Late Spring (Banshun) (1949)

Late Spring (Banshun) first published by Little White Lies

Yasujiro Ozu‘s Late Spring opens just outside the Kita-Kamakura Station, a place of (locomotive) stasis and motion marked by a signpost written in both the local Japanese and the English of the recent occupiers, as a breeze stirs through the surrounding trees. 

This wind of change will bring with it Auntie Masa (Haruko Sugimura), whose well-meaning – and utterly traditional – concern with the unmarried status of her 27-year-old niece Noriko Somiya (Setsuko Hara, Early SummerTokyo Story) will lead to a great deal of quiet unhappiness. Noriko, you see, and her father, the widowed professor Shukichi (Chishu Ryu, Early Spring, Early SummerTokyo Story), are both quite content for their relationship, rooted in interdependence but also deep-seated love, to go on indefinitely, but they are also too polite, too respectful and too conventional to speak out very loudly against the pressures from Masa and society – while Shukichi is all too aware of his advancing years and his fatherly duty. So, in the end, Noriko will depart (by train) forever to an arranged marriage that she never really wanted, and Shukichi will stay behind to contemplate the loneliness and loss that he has himself helped engineer.

This may be essentially a human drama, written with great economy, performed with immense subtlety, and shot with the sedate restraint for which Ozu has become famous, but it is framed by poetic images from which humans are entirely absent, but which underscore the film’s thematic concern with time and change. There is the windswept train station at the beginning, and at the end the waves seen washing against a beach at night – the same beach where earlier Noriko had learnt that the man (Jun Usami) she actually wanted to marry had become engaged to another, younger woman. In another scene, when Noriko visits her thoroughly modern friend the divorcee stenographer Aya ( Yumeji Tsukioka) in her westernised home to discuss marriage and independence, Ozu keeps his camera running in an empty room as a grandfather clock chimes. 

“Time flies,” as Shukichi will put it as he holidays in Kyoto with Noriko. “We just came, and we’re already leaving.” It is this impermanence, both in relations and world history, that forms the film’s true subject – and it is Ozu’s ambivalence towards it, as though he wants both to board the train, and to stay on the platform, that ultimately gives Late Spring its bittersweet resonance.  

Summary: In this domestic drama, a post-war family’s unconventional disposition is revisited by the traditional imperative to marry, with bittersweet results. Lives are in flux, even as Ozu’s camera remains still.

© Anton Bitel