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Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.

In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures the imminent departure of the daughter, and the country’s irrevocable advance towards modernisation (the picture was shot during the Occupation of Japan). Its corresponding sequence shows the father and daughter, the latter visibly shaken by the prospect of her father’s potential remarriage, first walking side by side primly in a parallel line, until the daughter suddenly derails and walks out of the shot, symbolically withdrawing herself from the domestic skein within which she and her father have been for years blissfully tangled. 

In a sense, the allusiveness of those scenes heightens the void which is specifically left, it seems, for the evoked response of the audience. Japanese cinema of pre-1940s had allowed little inter-penetrability between the director, his film and the audience; although during the silent film era, a benshi would be employed in providing live narration for the audience, making movie-going an experience analogous to that of attending a live concert. The benshi is therefore the tenuous linkage that connects the audience and the picture, making way for a more open communion that transcends their innate incommensurability. But by guiding the audience through the storyline of a film, as is the main purpose of benshi, any intention of thus breaking the barrier between the visual and the actual is preceded by the audience, in its collectivity, allowing itself to be assimilated by the combinational force of the director and his film. Ultimately the audience remains unmoved from their outsider stance, though the distance between them and that what unfolds before them seems ostensibly diminished when the film is being explained away.

But, as with Late Spring and the majority of Ozu’s latter films, to acknowledge the indelible demarcation between film and audience and, even in the occasions when these two distinct domains momentarily touch, to engage the audience without sacrificing originality for entertainment, there occurs another sense of abstractness that, initially, conceals beneath the spurious expansiveness with which artistic liberation is often asserted. The audience are yet totally free from the dictatorship of the director, whose views and visions they may dispute but rarely with any success, and whose invisible presence looms in every scene. To appreciate Ozu’s film demands a readiness to submit to its deceptive congeniality.

The dominant concern of Late Spring is essentially what Sigmund Freud posits in Civilization and Its Discontents: the irreconcilable conflict between man’s desire for absolute happiness and the imperative need to conform to societal expectations. Submissiveness is the key to living a life with relative happiness: the father, suppressing despite himself the mixed feelings of marrying off his only daughter, preaches often man’s duty of creating happiness with a new life he forges, a happiness that must necessarily subject to certain compromises and unhappiness. Whilst Freud commends a resigned acceptance of man’s futility of attaining perfect contentment in life, the father in Late Spring urges an extreme stoicism that places human happiness as secondary to social obligation: reproaching his daughter for her desire to continue living and caring for him as a spinster, the father considers “selflessness” a requisite for leading a life as proper to custom and the order of history. 

The subsequent unfolding of events proves that selflessness is also requisite in securing happiness, not of one’s own but of the other’s. After his daughter’s wedding, the father confesses to a friend that he lied about his willingness to remarry so that his daughter would resign to her marriage plan. He returns home alone; forlornly he picks up an apple and starts peeling it. 

Ozu returns this ending sequence to an unalloyed humanism that, for once in the film, is not constrained by the primacy of humility: the peel of the apple grows longer and longer until it finally divorces from the fruit, like the eventual parting of every child and his parents. The father’s simple act of selflessness cost him his own happiness, a happiness that, however, is never truly lost nor gained.


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