Early Summer (1951)
Written by Kogo Noda & Yasujirō Ozu
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
As the second part of Ozu’s Noriko trilogy, Early Summer is a more complex examination of post-War Japanese lives across three generations of a family. Setsuko Hara returns to play another character named Noriko, like in Late Spring. Chishū Ryū, who played the father in Late Spring, plays the eldest brother in Early Summer. Once again, a young woman living with her parents and being pressured into marriage is at the forefront of the plot. This time the story has more layers and humor, always remaining tender and empathetic with all its characters.
Noriko is a secretary living in Tokyo with her parents and her brother’s family. An uncle’s visit causes the family to begin discussing Noriko’s age and how she should be getting married at this time in her life. Noriko’s boss, Satake, has a 40-year-old single friend, but she isn’t that interested in marrying such an older man. Being in her late twenties, Noriko’s friend group is split into the married and unmarried, both of whom talk about their respective lifestyle benefits. Aya (Chikage Awashima) is Noriko’s closest unmarried friend, and they both take pleasure in tease one of their uptight married gal pals. Simultaneously, Noriko’s childhood friend Kenkichi is a doctor and widower with his mother working as the caretaker of his home. She believes Noriko and Kenkichi would make a great match.
Once again, Ozu delivers another film centered around the ideas of tradition and marriage in Japan. This time, keeping Noriko at home is her family’s need for the income her job brings. The house is populated by seven people, and they need all the help they can get. While her parents pressure Noriko to marry and begin her life, it also means the family will be fragmented. The aging parents will go to the country to live with an elderly uncle. Kenkichi is given a transfer by Noriko’s brother, his boss at the hospital, to be head of medicine in a rural prefecture. If Noriko ends up with him, she will be going far from home for several years.
Much like other Ozu films, he isn’t highly concerned with keep plot points & beats moving along. Instead, he takes a deep breath, and we absorb the mundane everyday victories and failures of life in Japan. There’s a lot of attention paid to the antics of Noriko’s nephews. We spend time with her & her friends as they talk about life, marriage, work. In these moments, we understand the clash of generations and ways of thinking that were going on in Japan at the time. Cultural attitudes about the purpose of marriage were dramatically changing in Japan at this time. The idea that Noriko could pick her own groom was controversial.
Ozu seems to me like he would have been a wistfully nostalgic person. His movies are often about just before and just after a transitional moment in life. As determined as these characters are to get Noriko married and in her own household, they are suddenly overcome with a wave of sadness in the finale. There’s genuine regret about losing this time in their life. I couldn’t help but be reminded of when I left home for college and that sudden sense of sadness that I would never return to that house in the same way. We’re going through a significant moving process right now that will result in leaving the state I’ve spent about thirty-five years in and likely won’t ever come back to. That is bound to elicit some sadness, an acknowledgment that the futures I imagined for myself over the years are fantasy and that the real future is something I don’t quite know yet. Ozu does a perfect job of capturing that particular emotion.
These life changes aren’t bad, but they come with specific pain, a feeling of loss that every person must learn to deal with. Interspersed with these heavy moments are Ozu’s trademark pillow shot, lingering images of nature or an empty room, giving us space to breathe and contemplate these lives. More than any other director I’ve watched, Ozu profoundly understands the importance of simple everyday life. He doesn’t need melodrama or violence and yet can create stories and moments that bring out powerful emotions from his audience.