossy sister who believes that everybody, including the professor, should be married.
The film is the story of the professor's campaign not to marry his daughter off but to steer her in the direction of a life of her own, which in Ozu's world necessarily means a husband and her own family. The father's ploy: to make her think he wants to marry again.
The idea strikes her with horror and disgust—for reasons that Ozu manages to define without tying the girl up in Oedipal knots. In "Late Spring," the collapse of the old civilization and the advent of a new is the girl's acceptance of a suitor (whom we never see), at first grudgingly, then with resigned good humor and finally with something on the order of anticipation, though hardly ecstasy.
Ozu's characters don't seek ecstasy, not because they are afraid of it but because they are brave enough to accept compromise, to admit change and to understand, as the daughter does, when the father says: "Marry him. I'm sure you'll be happy—it's not difficult." Ozu is often called the most Japanese of all Japan's directors, and I suspect that typical of what we find exotic about him is his—odd to our way of thinking—association of happiness with difficulty.
Chisu Ryu, the grandfather in "Tokyo Story," and Setsuko Hara, who played the widowed daughter-in-law in that film, are immensely affecting — gentle, loving, amused, thinking and feeling beings.
I would imagine that acting in an Ozu film might not have been too rewarding for the performers. The director depended as much on camera angle, setting, time of day and time of year as on acting. Yet Ozu's recognition of the wall of skin separating the mind of the character from the viewer is an integral part of his philosophy. It amounts to a profound respect for their privacy, for the mystery of their emotions. Because of this—not in spite of this—his films, of which "Late Spring" is one of the finest, are so moving.