Tuesday, 1 February 2011

AFED #32: Banshun [Late Spring] (Japan, 1949); Dir. Yasujiro Ozu

I'm starting to wonder why I'm doing this. Every day I'm putting myself through the wringer to watch films and write some very average material, and while I'm grateful to anybody who does take the time to read it I'm not sure I would in the same position.

Depression takes a hell of a lot out of you, all the best laid plans and ambitions feel like pissing in the wind and the world feels so cheap and tawdry. You want to believe it's a good place but down here in the foothills (or is it the gutter?) it's difficult to see very much.

Then there's my choice of films, as the point has been made to me that I could attract a lot more visitors and general interest in what I'm doing if I reviewed more mainstream material; the kind of stuff the average moviegoer is interested in. Yet aren't there thousands of other sites and blogs doing exactly the same thing? What does it profit a man if he gains more visitors but loses his soul?

No, better to plough a lonely furrow than be a cog in a marketing machine. It's not that I won't do the commercial, contemporary films occasionally, but there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Hollywood's philosophy.

Things like the work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Tokyo Story I've long counted amongst my favourite films. For whatever reason I've never attempted to watch any more of his canon until now, which is my loss because Late Spring is a sublime meditation on love and duty.


It's the first of what would be called Ozu's 'Noriko Trilogy', all of which star enigmatic actress Setsuko Hara as three different characters named Noriko.

In this Noriko is the devoted daughter to widowed father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). Noriko has thus far resisted marriage but pressure is growing from Shukichi's sister to find her a husband. When it seems that Shukichi himself may be about to remarry, Noriko feels she has no alternative but to enter into an effectively arranged marriage.

Ozu's work has a tranquility that would be entirely incomprehensible to most modern cinema patrons. His scenes are generally long with minimal editing and usually driven by dialogue rather than action. It would be quite possible to tell Late Spring's story in a quarter of the time and still retain some of the languor. Quite the opposite of pretentious, Ozu's approach has a meditative naturalism that absorbs us into the scene instead of merely presenting it to us.

The finest, and much acclaimed example of this comes when Noriko and her father attend a Noh performance. In this eight minute scene - delivered with no dialogue and accompanied by the dirge of the Noh performers - Noriko's mood is transformed from enjoyment to bitterness when she notices her Shukichi gesture to the woman he's been romantically linked with.

Hara is a remarkable actress with a gift for drawing you in to her characters' torments. Noriko's absolute adoration of her father and reluctance to be parted from him borders on the neurotic but that doesn't prevent us from sharing the pain. Chishu Ryu's more placid presence is the perfect foil and it's unsurprising Ozu used them in together in multiple films.

Ozu had the good fortune to be at the height of his powers when Japan was undergoing enormous transformation; the traditional values being supplanted by those of a de facto western nation. A few years later Noriko's recalcitrance towards marriage would not seem quite so strange while conversely her selfless devotion would perhaps seem conservative. The idea of arranged marriages may seem archaic to us now, but as the account of married life Shukichi relates to his daughter illustrates, it encouraged a more pragmatic attitude than exists today.

Now we live in a world where cheap thrills and immediate gratification are what seem to matter. It's not a place where Ozu's work sits comfortably and that's a great loss.

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