First published by Little White Lies
As surely as one season leads to the next, Ozu Yasujiro’s Early Summer begins more or less where his earlier Late Spring ended, with an image of waves washing against the beach near Kamakura – and that is not the only continuity between the two films. For both star Hara Setsuko as a woman (named Noriko) under pressure to get married, both feature the recurring line “time flies”, and both gently observe how the clash of tradition and modernity affects the structure of a family.
Yet just as every wave, though made of the same water, is different from the last, Early Summer also offers variations on Late Spring, for all their thematic similarity. This time Noriko lives in an extended and busy household of three generations, Ryu Chishu plays her stern older brother Koichi instead of her aging father, and in keeping with the shift in seasons, there is a comic lightness to the proceedings – even if, as the film draws towards its conclusion, we become increasingly aware of autumn’s chilly approach.
While her old schoolfriends are getting hitched one by one, 28-year-old Noriko seems married only to her close-knit family and her secretarial job in the city. “It’s not that I can’t,” as she explains to Koichi when he raises the subject of marriage, “I could in a minute, if I wanted.” Sure enough, as her family looks to a wealthy 40-year-old associate of Noriko’s boss as a potential husband for her, Noriko impulsively agrees instead to wed childhood friend and widowed father Kenkichi (Nishon’yanagi Hiroshi), who is about to leave Kamakura for a medical posting in rural Akita. Noriko’s spur-of-the-moment decision, taken in the absence of both her family and Kenkichi himself, may reflect the new independence won by Japanese women in the post-war era, but Kenkichi, as both a local and a family friend, seems a more traditional choice in partner, prompting Noriko’s boss to call her “old-fashioned for a modern girl”. Her actions, for all their good intentions, will also lead inadvertently to the fragmentation of her family.
Two images cast long shadows over Early Summer. The first comprises the caged birds kept by Noriko’s father (Sugai Ichiro), which serve as a constant visual reminder of the restrictions placed on women in Japanese society – while the second is a child’s balloon floating free in the sky, figuring the loss that inevitably accompanies liberty. Like the balloon, Noriko will escape her bonds and fly, but in so doing will leave behind a trail of sorrow and tears. It is what makes this otherwise joyous comedy come with such a bitter aftertaste. “We’ve been really happy”, as Noriko’s mother (Higashiyama Chieko) states at the film’s end. Note that perfect tense – in Ozu’s world, happiness may at times be celebrated, but it is also defined by its impermanence.