This post-“Tokyo Story” drama may be one of Ozu’s longest endeavours, but it is also a superb if anomalous (at least of his later works) effort that centers on a young, salaried man tackling career and marriage.
Dir. Yasujiro Ozu
1956 | Japan | Drama | 145 mins | 1.33:1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be PG13)
Cast: Chikage Awashima, Ryo Ikebe, Teiji Takahashi, Chishu Ryu
Plot: A young man and his wife struggle within the confines of their passionless relationship while he has an extramarital romance.
Subject Matter: Moderate/Life-Affirming
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Eclipse DVD – first published 8 Aug 2016)
So many superlatives have been directed at Ozu for decades, particularly towards his masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953), that sometimes they obscure the works that immediately come before or after it.
Early Spring is that hidden gem, made three years after—quite the long gap for a prolific filmmaker who made a feature every year from 1947 to 1953, and 1956 to 1962. He passed away in 1963, aged 60.
Early Spring, as its name suggests, centers on the young, literally in the spring of their lives. We are acquainted with a couple. They have been married for a few years—Shoji (Ryo Ikebe), the husband, is a salaryman working in a large Japanese corporation, while his wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima), stays at home and tends to his needs.
We soon discover their marriage is passionless and the daily doldrums of work and chores soon take their toll. A flirty typist, nicknamed Goldfish (Keiko Kishi) for her large, bulgy eyes, seduces Shoji, who has an extramarital affair with her. It is a typical story of adultery, but under the hands of Ozu, it transforms into something more than the sum of its parts.
Through the lead characters and a myriad of other supporting characters, Ozu tells us in the foreground the struggles of an unhappy couple, and in the background Japan’s uncompromising post-war modernization, in a bid to exorcise the ghosts of WWII through the pursuit of technological progress.
In one sequence, a reunion of ex-soldiers provides a happy drinking refuge for these salaried workers or odd-job labourers, yet the gathering is steeped in feelings of lament and resignation, not just about the war, but also about life.
The performances are typically restrained, with Ozu developing the dynamics of each relationship expertly. Towards the end, we get a flurry of emotions. I have to be honest, a couple of moments made me weep—one involves the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at a different gathering (notice how Ozu has timed the entrance of a key character perfectly), and the other is the entire epilogue (oh boy, how I love Ozu’s reference to trains).
Early Spring may be one of the director’s longest endeavours, running nearly 2.5 hours in length, but it is a superb film that says a lot about bits of everything that make up life without saying too much.
It is also an anomalous effort in Ozu’s career, at least of his later works. For once, there is no strong authoritative or parental figure—a mainstay in much of the director’s filmography. Early Spring is not about life lived. It’s about a life to be lived.