Favorite Movies A-Z: Early Summer

A superficial critique of Ozu would likely focus on how many of his films appear to be the same plot recycled over and over. While he did remake one of his silent films near the end of his life, for the most part he would use similar plots to explore the different elements and perspectives of the family members in similar situations.

Also like many of his other films, this stars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara. Though in a few years Ryu will play Hara’s father, here the versatile actor is instead her older brother. Hara is a young woman living with her older brother and his family as well as their parents. Ryu plays a doctor with a small local practice. The key plot element similar to many other Ozu films is the family’s concern to arrange a good marriage for her before it’s too late.

Such concerns are quite likely growing ever more strange to modern audiences, but the desire to find/form new familial bonds (though now so often without the sanctity of marriage) will likely always be a universal impulse. Hara is growing older, into her late 20s, and her family is becoming concerned that she might miss her opportunity for marriage entirely. The search for a suitor is more of a family affair, though the decision ultimately rests on Hara. A handsome (“He looks like Gary Cooper!”), successful, somewhat older businessman is found and all seems in order. In spite of Hara’s lack of enthusiasm she seems willing and recognizes the wisdom of her family’s urging her to marry. That is, until an unusual circumstance permits her to make a spontaneous and unconventional choice.

The greatness of Ozu, as I will never tire of repeating, is found in significant part in the clarity and roundness of his minor and supporting characters. Hara’s best friend, who is divorced, her older brother and sister-in-law, her parents, and even her brother’s friends from work are given a rich depth despite their limited screen time. Some of the most touching moments come from the parents and their conversations about their life. They consider the happy and sad elements as well as what the future might still hold.

There is also a particularly poignant moment in the middle of the movie where the recent war is discussed. At this distance it is difficult to remember how large World War II must have loomed over everything. It is shocking to get a sense for how common it was that families just wouldn’t know what had happened to their loved ones. The contrast and conflict between hope and acceptance filtered through stereotypical Japanese stoicism is heart-breaking.

Unlike other notable Ozu movies, say Late Spring and Tokyo Story, this ends on a happier note. It is not storybook, nor Hollywood happy, but upbeat nonetheless. Instead of closing with the struggle and loneliness that is sometimes an inevitable part of life, we conclude with the bittersweet joy of being reminded that life carries on despite the changes we encounter.

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