Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Second Thoughts on Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’

If anyone follows my blog (stop laughing), they would know that unlike many other cinephiles, I’m not a big fan of Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu: his films strike me as disagreeably reactionary, implicitly yearning for a “return” to a Japanese society based on patriarchy and filial piety.  However, I still watch his films to take in their unusual cinematic “grammar” — close-to-the-ground camera angles, characters speaking almost straight into the lens, abrupt cuts, unpeopled transition shots — and how it might change my positioning as a viewer.  I also remain intrigued by the sense of the transcendental or ethereal in his black & white films, a sense harder to detect, as I said before, in his color movies. 

I started watching Ozu’s films again while reading the book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader.  The book discusses how Ozu (in Japan), Robert Bresson (in France), and Carl Theodor Dreyer (primarily in Denmark) use a form of storytelling and imagery that suggest a realm or state of mind where there are no distinctions between humanity and nature: the Transcendent.  I won’t go into all of Schrader’s book here, because my focus is on Ozu, but its argument, in looking at the Japanese director’s films in relation to a concept of something seen to stand outside culture — the Transcendent — also risks naturalizing his conservative way of looking at the world. 
Yasujirô Ozu (1903-1963)

Indeed, the references to seasons and times of the day or year in so many of the Japanese director’s (English) titles — Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Equinox Flower (1958), Good Morning (1959), Late Autumn (1960), The End of Summer (1961), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) — not only sound almost comically repetitive, but by linking his characters to the inevitable passage of time, Ozu seems to imply that the rightness and desirability of traditional Japanese culture are equally inevitable. 

Recently, I watched, for the first time, Late Spring (晩春, 1949), the first of Ozu’s family dramas (shomingeki) to have a season/time-based title, and my first impression of the film was that the narrative was in the same conservative mold as the director-screenwriter’s other films: Noriko (Setsuko Hara), a single woman in contemporary Japan, is recalcitrant to the idea of getting married, which her extended family pressures her to do, but she finally and reluctantly gives in after her widower father (Chishu Ryu) lies to her, saying that he plans to get married (again) himself.  Furthermore, the father’s speeches to his daughter on the benefits of marriage sound like didactic lectures straight out of an after-school special.  So, Noriko, whose single status calls the patriarchal social order into question, capitulates to an arranged marriage after constant badgering and being told a falsehood, consequently assuming her designated role in society.  And to me, the film seems to portray her capitulation in a positive light.  Not my kind of movie. 
Setsuko Hara as Noriko in ‘Late Spring’

Noriko and her father live alone together in the same house, with her performing the domestic role usually undertaken by a wife, such as picking up her father’s clothes as he drops them on the floor while changing into his yukata.   Noriko is satisfied with her role in the house, and when asked why she doesn’t get married, she says that her father would be “lost” without her.  When I heard this line of dialogue, I said to myself, “That doesn’t sound like a reason; that sounds like an excuse.”  That told me Noriko’s character hadn’t really been developed.  Also, Noriko’s Western-marked and sometimes obnoxious friend Aya (Yumeiji Tsukioka) married for love but later got divorced, which seemed to me like a plug for traditional arranged marriages. 
Chishu Ryu as Noriko’s father (wearing his yukata)

I watched Late Spring on a DVD put out by the Criterion Collection, a company whose meticulous attention to picture quality and supplemental materials of canonized classics makes it a cinephile’s best friend.  One of the supplemental materials on the disc was a commentary track by Richard Peña, an associate professor in film studies at Columbia University.  After listening to his remarks on the commentary track, I began to reconsider my first impression of the film.

To begin with, I didn’t take into account that Late Spring is contemporaneously set in the immediate aftermath of World War II (four years afterwards).  The fact that Noriko has assumed the role of the mother within her father’s house (in which the two live alone) only struck me as an example of filial piety.  A single woman past the ideal marital age (Noriko is 27) taking on a wife’s capacity in her father’s house (outside the bedroom, of course) would have struck a contemporary Japanese audience, according to Peña, as an odd arrangement.  (In recent decades, the ideal age for a Japanese woman to get married has been no later than 25, so young Japanese women of marriageable age are sometimes snidely called “Christmas cakes”: after the 25th [of December/birthday], “no one wants them,” or so the thinking goes.) 

This arrangement also (to more alert viewers) calls attention to the absence of both the mother and any male siblings, which, given the context of 1949, might have led Japanese viewers to infer that they died, directly or indirectly, because of the war.  And the absence of a larger family structure makes Noriko’s reason for not wanting to leave her father’s home more credible.  Noriko’s servitude — at least to her father — is not as positively portrayed as I first thought. 

And then there is Ozu’s singular cinematic style: the camera angles of most shots imitating the POV of someone seated on a tatami, full-frontal (as opposed to angled) close-ups of the characters, shots without any people in them, somewhat disorienting transition shots, etc.  This unusual approach to filmmaking is the reason why so many cineastes (myself included) keep returning to Ozu, and his champions say that this approach encourages the viewer not to take
the on-screen proceedings at face value.  After all, if Ozu wanted to make a film merely propagandizing Noriko’s capitulation to marriage, wouldn’t he want to use a film style as “invisible” to the audience as possible?

Noriko and her father at a Noh play
I’m very aware of Ozu’s critical view of the Western influence on Japanese culture, and how it compares unfavorably to his seemingly more positive view of traditional Japanese culture.  Late Spring early on associates the father with the accoutrements of traditional Japan: often clad in a yukata, often seated at a chabudai, enjoying a Noh play, etc.  By contrast, even though we first see her at a traditional tea ceremony and dressed in a kimono (albeit, as Peña points out, clutching a Western purse rather than its traditional Japanese equivalent), Noriko is thereafter associated with Western things: she almost exclusively wears dresses, and her room has occidental décor.

In the scene where the aunt (Haruko Sugimura) insistently has her first serious conversation with Noriko about the younger woman’s prospects for marriage, and the aunt refuses to let Noriko laugh off the idea (as she had previously), both start out seated at a chabudai.  When the conversation turns serious, a stubborn Noriko gets up from the chabudai and petulantly plops herself down on a Western-style chair. Because of these character markers, I get the idea that Noriko’s recalcitrant attitude towards marriage is a Western influence.  (Japan was governed at the time of Late Spring by the allied occupation, which imposed many Western ideas on Japanese society.)  Near the film’s end, when we see Noriko dressed in traditional Japanese wedding garments and formally thanking her father for his care, I’m left with the impression that this heretofore Western-styled woman has capitulated not only to marriage but also to a traditional Japanese social role.  

To me, the film seems to say that Noriko was wrong not to immediately accept her family’s desire for her to get married: in other words, she was in the wrong from the get-go.  And along with other telltale signs of criticism, I’m left with the message that Western culture is a force that has vitiated a “purer,” more positive Japanese culture. 
Noriko’s father persuades her to get married

But Peña says that Late Spring is more complicated than that.  According to him, Ozu’s singular cinematic style is not the only element to elicit a critical viewer; so does the story’s structure.  After all, why begin the film with a seemingly ideal mate for Noriko (her father’s younger assistant), only to take him out of the running early on?  Why leave gaps in the story that the viewer must fill in?  And most intriguing of all, if Noriko’s capitulation to marriage is portrayed so positively, how come the wedding itself is never shown?  Furthermore, Peña regards the father’s didactic-sounding speech on the positive aspects of marriage as something that the man doesn’t entirely believe himself; the speech’s very didacticism, to Peña, is so out of character that the commentator believes it to be a mere piece of “theatre” between the family members.  Ozu, to Peña and others, is too much of a modernist to be an effective propagandist, so, it follows, propaganda must not be his goal. 

To his champions, Ozu’s films are too thematically rich merely to advocate nostalgia for a Japan that may never have existed.  To them, Ozu does not naturalize Japanese culture or imply that his characters’ social circumstances are unavoidable.  What Ozu sees as inevitable — and this is reflected by his films’ similar titles — is the passing of time, and the ephemera it takes with it, which, of course, is indisputably inevitable.  What concerns Ozu, then, is how his characters occupy their time on Earth and the emotional consequences of the decisions they make.  I see a dichotomy in Ozu’s films between traditional Japan and the West.  But Ozu’s defenders say that the director’s portrayal of Japanese life is too unusual and too complex to invoke a mere dichotomy. 

Therefore, what I’ve seen as positive portrayals of things traditionally Japanese, to Ozu fans, aren’t straightforwardly positive; these are instead wistful, non-prescriptive observations of how the characters inhabit their space, making their pent-up emotions too intricate to be attributed to a single story-driving cause (as is often the case in Hollywood cinema).  For example, I see Noriko’s marriage as endorsed by Ozu, but Peña says in his commentary that Ozu, without judgment, evokes the sense that events in their lives may have very well turned out differently.  Furthermore, the marriage, according to Peña, is not the point of Late Spring because the film never shows us the wedding.  Like Peña, Ozu’s defenders say that his films, instead, communicate the poignant evanescence of all life — the very Japanese notion of mono no aware.  

Noriko in traditional Japanese
bridal garments
Late Spring and Ozu’s subsequent films were commercially successful in Japan, enabling the director to make on average a film a year for the rest of his career, until his death at age 60.  I get the feeling that his audience didn’t go to his films to have their sense of traditional Japan — a sense of tradition impaired by the loss of the war and by the allied occupation — challenged or questioned.  I think that they went to Ozu’s films to revel in specifically Japanese subjects and to approve the traditional and conservative choices his characters (usually) make.  So, I can’t help wondering if this audience viewed Ozu’s unusual film style as consciously anti-Western, as an attempt to discover a traditionally Japanese discourse within (to them) the implicitly Western medium of cinema. 

In his book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1983, Robert B. Ray says that the most successful American feature films have differing aspects to them that different viewers can key into.  A successful film will have both conservative elements that conservative viewers can appreciate and liberal elements that liberal viewers can enjoy.  I get the idea that Ozu’s conservative-styled stories entertained his tradition-minded audience, while his unorthodox cinema grammar engaged his less tradition-minded audience. 

But Peña’s commentary about the modernist aspects of Late Spring made me realize how much of an oversimplifying dichotomy my liberal/conservative approach to Ozu’s films has been.  Just because a movie portrays something regarded as traditional or conservative without expressly criticizing it, that doesn’t automatically denote the film’s approval.  And even if Ozu’s intentions were thoroughly conservative (as I understand his politics were), his unusual shooting and editing styles blatantly rupture the “invisibility” of Hollywood film grammar and invite critical readings of his films’ conservative elements.  Finally, the understated performances that Ozu coaxes from his actors, portraying people with weighty feelings they can barely express, endows those characters with emotions more complicated than the usual story-driven Hollywood offerings.  Yes, emotions are complex, and Ozu’s underplayed and taciturn characters give us a better sense of that than most actorly monologues. 

So, I’m willing to give Ozu another chance to impress me.  Maybe I’ll eventually join the multitudes of movie lovers enraptured by his films.  Because so many voices that I respect sing Ozu’s praises so highly, there’s got to be something more going on. 

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