Yasujirô Ozu is notorious for his slow-paced family dramas and the explorations of profound human emotions through the seemingly mundane plots. Late Spring is no different. The plot revolves around the daily life of an elderly professor and his unmarried and firmly devoted daughter. The majority of the action takes place within the confines of their house and the words “I am home” are heard as often say the characters’ own names.
However, this house is not a mere setting or accessory to Ozu’s drama, it is its nucleus. Noriko does not merely reject marriage due to her concern for her father, but also due to her deep attachment to her home and lifestyle. Her resolution – “I am happy just as I am” – is a testament to her father’s later advice that “Happiness is something that you create yourself”. Noriko’s happiness is created through her home and through the objects and rituals associated with it. To break these little routines and traditions would lead to the dispelling of an atmosphere of leisure and familiar comfort.
Noriko’s identity is deeply established in the quotidian. She cooks and she cleans, rejects an offer to go to an art gallery in favour of buying sewing needles and goes on long journeys into central Tokyo. We as an audience accompany her throughout the day, standing alongside her in the train carriage for not an insignificant period of screen time. Yet, just like Noriko, we do not resent this daily grind. When she smiles we smile with her, for her comfort and satisfaction are infectious in the most delightful of ways.
Visually, Late Spring appears to be a love letter to the everyday. Like most of Ozu’s films, it prominently features various locations within the household. These shots are not gratuitous, but carry within them the warmth and comfort of the atmosphere which inhabits the film. Noriko and her father move about this space with ease and gentle purpose. Indeed, they truly inhabit it and we as an audience are guests in their house, overseeing the little details of daily life – like the professor cutting his toe nails – that make this film intrinsically human.
Nevertheless, this idyll cannot be appreciated without its context. It is important to remember that the year is 1949 and Japan is still reeling from the war. While Noriko herself does not speak of her war time experiences, others around her slip us morsels of information. We become aware that Noriko had already been separated from her home and was made to carry sacks of potatoes on her back among other physical labours, which resulted in an illness. With this information compliments such as “You are looking healthy and plump” take on a slightly sinister colouring, for they are pointed reminders of war time trauma, loss and starvation.
Indeed, it is impossible to see Japan in this film without the implications of the war. American presence is subtle yet pervasive. From practical aspects of the occupation such as English language road signs and English trained typists and secretaries, to the wonders of the American market with its multitude of Coca Cola advertisement, fancy cafés and even fancier movie idols, America and the West are an indisputable part of Japanese existence. It is a bitter sweet fusion; a new status quo for which the Japanese paid a heavy price. Nevertheless, the traditional way of life is still maintained. The film opens with a tea ceremony, climaxes at a Kabuki performance and ends with a traditional wedding. It becomes apparent that while the American influences are indisputable, it is Japanese tradition that prevails.
Noriko straddles the two worlds; the worlds of pre-war and post-war Japan. This balancing act – along with her traumatic war time experiences – make her cling onto the comfort of her current existence. The change that comes with getting married and leaving home is subconsciously equated with the change caused by the war. I do not think that Noriko is necessarily allied to “old Japan” as opposed to “new Japan”. True, she seems to be more at ease with her father’s generation than with her self-sufficient, divorcée friend Aya. However, what Noriko seeks is the isolated comfort of the in-between. She defies tradition by refusing to marry, yet she seeks to fulfil her filial duty of looking after her father. Her world is a world of contradiction and change where happiness is both attainable and evasive. In this world, there is only one certainty that is the quotidian, and it is this that Noriko does not want to part with.