“Late Spring” and the Blossoming of Ozu and Hara
Late Spring is a revolutionary film.
Its director, sometimes referred to as the “most Japanese director of all time”, and star are both Japanese icons, though the duo are rarely viewed as a revolutionary combination. Yet, Late Spring was made during a period in Japan’s history after World War II when American forces occupied the country. The American-backed censor made sure films coming out of Japan shy-ed away from subject matter that glorified the politics and culture of pre-war Japan. Additionally, the censor wanted new films to include Western cultural themes and icons whenever possible. (A famous example in Late Spring of the American/Western influence is the Coca-Cola sign in a scene where two characters go for a bike ride).
Art created in this atmosphere of strict oversight is usually watered-down versions of what the artist or artists intend. But, when an artist is talented enough, their creations made within this context can be subtle, smart and highly influential for years and artists to come.
That is Late Spring — a beautiful and powerful film that features obvious and subtle themes, nuanced performances and a director who began seeing the power behind his style. Though highly recognized at the time, Late Spring sometimes gets overlooked by today’s audiences. While the conversation over the superiority of films is fun, Late Spring is a clear starting point to a new kind of storytelling and served as the launching point for two great stars to film immortality.
By World War II’s end in 1945, Yasujirō Ozu was already into his third decade of making films. Though Late Spring would see Ozu enter a new “phase” of his career, he was already a film veteran by the time of its release. For most of this life, films and filmmaking were at the center of his life.
Born in 1903, Ozu grew up at the movies, taking in films from around the world. The Last Days of Pompeii (1913), an Italian silent film about the explosion of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii in 79 AD, and Civilization (1916), an American drama about a submarine commander who refuses orders to destroy a civilian ship, are just two of the films that left an impression on a young Ozu. Unsuccessful in scholarly endeavors, somewhat due to him regularly skipping classes to go to theaters, Ozu failed the entrance exams to institutions of higher learning — such as Kobe University. Life was meddling about to unimportance. All the while, Ozu knew he loved filmmaking.
In 1923, thanks to an uncle who helped back him, Ozu was hired as an assistant at the Shochiku Film Company. He bounced around departments and by 1927 was making films of his own. His oldest surviving film is Days of Youth (1929), which tells the story of two men trying to win the affections of a woman — a very standard film trope. The films he saw in theaters, despite the run-of-the-mill plots and direction, influenced Ozu. Without formal film school training, each film Ozu watched and worked on was his education. This self-education allowed him to narratively and stylistically tinker with his films. Watching his early work is as if watching Ozu working through film school. With consistent work, Ozu soon developed a style, established a trusting relationship with people behind the scenes and had his favorite “troop” of actors.
When war came to Japan in the 1930s, Ozu found himself conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army. While in the army, films remained a central part of Ozu’s life. He saw as many as he could (like Citizen Kane) and was pegged by the army to direct propaganda films. Up until the end of World War II, Ozu continues to try styles and tones for his films. He featured stories and motifs that he enjoyed in the films he saw in theaters. Most of his early work are comedies, though some are now lost. Ozu made 39 films before 1945 and 19 are either completely lost or have parts missing.
After the war, Ozu began turning his attention inward to his country and to the people he knew. His films began to reflect a modern Japan. By 1949, the shift in his style and stories is apparent in films such as There Was a Father (1942) and A Hen in the Wind (1948), but something was missing. Ozu needed help to connect the introspective stories and scripts he was now fond of telling with the right emotional acting on screen.
Then, Yasujirō Ozu met Setsuko Hara.
Born Masae Aida in 1920, Setsuko Hara would become Japan’s “Eternal Virgin” and one of the most popular film stars of her day. Her work with Ozu propelled her to incredible stardom, and it is those films most today recognize. But, by 1949, Hara had already starred in 67 films. She was not a discovery to Ozu, Japan or to those in-tune with Japanese cinema at the time. However, it was Ozu who realized Hara’s ability to capitalize on a different type of role for women that became a “new normal” in 1940s Japan and beyond.
Introduced to the world of filmmaking by Hisatora Kumagai, her brother-in-law and a film director, Hara dropped out of school and began appearing in films at the age of 15. One of her first major roles was in the film The Daughter of the Samurai (1937), where she plays a fiancee who tries to throw herself into a volcano. Similar roles of the “tragic heroine” became normal for Hara up until the end of World War II.
After the war, Hara found herself working with Akira Kurosawa, who would go on to be Japan’s most beloved and most well-known director. She starred in his film No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), a film about a young woman trying to find her place in post-war Japan. Kurosawa’s film gave Hara a chance to break out of stereotypical roles and use her talents as an actress to challenge herself and audiences.
“She acted with real passion, and was an impressive leading lady, and her popularity started to soar. She always appeared on screen as an intelligent, refined, elegant, serious, young lady. She was untouched by social revolutions in Japanese postwar life, and in that depressed period her enchanting smile seemed to give people consolation and hope for a better future.” — James Kirkup in The Independent
As Hara continued to make films and slowly see her roles become more complex, Ozu, along with longtime writing partner Kogo Noda, decided to make a film that focused on the struggle middle-class families were facing in the current, American-occupied Japan. He felt strongly in a style and tone that was uniquely his own, and, along with Noda, believed they had something to say. Along with his focus on the Japanese family unit, Ozu zeroed in on the strong-willed women that were vital to a family’s identity.
Late Spring stars Setsuko Hara and Chishū Ryū, another Ozu veteran, as a daughter and father who are learning how to deal with their shifting gender and familial roles in late-1940s Japan. Shukichi (played by Ryū) is a widowed father hoping that his daughter Noriko (played by Hara) will marry and begin a family of her own. Tensions between the two flare up when Noriko has reservations about herself marrying (especially an arranged marriage) and that her father might remarry. Slowly, Noriko realizes the depth of either of those massive personal changes. On the surface, Late Spring seems like a simple melodrama, but Ozu ensures the film is radically different. The focus of the “story” (and Ozu’s interest) is not on the action of the plot; rather, the focus is on the action of the film’s characters.
Marriage is the central theme pushing Late Spring. Noriko (unmarried) and Shukichi (widowed) are both happy and content with their lives at the beginning of the film. As the idea for Noriko to marry or, as the film progresses, for her father to re-marry, this “marriage” between father and daughter begins to crack. The changing structure of this family — and families across Japan — is coupled with the country’s changing global identity.
First, Ozu has to set up the context of 1949 Japan. This is a world where modernity and tradition try to co-exist. More often than not, these ideals clash. Late Spring begins with Ozu setting the scene with iconography the audience might associate with Japan: gardens, its distinct architecture and a tea ceremony. But Ozu’s subtleness is one of his greatest assets, especially when getting to the heart of his themes. Noriko, who is introduced at the opening tea ceremony, is carrying a more modern purse — along with many of the women at this ceremony. As they began to chat about their daily routines and lives, the audience sees the women — especially Noriko — as worldly women and not tied down to traditional Japanese customs, as it may appear. They take part in these customs out of respect. But, more importantly to the characters, the tea ceremony gives them a chance to socialize. This scene could take place in a modern 1940s coffee shop and not lose any real “plot” purpose, but Ozu wants to show that it is hard to transition from tradition. Regardless of how modern Noriko or the others want to be, the old ways still cling on. Nevertheless, the modern world creeps in, and Noriko is much more than she appears.
As Noriko, Setsuko Hara blossoms on-screen. Donald Richie, an author of Japanese culture, describes Hara as “sensual and innocent” — a friendly face to anyone that strikes up a conversation with her. Hara’s skill at dominating the screen is a compliment of her on-screen presence. She is beautiful, yes, but Hara understands the complex emotional experiences of Noriko and brings those nuanced emotions to her performance. With a simple look, gesture or smile, the audience is in-tune with Noriko’s true inner thoughts — something the screenplay is not sharing.
Early in Late Spring, Hara presents Noriko as if she has a step on others. She knows things and is a gatherer of information to make decisions on her own accord. On top of that, there is a wisp of independence about Noriko, which is clear to any observer who watches the way Hara sits, moves and communicates. Hara as Noriko is “feminine but strong, often traditional in dress but attracted to modern ways; part of a family unit but independent in spirit. For Ozu, Hara effectively embodies the complex position of modern Japan between its rich cultural heritage and its central role in the post-World War II global economy,” writes Jerome Delamater. Gone are the days of Hara being a “tragic heroine”.
Soon after meeting these two central characters, Noriko is introduced to the possibility of getting married. Ozu does not reveal anything bluntly, and the audience does not know what Noriko’s initial thoughts are toward marriage or her feelings toward Hattori (played by Jun Usami), the man her aunt and father believe is a good match for marriage. She is polite and friendly, but also knows in 1949 she does not have to marry for the sake of getting married — or because her father thinks her doing so is a good idea.
At first, Noriko and Hattori flirt. The two bike ride to a beach, which is followed later with Hattori asking Nokrio to join him at a concert. Hara seems happy to be asked but refuses. Is she playing hard to get? Or does she want nothing more than friendship? Hara and Ozu leave it up for the audience to decide and discuss. The genius of that scene at that moment is that both possibilities could be argued. The ability to convey her independent spirit and not have it come off as demeaning or rude is a credit to the skill of Hara as an actress. She makes decisions for herself, but is always diplomatic. When Noriko and her father talk about Hattori following their time together, Hara reveals she can not marry Hattori. When Shukichi asks why, Noriko informs her father that Hattori is already engaged — something that shocks Shukichi and the audience. That particular road Ozu was leading us down takes a sudden left turn, opening the door for anything to happen. As Ozu loves to show, life is full of uncertainties.
As the film progresses, the audience begins to see Noriko’s changing opinions about her possible marriage and her father re-marrying. When Noriko learns that her father might re-marry soon, her demeanor changes. In one of the most iconic scenes in Late Spring, Noriko and Shukichi attend a traditional Noh play (again blending the worlds between modern and traditional). Amidst the performance, Shukichi silently nods to Mrs. Miwa (who, at that point in the film, he possibly could re-marry) and Noriko notices. Hara’s cold look and defeated bowing of her head tells the audience everything. Noriko is sad to learn that her relationship with her father is changing. In the end, it does not matter if she marries or he re-marries. Change is coming. Is she jealous? No. She intends no ill-will toward Mrs. Miwa. But, her sudden change in demeanor suggests a sadness for the changing nature of the world around her. Noriko believes she is the only one who knows her father and struggles to let go of her maternal instincts with him. Her disappointment allows Ozu to show that despite all the worldly and modern instincts Noriko has, caring for her father is her last link to a more conservative and traditional life. This transition away from the past, which Noriko usually welcomes, is harder to grasp when her family is involved.
In a scene where the performance on-stage dominates what is heard, the audience sees all the information they need. Dialogue is unnecessary. Hara’s understanding that her character’s discontent for the possible break-up of their family dynamic is seen — silently and powerfully — by her slight movements and enraged glare.
There are no shouting matches or on-the-nose dialogue; Setsuko Hara says it all with her performance.
There are no great performances without a master behind the camera, and, with Late Spring, Ozu is clicking on all cylinders. Throughout his career up until this point, Ozu’s films toyed with different styles and themes, ultimately perfecting a visual style that was his own. Late Spring is decades of trial and error on style, story and tone — as they finally come together and mesh brilliantly.
Ozu and his films relish in the “texture of lives” over action and explore the emotional depth of characters and situations. To modern audiences, his films are slow and Late Spring is no exception. Some critique his films as stories where “nothing happens”. Generally, there are scenes of breakfast, followed by a scene of a walk and then the characters might meet back at home. Many see these scenes as nothing. Ozu sees the emergence of one’s true “self”.
Late Spring features all the trademarks of an Ozu film. There are no obvious transitions, as scenes either cut directly or Ozu shows various random places or objects to tell the audience time has passed in the story. There are establishing shots, but they are comprised of little to no context. On a basic level, this is how Ozu punctuated his films. Digging deeper, he is trying to immerse the audience even more by grabbing one’s attention and making us think.
In Late Spring, two of the most important aspects of an Ozu film are on full display: his unique style of showing conversation and his choice of not showing any of the major moments of the story. For Ozu’s first time in his already long career, style, story and performance come together to give the director his first masterpiece.
First, the latter. There are no major conversations between characters where they give the audience much internal thought. (There are no Oscar-baity scenes where characters are yelling — “You can’t handle the truth!” or sobbing during a moment of grief). The audience figures out how the characters feel to plot points by their gestures, tone and activity on-screen. When Noriko and Shukichi finally understand that marriage for both is accepted by each other, Ozu goes from a scene where Noriko is internally sad to a scene where both are going through their morning rituals and talking happily to one another. Their understanding is seen through their cordial morning conversation. This style is hard to describe, but the transitions and jumping from scene to scene feels natural when watching. The plot is driven by these collections of scenes where the audience sees how the larger story affects each character’s everyday routines and moods, rather than showing the specific plot points.
Late Spring teases Nokiro’s possible marriage throughout its entirety, and, when the day finally comes, Ozu chooses to show us a conversation between Nokiro and Shukichi (to provide closure) leading up to the actual wedding. But, the audience never sees the wedding, nor does the audience see the groom. Our sense of the groom comes from the descriptions and actions of Noriko, her father and others. (The audience is told the groom looks like Gary Cooper). By not showing the wedding or the groom, Ozu reiterates that “plot” is not important. There are major story points in the film that show characterization in Noriko and Shukichi; but, Ozu feels showing those points — like the wedding — is cheating. The real story is sticking with our two central characters. Ozu finds more interest in learning and processing their lives through the characters internally.
Ozu leaves a plethora of ways to read Late Spring and Hara does the same with her performance. Does Noriko chose this marriage as an independent woman (even with her aunt and her father playing Cupid) or is this a marriage she just learns to accept? Ozu never gives the audience a straight answer, which is an enticing puzzle to solve when watching Late Spring. The idea of not giving the audience straight information, and having the audience figure out these characters through the performances of the actors is a signature trait Ozu masters in Late Spring.
Visually, the most prominent aspect of an Ozu film is the way he shoots scenes, especially dialogue. It is an aesthetic choice, sure, but the technique also allows Ozu to emphasize his stories on the actors and their performances. How the characters interact with one another — physically — and where the camera is at any given moment is wonderfully Ozu.
Ozu wanted the audience to get the full effect of his characters, rejecting conventional shooting styles that dominated films coming out of Hollywood and Western Europe. Usually, when a scene featured dialogue between people, the audience sees an “over-the-shoulder” shot where part of the person not speaking — usually their shoulder — is seen in the frame. In an Ozu film, the entire person speaking is in the frame and looking directly at the camera. Late Spring was not the first of Ozu’s films to feature this style, but the director always tried to improve and strengthen the power of these shots. With the powerful and subtle performances from Ryū and Hara, this style of shooting dialogue takes center stage. Ryū’s calm demeanor and Hara’s radiant smile dominant the screen. In shooting as such, Ozu strengthens the performances of his actors by making them as focal to the frame (and our attention) as possible. The technique furthers connects the audience with the performances, as it seems the actors are talking directly to us.
Simply, Ozu makes talking the action.
Ozu allows the audience to even further be a witness to his stories with his other favorite camera set-up — the “tatami shot”. Usually, the camera is set low, as if a person is kneeling on a tatami mat — as the characters do so in many Ozu films. (This is another reason for those who see Ozu as the ultimate Japanese director, since tatami mats are a staple in Japanese culture. This kind of camera set-up further links Ozu to the culture). And, if the shot is not directly on a character speaking, most of the time the always static camera is pulled away from the characters and the audience sees them through frames of doorways or hallways. With this specific camera set-up, the audience feels as if a member of the household and a part of these conversations.
These “hallway” scenes allow Ozu to tell us plot information or give more of a clue to what Noriko or Shukichi are feeling. In a scene towards the end of the film, Noriko’s aunt tells Shukichi of Noriko finally agreeing to marry. As we watch the conversation end between the two, Shukichi walks the aunt to the door — the entire time the camera sits in a hallway away from the door. As Shukichi says good-bye and realizes that Noriko finally marrying means there is an emptiness to their relationship, Shukichi steps out of frame. Ozu lingers on the emptiness, telling the audience that this home that used to house warmth and love — with a father and daughter echoing those feelings — now has turned into an empty place. And, most importantly, Shukichi is feeling the emptiness inside himself. In another scene toward the beginning of the film, Noriko is cheerfully talking about marriage and life with her aunt. She gets up to leave and we see her quietly walking through the dark hallways of the house. Ozu is giving us Noriko’s mindset — her attitude toward marriage is dark and depressing — without any direct dialogue.
The results are powerful.
Late Spring ushered in a new era for Ozu and Hara. Throughout his career, Ozu searched for a style and direction suited for his talents. By focusing on the family structure in a post World War II setting (allowing him to compare and contrast the traditional Japanese family with a more modern one), Ozu strung together his most beloved run of films. Though he had been working with Ryu since 1928, in Late Spring Ozu found a new muse with Setsuko Hara. From 1949 until his death in 1963, Ozu made 13 films — six of which starred Hara. Those six are among his most beloved.
Late Spring began a loose trilogy now known as the “Noriko trilogy”. Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) both feature Hara playing a character named Noriko, though the characters are different and unrelated. In Early Summer, Hara plays a character who wants to get married even without her family’s approval. In Tokyo Story, Hara plays a widow and her devotion to her dead husband worries her in-laws, who insist she move on. In all three of her Noriko performances, Hara skillfully understands the emotional weight of each role, yet her strong, independent nature is clear in all her performances. And marriage remains a central theme to Ozu and Hara’s collaboration.
In 1957, Ozu and Hara came together again with Tokyo Twilight, following that film with Late Autumn (1960) and their final work together The End of Summer (1961). The foundation set in Late Spring is echoed in all their films, most notably in Tokyo Story — which tops poll after poll of the best world cinema has to offer. However, this first collaboration sets the tone and the blueprint for what is to come. It is Ozu perfecting his style; it is Hara bursting into a film star.
Their connection and talents on-screen are without question. What that meant off-screen has been open for speculation. Ozu and Hara both never married, though rumors swirl about a possible romantic relationship. Most believe that rumor is unfounded. But, by all accounts, the two were very close.
In 1962, Hara starred in Chūshingura, a period drama directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. It was her last starring role. The following year, in 1963, Yasujirō Ozu died of throat cancer. Despite having two smaller roles after Ozu’s death, Hara quit acting and all public appearances. She retired to Kamakura — where Late Spring takes place and where Ozu shot a great number of his films. Her closeness to Ozu is unquestioned, and her sudden retirement makes the films they did together so much more important. Their films together offer a glimpse into an actor and director whose life contains mystery.
For the rest of her life, Setsuko Hara lived alone in a house, close to Ozu’s grave, until her death in 2015.
For years, the press tried to get exclusive interviews to further question her decision to quit. In a press conference shortly after retiring, Hara mentioned she only acted to help support her “extended family”. In 1992, a reporter for the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun somehow got Hara on the phone. The conversation was short and brief.
“I was not the only star shining,” Hara told the reporter, “Back then, everyone was shining.”