Early Spring (1956)
Written by Kōgo Noda & Yasujirō Ozu
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
Since I became deeply interested in film & filmmakers, Yasujirō Ozu’s name has been one that has come across my radar time & time again. Anytime a piece of criticism would talk about Japanese cinema’s great directors, it was Akira Kurosawa & Ozu. For whatever reason, I’d never sat down to watch an Ozu film, my list of movies piling up while ignoring those listed as essential. Not much about Ozu’s early life stands out, the son of a fertilizer salesman, living a relatively Japanese middle-class life in the 1910s. Things get interesting as he became a young adult starting with his expulsion from his boarding school dormitory after being caught writing a love letter to another boy. While Ozu’s sexuality was never confirmed before his death in 1963, he seemed to at least be questioning who he was attracted to.
He failed exams for getting into the economics department of Kobe University and for a teacher training program. Ozu would work as a substitute teacher in rural Japan and travel through the mountains to watch films on the weekends. He eventually settled back in Tokyo, where his family lived. His uncle helped Ozu secure a job in the cinematography department at the Shochiku Film Company. His father was not pleased about this development. Ozu would complete his compulsory military service and return to filmmaking, directing his first film in 1923. Throughout the 1930s, he would continue to develop as a filmmaker, and during World War II, the Japanese government drafted him to produced propaganda films for their cause. I’ll be jumping around in my reviews, not watching these films in chronological order, but just an order that felt right as I planned the series.
Early Spring is the longest surviving film made by Ozu, his final picture shot in black & white. It tells the story of the office worker Shoji (Ryō Ikebe), who lives a monotonous routine of a life toiling away as a salaryman for a brick manufacturer. His wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima), provides him everything from food to clean clothes to waiting up for him as he drunkenly carouses with his work friends and plays mah-jong late into the night. The workers plan a weekend hike in the country. Spouses are invited, but Masako can’t come because she is helping her mother at the family food shop. Shoji strikes up a friendship with an office typist nicknamed Goldfish (Keiko Kishi). This eventually leads to them sleeping together as Shoji tries to keep the affair secret. Masako starts to notice changes in behavior, and even Shoji’s co-workers begin to suspect something is going on.
Early Spring is very much a slice of life picture, right at home with the domestic melodramas made by directors like Douglas Sirk at the same time in the United States. Ozu does an excellent job of communicating how structured social interactions & expectations were at the time in Japan. But he also shows how easily a marriage can fall into disrepair. There are no big dramatic shouting matches between Shoji & Masako. It’s a quiet, creeping acknowledgment that something is going wrong. I think Ozu is making some pointed comments about post-war Japan, especially the creep of industrialization & work superceding the home.
Numerous landscape shots emphasize flashing neon signs or large brick buildings squeezed up against each other. Shoji spends more time with his office family than his wife at home. It seems inevitable that he would seek the same sort of intimacy he would get at home from this new “modern family.” We eventually learn that Shoji & Masako had a son who died. We never really know the specifics, just that Masako continues to visit the child’s grave while Shoji finds ways to avoid it. As Shoji becomes more & more of a company man, he doesn’t experience the fulfillment he was promised by society. He just becomes sadder and lonelier.
Reflecting on Ozu’s own choices in life, not to marry & have children, and his continued inability to get a standard job in his youth, we can see that Early Spring is a critique of Japanese modernity. Ozu is an outsider to this lifestyle, likely an observer of family & friends who lived the salaryman lifestyle. He sees such a melancholy permeate every aspect of it, cyclical boredom that just goes on & on. What’s even more interesting is that Goldfish, while part of that office family, behaves in a manner that the men see as outside the parameters of what is acceptable for a woman in their society. She flirts with multiple men and doesn’t show any interest in getting tied down. Her affair with Shoji doesn’t worry her in one bit, and there isn’t a sense of guilt about their actions. She does get upset when she sees Shoji gaslighting and ignoring her because she does have genuine feelings for him.
Early Spring is about how time passes, presented in moments, with gaps inbetween that the audience is expected to ponder. Its characters exist at this threshold where the old world must die away to make space for the new. However, in cramming this new world into every space conceivable, what do we lose as a result? Ozu refrains from passing judgment about any of his characters. This is a world with no antagonists, just people living and trying to exist as they are told.