Late Spring (1949)

Dir. Yasujiro Ozu. Starring Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Haruko Sugimura

The Abilene paradox posits that in a group of people, it is entirely possible that a group of people can collectively engage in an activity even though all of them hold some reservations about so doing. The original example features four people who decide to drive an hour away to Abilene for dinner, even though none of them, including the person who suggested it, have much interest in going there. It’s only after they’ve returned from Abilene, crabby and unsatisfied, that the four of them reveal their true feelings and lament having ever gone. Late Spring is not a perfect Abilene paradox—too many people desire a certain outcome, and another outright lies to ensure its conclusion—but the feeling that Ozu creates at the end of the picture is much the same. Our protagonists have done what they never wanted to do; they have sacrificed their happiness; only the most profound regret remains for both of them, and it’s what makes Late Spring a military grade emotional experience. The film is cool and fairly calm; Setsuko Hara’s omnipresent smile and Chishu Ryu’s thoughtful “hmmm” can mask Late Spring with a smooth, pretended serenity. But it doesn’t last, and I find myself resorting to Civil War assaults—Longstreet at Second Manassas, Jackson at Chancellorsville, MacArthur at Nashville—to describe the crumpling clout that Late Spring has in its final fifteen minutes.

The world wonders—or at least their friends and family wonder, which is the same thing if you live in the ‘burbs—why Shukichi (Ryu) has not seen daughter, Noriko (Hara), married to some young man. It is as deceptively simple a plot as I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s only a few years after the end of World War II, and if the scars remain then they are well-hidden. The characters don’t talk much about the war which, all told, cost three million Japanese lives, ended with two atomic bombs on Japanese soil, and made the nation responsible for many millions more killed as a result of war crimes. A bicycle ride Noriko takes with a friend, Hattori (Jun Usami), is as clear a statement about World War II as we get, and that statement is entirely about the Americans who remain, though unseen, in Japan. A road sign states that the road will only take thirty tons; an ad for Coke stands in the foreground, overshadowing the two young people on their bicycles. We know Noriko’s health suffered badly during the war, and that young people of that cohort are more willing to take risks and buck tradition than the older people from Shukichi and Masa’s (Sugimura) generation. They have the itch to get going with life, the impatience that begets pleasure-seeking. Masa complains to Shukichi that at the last wedding she went to, the bride ate tuna with her “painted mouth,” which is some kind of imagery and also just the kind of fuddy-duddy complaint that young people the world over have shrugged off in their lust for life. Finally, Shukichi is a widower and Noriko motherless, and no mention of how his wife died is made. It seems entirely possible that she may have died in the war, just as some of the other missing people of the film may have done.

The people of the story speak far more about the social expectations, that a woman should leave her father’s house and take a wife. (Either coincidentally or curiously, Ozu himself never married; he lived with his mother for nearly all his life.) At twenty-seven, Noriko is a little old for someone who has never been married, and virtually everyone feels entitled to say something about her insistence on staying at home with her father. One of her dad’s friends has remarried, and in teasing her he gets more than he expects back: his own remarriage disgusts her. Her aunt sets her up with a man in his early thirties who looks like Gary Cooper, though only from the mouth up. (“The one from the baseball movie,” Masa says; as serious as Late Spring can be, Masa can be relied upon to give us a little bit of humor.) A schoolfriend, Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), has already gotten rid of one husband and looks forward to picking up another, but in the meantime encourages Noriko to give it a try. He’s an engineer, he’s from a good family, and he halfway looks like Gary Cooper, she says. She presses Noriko, asks if she likes him. She assents. Then what are you waiting for? Aya asks.

The tragedy of the film is that Shukichi and Noriko love each other. Ryu is so delicate in his role, and Hara returns the favor with equally subtle responses. Noriko comes home one afternoon while her father and Hattori are working (a little belatedly) on some papers. Shukichi demands some tea, and although it is a command and his voice is harsh, his body language is entirely relaxed, and Noriko is so unmoved by the request that sounds rude that it comes out endearing. After she brings the tea, Shukichi mentions that they might invite someone over to play mahjong with them, but Noriko prods him back to his work instead. To the eye, it’s like a marriage, but to the heart this is what it looks like when two people know each other. Perhaps Shukichi does not know Noriko’s type in a man, and Noriko probably couldn’t speak to the papers Shukichi grades, but they understand each other at the subtelepathic levels that people in close quarters understand each other at. What their friends and family propose, and what Shukichi is convinced is proper, is to sever that bond. (At one point, he refers to the marriage act as “the order of human life and history.” Even if he wanted to keep Noriko at home, he is utterly convinced that doing so would be unnatural.) At the end of the film, after Noriko has been married, Shukichi peels an apple. The peel drops away when it’s been completed, as perfect a symbol as has ever been put on celluloid. Naked, vulnerable, stripped bare, and ready for the consumption of a greater power than himself, Shukichi can only bend forward and begin to weep. And what will become of the peel, which is only good for compost, for the growth of something else at the expense of itself? (What a statement about marriage from the female perspective, or about the end result of motherhood.) In her wedding dress, Noriko is as beautiful a bride as any father could hope to give away, but neither the giver nor the given relish the thought. Both of them wear wan, sad smiles on that day in contrast to Masa’s beaming pride.

Noriko is fooled into marrying Satake, who never does appear in the movie. At a Noh performance, Shukichi makes eyes at one Mrs. Miwa, who we can assume is a widow as Shukichi is a widower. As the drums pound and voices raise, Noriko lowers her eyes and comes as close to scowling as she is able to do. Later on, Shukichi tells her that she ought to think about taking a husband for herself. Noriko demurs, unwilling to leave her father, and indeed unwilling to rewrite what seems to her a perfectly enjoyable life at twenty-seven. Who would wash your shirts and collars? You can’t even cook rice without burning it, she says. Her father then plays his trump card: I will marry Mrs. Miwa, and when I do that, he implies, there will be no more room for you here. (To some extent this is even a physically true statement, as they sleep in the same room on mats just a few feet away from each other.) Not long afterwards, Noriko, outplayed and outmaneuvered, surrenders. She decides to marry Satake, not knowing that her father has lied to her. Thus the weeping, thus the long faces, thus the 6,500 miles to Abilene.

The lie would be moving enough on its own, but it’s more powerful because of how strongly Shukichi feels he must see his daughter made happy in a more traditional way. Riddled with the doubts she has had from the beginning, Noriko tells her father that she cannot imagine a happier life than the one she has with him. He responds:

Marriage may not mean happiness from the start. To expect such immediate happiness is a mistake. Happiness isn’t something you wait around for. It’s something you create yourself. Getting married isn’t happiness. Happiness lies in the forging of a new life shared together. It may take a year or two, maybe even five or ten. Happiness comes only through effort. Only then can you claim to be man and wife.

In that monologue is Ozu’s unsettling ability to shatter with simplicity. There are no pretty phrases in those words, no new ideas. Shukichi admits that his own marriage was fraught for years because of the differences between himself and Noriko’s mother, and one could read his words to mean that they never really came to understand each other the way he understands his daughter. Yet those words are so heartfelt, so unadorned, that they must pierce our hearts. At fifty-six, Shukichi can see his own end; he can see his daughter’s present unhappiness; he encourages her in the only way he knows how, to say that if not now, then.

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