Late Spring (1949)
Written by Kogo Noda & Yasujirō Ozu
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
Japan was in the middle of a significant cultural transition when Late Spring was in production. American forces occupied the country in the wake of World War II and aggressively fought back against the Japanese’s traditional feudalistic customs. One of these was arranged marriages, and it was rigidly enforced in Japanese popular culture by Americans. I don’t think Americans today fully comprehend how much we interfered in Japan’s development after the atrocity of dropping two nuclear bombs on them. Yasujirō Ozu’s body of work was all about examining Japanese traditions in the context of his own time, so blanket censorship like this proved to be a major obstacle in his way.
The film is about the relationship between Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and her widower father, Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu). Noriko is twenty-seven years old, unmarried, and focused on caring for her father’s affairs. She’s on a shopping trip in Tokyo and runs into one of her father’s friends, Professor Onodera. They share lunch, and Noriko learns Onodera; also a widower, has recently remarried. Noriko, half-joking, half-serious, expresses how much she dislikes that, finding it “filthy.” Somiya hears her state this sentiment, and he begins to believe that he is holding Noriko back from starting her own life. Noriko is encouraged to date and does go on a bike-riding excursion with Hattori, her father’s assistant, only to find out he’s already engaged. Her aunt Masa begins searching for a suitor to arrange a marriage, and as it becomes clear Noriko’s time with her father is drawing to a close, she becomes despondent. She becomes swept up in a process she really has no say over.
American censors were ludicrous in their editing of the film. They forbid any mention of the devastation caused by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima or Kyoto or any act of the Americans in any city. There was a line about the ruins in Tokyo, which was changed to call the city “dusty.” It’s mentioned that Noriko’s health was slightly affected by her conscription into the Japanese Navy during the war. The Americans made them change that to “forced work during the war” to more negatively reflect on the Japanese. There’s a charming moment where Aunt Masa finds a coin purse on the ground, takes it as a sign of good luck for the impending marriage, and pockets it. The censors demanded there be a scene showing Masa handing the purse over to the police. Ozu wouldn’t do it and instead turned the bag into a running gag where Somiya reminds Masa about who says she will return it in time.
Much like Early Spring, Ozu is examining the clash of tradition and the modern world. He needs to include elements like arranged marriage as part of this story because it is all about people coming to terms with two conflicting sets of expectations. Ozu has made a profoundly subversive film against his country’s Western occupation but couched it in a very domestic, heartfelt story. He says that the beauty of ritual & tradition, while often not kind to the individual, is a far better system of living than the importation of Western ideals. He’s not saying Western ideals are inherently a bad thing but that as he sees Japan, it is better off creating its own traditions rather than adopting other cultures’.
The military occupation is never seen in person, but you can feel their presence. During the bike ride with Hattori, there is a very blatant sign of Coca-Cola sticking out in the landscape. The couple ride over a bridge where a sign in English warns about the structure’s weight capacity, an indicator to military trucks in the area. Despite living a very unconventional life, Ozu was very conservative in his views of Japanese society when it came to foreign interference. He points the camera at iconic images of nature in his country and has the characters visit building constructed in styles much older than the urban environments they have become used to.
I think this contradiction in Ozu is reflected in Noriko. She dresses like a contemporary Western woman rather than a kimono. She seems very interested in living a modern life for the most part. Yet, she is entirely old-fashioned when it comes to marriage, seeing the act of remarrying as a betrayal of the deceased spouse. When Noriko finds out her father is contemplating taking a second wife, she is appalled at the idea. Noriko is flanked by two female characters that represent the diverging ways of thinking. Aunt Masa is completely behind the arranged marriage for Noriko. Aya, a school friend of Norkio’s, is a divorcee who has fully embraced Western ideals. Aya drinks English tea and makes the very un-Japanese shortcake.
The film’s conclusion is complicated, and Ozu refuses to didactically preach to the audience that tradition is better than new ways of thinking. Somiya pushes Noriko into this arranged marriage; the audience never even sees the groom. Yet, Somiya is heartbroken when he comes home and realizes he’s alone in his day-to-day life. His plans to remarry were just a ruse to try and push Noriko out of the nest. He sacrifices part of his happiness for Noriko to carry on with tradition, to create a life of her own. Ozu never married himself and held contradictory views about the practice. So too here, he leaves the audience to wonder if Norkio made the right choice or not.