Sample Film Analysis 3

Late Spring & Floating Weeds – Nature According to Yasujiro Ozu

*An essay written for my Cinema History course, taught by Dr. Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa

When one hopes to discuss the Japanese “golden age,” it is important to note the unfair generalization of an image that frequently comes to mind; that of swords, bandits, and samurai.  Internationally praised director Akira Kurosawa popularized said genre of jidai-geki, period epics of feudal Japan released by Toho Company Ltd.  But the 1950s, widely considered the apex of this period, also consisted of cinematically captured, post-war examinations.  This fact was exemplified by the most commercially successful studio of the period, Shochiku, which provided releases from a quite different Japanese auteur – Yasujirō Ozu.  Ozu specialized in films of shomin-geki, those portraying the emotions and situations common to modern life.  The artistically singular director, having begun work as an assistant cameraman and director during the silent period, soon developed an unprecedented style that evoked such post-war attitudes, conveyed through his repeated themes of generational and family conflict, in addition to traditionalism versus modernism.  Although Tokyo Story (1953) is claimed by many critics as the filmmaker’s unsurpassed masterpiece, the Japanese golden age can be understood to a greater extent through two Ozu films that bookmark the period – 1949’s Late Spring and 1961’s Floating Weeds.

Later reworked by Ozu as a color film, Late Autumn (1960), the similarly titled, black-and-white Late Spring is a film that truly solidified Ozu as a filmmaker of vast importance in his native country, shot throughout the Allied Powers’ occupation of Japan.  Setsuko Hara plays Noriko, a character who would later appear in Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story, albeit in a much different context.  Here, the Noriko character is a single daughter who has no interest in marriage, an unwillingness to leave her widowed, professor father (played by frequent Ozu collaborator Chrishu Ryu) matched only by her complacency within a lifestyle that simply cannot continue.

Naturally, the film features many of the elements that are now considered Ozu’s stylistic trademarks.  Late Spring opens with several shots of a train station, transportation no doubt symbolizing the necessity of moving forward in one’s life.  Nearly every shot in the film is absolutely static, Ozu notorious for his lack of camera movement.  Meanwhile, the director also keeps his camera very close to the ground, this low angle toying with observational perspective as few had done before.  In context, the camera almost operates as a mediator.  When characters are having a conversation, medium shots will often display the actors looking almost directly into the lens, first transferring their dialogue through the device that has been utilized to capture it.  Overall, Late Spring is a film of several cuts, in part because of Ozu’s frequent utilization of still shots cut in successive rhythm, often of locations (empty spaces and corridors, in particular), that serve as transitions between scenes.  There are moments when Ozu will even linger on a room for several seconds after the characters have departed, the locations of such events just as fascinating to Ozu as those who partake within them.

But what is most prevalent in Late Spring is his examination of societal customs and Americanization, found within a country torn and confused by a world war.  Japanese children are observed playing baseball, Noriko’s unseen suitor is said to look like Gary Cooper, and a Coca-Cola sign is infamously shown in the foreground of one particular shot.  Noriko, having suffered an ambiguous “illness” throughout those years of war, is now unbelievably cheerful, but her mood is threatened as “late spring” (she is now 27) prompts others to arrange a marriage for her.  Noriko has no interest in marriage, only conceding when her father lies about a future remarriage.  Yet it is a fib that will help her forget about the loneliness she most desperately fears for him, notions of change for herself remaining the most terrifying of all.

This confusion of what is socially proper is especially relevant when the film is presented for American audiences.  The concept of “arranged marriage” is used to overthrow Western expectations (complemented by Ozu’s “anti-Hollywood” camerawork), simply by displaying how it could become necessary.  Noriko would never be able to surpass this stage of life if not for the efforts of her father, thus providing a differing viewpoint of  “foreign” customs.  Meanwhile, Noriko’s father uses remarriage as a conceptual alternative to loneliness, an idea that Noriko first finds repulsive, but gradually understands as the concept comes to apply to her own father’s happiness.  His decision to not remarry is a symbol of undying love for his daughter, rewarding her devotion with the means of transferring his remaining life to her.  Although Noriko may wish to remain with her father forever, she must now give all of her love to a new husband, if she hopes to forge new life.  As she is told by the man who raised her – “Happiness isn’t something you wait around for.  It’s something you create yourself.”  Completely representative of the era in which it was made, Late Spring is a prime example of a time and place when creation was utterly necessary.  In a period of muddled values, Ozu displayed that the cycle of life must take us all, no matter what scale of unfortunate circumstance.

Ten years later, Ozu would remake another of his own pictures, his silent film A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).  Floating Weeds, the vividly colored counterpart, is as prominent to the conclusion of the Japanese golden age as Late Spring is to its commencement.  Photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, it is highly interesting to note the extent to which the Rashomon (1950) cinematographer (who composed Kurosawa’s film with sweeping tracking shots) adopts the solidified structure of Ozu’s shot composition.  There is only one camera movement in the film (which remains the only instance in any of Ozu’s color pictures), occurring soon after the opening sequence, which in similar fashion to Late Spring, displays a key location (via a series of still shots) within the film’s psychological narrative.  Only in this case, the area is a harbor, which brings lead actor Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his ragtag troupe of “floating weeds” to the town of his former mistress (Haruko Sugimura) and son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who has been led to believe that Komajuro is his uncle.  Complications ensue when the actor’s current mistress (Machiko Kyo) comes to discover exactly whom Komanjuro has been visiting, and sends a young actress in the troupe (Ayako Wakao) to draw Kiyoshi away from him.

Floating Weeds features stylistic aspects that are nearly identical to Early Spring (including similar opening titles, and more apparent violations of the 180 degree rule), repeated themes (i.e. loneliness), and a greater emphasis on Japan’s post-war class system.  Komajuro plays the “role” of an uncle, rather than a father, not only because it is easier, but because he does not want his son of enormous potential to be associated with someone so low on the country’s social strata.  Ultimately, in order to heal the pain such a decision has caused, this is one gig he may have to play forever.  The question then becomes whether his son can still be successful if he is associated with those of lower class.

Ozu, as he did in Late Spring, never gives us a direct answer, although the film features a line that allows us to form not an opinion, but as in many of Ozu’s other films, the opportunity to empathize and understand.  As Komajuro departs, as he has several times before, he tells his son’s mother with lingering hope – “Next time I come back here, I’ll be a good actor he can be proud of.”  Like Kurosawa, in addition to the other directors who helped define the Japanese golden age, these two films made it evident that no matter how rigidly he controlled his performers, Yasujirō Ozu was not an actor, himself.  Instead, he was an artist directly out of his time, fit for a country that needed a man to capture such true colors (or blacks, greys, and whites) of the world surrounding him.

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