Late Spring

A young woman takes care of her widowed father. Everyone thinks that the daughter should get married. But the daughter is happy just taking care of her father. That is, until the father announces that he intends to remarry and the daughter is forced to make a decision.

And that’s it, that’s the plot of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring. Oh, there’s a third-act “surprise,” but plot isn’t really the point of Ozu’s films.

The polar opposite of Kurosawa’s operatic dramas and the popular samurai epics of the time, Ozu’s domestic dramas are minimalist, realist, quiet and reserved. In fact, they are in many ways about being reserved. Observational and behavioral in the extreme, they don’t feel like any other Japanese movies I know of. Instead they remind me of Austen and Chekhov, Raymond Carver and Jim Jarmusch.

Like Jarmusch, Ozu’s dramatic strategy sometimes takes a little getting used to. His films may appear to be “boring” for the first half-hour or so as you watch people in mid-20th-century Japan go about their daily lives, cooking and working and eating and gossiping. You’re waiting for the movie to start. Then, as the first act edges into the second and patterns start to repeat themselves, you begin to realize that you weren’t just watching random behavior, you were watching very specific, emblematic behavior, tiny little actions as simple as folding a napkin or raising a drinking glass that, if you had been paying attention, would have told you all you need to know about the characters you’ve been watching. Ozu’s dramas are, in fact, about the way tiny little actions become habit, habit becomes identity, and identity is threatened by change. And as you start to become aware of the “plot,” these tiny little actions start to take on more and more significance. So suddenly, the way someone walks or talks or eats a piece of cake becomes terribly important, as it may contain a vital clue to the character’s inner life, and by the middle half-hour you’re on tenterhooks trying to figure out if people are really saying what they mean, if they’re hiding some terrible secret, if they’re ever going to give their domineering parents what for, if they’re ever going to be happy. Then, by the third act, the accumulated drama, during which no one ever speaks above a conversational tone, invariably becomes almost unbearably moving. Then, typically, a character must face some sort of universal human truth, like, say, everyone has to grow up, or everyone has to pursue their own happiness, or everyone has to die. “That’s just the way human life is,” a character will often sigh near the end of an Ozu picture. And those ideas aren’t new or revelatory, but in the context of Ozu’s pictures they take on the weight of heartbreaking profundity.

Ozu, in addition to being a hugely skilled dramatist, has an utterly unique shooting style as well. He has, essentially, one setup: the camera at the eye-level of a person sitting cross-legged on the floor. This setup remains essentially unchanged whether it’s an interior, exterior, dialogue scene, action scene (well, “action” having a very tiny definition here — a stack of magazines sliding off a chair constitutes an “action” beat in Late Spring), even establishing shots will be shot from the same angle. He also rarely moves the camera at all. I can’t remember a single tilt, pan or dolly in one of his movies, or even a zoom. There are a total of four tracking shots in Late Spring, all of which are used for “walk and talk” scenes, and all keeping the “Ozu angle” intact, as though we are watching the shots from the POV of a man sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon being pulled by a slowly moving car. In addition, he will sometimes have entire dialogue scenes covered in POV shots, with characters delivering their lines directly to camera. It creates an almost unnerving intensity; as actors zero in on you, you want to look away from their gaze in embarrassment. Jonathan Demme used the same technique for an important scene in Silence of the Lambs.

Ozu also used the same actors throughout his entire career. The two leads here, Chisu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are in most of the Ozu pictures I’ve seen, and they never fail to astound.  They use an acting vocabulary so different from what I’m used to as an American that I can’t even think of American equivalents to compare them to.  Ryu’s permanent little twisted smile and Hara’s ever-heartbreaking hope and despair get under your skin in ways that even great stars like Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai do not.  Those guys are movie stars, but Ryu and Hara seem like real people.

My love affair with Ozu began with Tokyo Story, which is him at his heaviest for him.  For lighter fare, there is the comedy Good Morning.  But my personal favorite is Floating Weeds, which is about a traveling actor who swing by a seaside town for the first time in fifteen years and finds that he long ago fathered a child by a woman he had slept with for a night.

One more thing I should say is that the Criterion Collection has changed my life.  I have something in my brain that does not allow me to pay proper attention to bad prints of old movies with corrupted soundtracks.  Classics like Dracula and His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night went unwatched by me because I couldn’t watch the terrible murky prints they showed on television.  But give me a restored print and a fine, crackling soundtrack and I can watch just about anything, I don’t know why but it really makes a difference to me.  So I owe my interest in Ozu, Kurosawa, Bergman, Renoir and countless other great directors to the work done by Criterion.

Oh, and the projector is fixed, obviously.  Hurray!


26 Responses to “Late Spring”
  1. Criterion is indeed a godsend. Despite the baffling inclusion of both Chasing Amy and Armageddon in their catalogue, they’ve managed to introduce me to so many wonderful films I never would have known a damn thing about otherwise. I highly recommend Pickup on South Street, which looks incredibly crisp and is of course just great.

    I have a question for you, you being a film buff and all…do you have any idea where to get a copy of Bigger Than Life (1956; Nicholas Ray; starring James Mason)?! I saw a 16mm print in my college film class, loved it, and have never come across it on TV, VHS or DVD since.

    • Todd says:

      I’m unfamiliar with the film, but it seems to be available on DVD in Spanish, if you have an all-region DVD player.

      I’m not sure why Criterion released the Michael Bay movies. I’m sure they had their reasons, and they say that Bay was a peach to work with, but still — when you put the word “Criterion” in your name, you really ought to have one.

      Funny story: R. Sikoryak and I were watching the Criterion edition of Grand Illusion and we were blown away by the quality of the print. In addition, we couldn’t get over how much one of the main characters looked like Paul Boocock.

      The next day, I ran into Boocock and said “Have you ever seen Grand Illusion?” And he looked at me sideways and said something like “Is this about that guy who looks like me?” And I said “Yeah, how did you know?” And he said “Because this guy I went to college with runs this DVD company called Criterion, and he invited me over to his office one day to show me this great new print of Grand Illusion in his screening room, and he said the same thing.”

      • Oh, it’s great. All mid-50’s suburban paranoia stuff, shot in Cinemascope just to make sure you don’t miss the subtext. Mason is a schoolteacher who learns he has some sort of degenerative disease and undergoes experimental drug therapy. He gets better and feels amazing, and then the stuff starts making him psychotic. Not killing spree psychotic or anything, but there’s a fantastic moment where, in the throes of a megalomaniacal high, he gives a room full of eight year olds what for about God.

      • urbaniak says:

        In addition, we couldn’t get over how much one of the main characters looked like Paul Boocock.

        You refer, I assume, to the great French actor Pierre Fresnay who, incidentally, was a major influence on the young Alec Guinness. As it happens (and I am not making this up) his name has come up more than once in my house of late when I’ve sung silly ditties to my daughter with lyrics like “Yes, sir, that’s my Esme, no, sir, she’s not Pierre Fresnay…”

        BTW, Jackson, I saw “Bigger Than Life” on Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago but a quick google search suggests that it’s only currently available on European DVD.

  2. toliverchap says:


    I was enjoying some Criterion Kurosawa, Fellini, and Tarkovsky, here a few months ago and I noticed that most of the time the films were given a mono soundtrack. I’m not sure if these were all originally presented with mono sound in the theatres? It wasn’t a real problem but I wonder if some of the later films wouldn’t have had atleast a stereo soundtrack? I also enjoyed Pick Up on South Street. It’s got that line about waving the flag, apparently Fuller wanted it to be “God Damn flag.” I enjoy those old noirs and took a class a few Summers ago where I watched quite a few. Another one I really thought had some good stuff and could be done as a neo-noir remake with sci-fi action is The Big Combo. It had Lee Marvin being all surly which was pretty cool. Criterions are good I should expand my collection with a few of ’em. I’ll look into this Ozu fellow. Also a side question. A few years ago also in a class I saw the opening scene of this Japanese film it was in black and white and probably from the 60’s; it started with this guy geting his head X-rayed. Do you know what that movie is called? I never go the title and have always wanted to finish watching it since skulls are cool.

    • Todd says:

      Re: soundtracks

      Criterion and I have a deal: they don’t consult me regarding their restoration techniques and I don’t ask them screenwriting tips.

      That said, I’m guessing that their policy is to present the film as close as possible to the manner in which it was seen opening day of its first release. It probably wouldn’t kill them to produce an optional stereo mix of older film soundtracks, but it also wouldn’t be true to the original. It would be like fixing the color on a Rembrandt.

      The movie you’re thinking of with the x-ray is probably Kurosawa’s Ikiru, which opens with Takashi Shimizu getting his chest x-rayed. He’s about to find out that he has stomach cancer, an inciting incident that leads to him changing the way he lives his life. Great movie, Ikiru, one of my favorites. Shimizu is one of my all-time favorite actors (probably most well-known to Americans as the wise and sad Kambei in Seven Samurai).

  3. ghostgecko says:

    Jarmusch is pretty much god. I’d only ever seen “Dead Man” on video & dvd until the AFI theater here ran it (original Cannes print, French subtitles and all, and a different edit than what’s on the tape) and the difference between on tv and on the big screen just knocked me back. Made it really hard to watch on the tv after that.
    BTW, did you happen to catch his cameo on Spongebob Squarepants? That had to be just about the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.

    • Todd says:

      Dead Man was a weird one. It was shown at Cannes before its release and got a terrible review in Variety, developed a reputation for being boring and oblique. I went to see it when it came out and had my expectations really low. Turns out it’s quite a brilliant masterpiece; beautiful to look at, haunting and funny, elegant and dark. Love that movie.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Amen to that. I usually have to staple people to the couch and promise them it’s rewarding, just watch and pay attention.
        At the AFI show I went with two Dead Man virgins and a guy who’s seen it almost as many times as me, and he almost jumped out of his seat every time we came to a difference in the edits. It was great.

        I remember reading somewhere that the head of whichever studio distributed it heard it got rave reviews at Cannes and bought it without having watched it first – then watched it, hated it, and hamstrung the distribution on purpose.

        I do enjoy mentally picturing all the 15 year old girls squeeing over Johnny Depp trying to wrap their heads around it, much as I enjoy all the Lord of the Rings fans looking up older Peter Jackson flicks and finding Meet the Feebles.

  4. craigjclark says:

    I’d also like to get in on some of the Criterion love. I own 23 of their titles and have rented many others. I started by picking up their edition of Life of Brian, followed by Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil (and later Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and I’ve never looked back.

    I’m particularly grateful for their treatment of otherwise neglected films by Luis Bunuel, Jean-Pierre Melville and Nicolas Roeg. And the films of David Cronenberg always benefit greatly from getting the Criterion treatment. (I’m still holding out for the definitive edition of Crash).

    P.S. – I have no problem with Chasing Amy being in the collection as it’s Kevin Smith’s finest hour and a half.

    • Todd says:

      My favorite thing about the Criterion effect is that it’s making the studios take better care in releasing their old titles. WB has put out some truly stunning editions of their classics starting with Casablanca and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and MGM put out a set of Bergman that’s mind-blowing in its detail and pristine quality, including a print of the irreplaceable Persona.

      I also don’t have a problem with Chasing Amy, even though I haven’t enjoyed much else of Mr. Smith’s. Best of all, it’s the only Criterion disc one can find for less than $10 at Amoeba Music on Sunset Blvd.

      • robolizard says:

        also don’t have a problem with Chasing Amy, even though I haven’t enjoyed much else of Mr. Smith’s.

        Aww, not even Clerks… the film whose screenplay sparkles and sizzles like oh so many pop rocks?! Except for the comic con scenes, Chasing Amy felt a bit too precocious… still good stuff though.

        Hey, I have a quick question, for film insider Mr. Alcott– how much of Toy Story’s screenplay was Joss Whedon’s doing?

        • Todd says:

          how much of Toy Story’s screenplay was Joss Whedon’s doing?

          I honestly don’t know. I have written an animated film of a comparable budget, and I know that the director and animators have a great deal of influence on the development of the script. John Lasseter, Peter Docter and Andrew Stanton are also credited on the screenplay (as well as John Cohen and Alec Sokolow), and they all went on to make other hit animated movies, so I’m guessing that they had considerable input.

          • robolizard says:

            Maybe, but the latter pair went on to mke Garfield: The Movie and its sequel. I just read somewhere that he essentially doctored a mediocre version of Toy Story and Pixar went along with it, and one can really see his style in so much of the dialogue… have you come across his Astonishing X-Men? They are certainly teh poo… oh Joss [swoons]

            I heard Marvel is planning to very slowly stop producing magazines, and move straight into gn’s. Now, instead of three dollar escapism, its going to be expensive endavours… but Joss will show them how to do it! Oh Joooossss…. [super swoon]

            • Todd says:

              the latter pair went on to mke Garfield: The Movie and its sequel.

              I don’t judge screenwriters by things like that and I suggest you do not as well. I went from co-writing Antz to writing — um, nothing at all, as far as the moviegoing public knows. It’s a crazy business and who knows? Maybe the Garfield screenplays started out as brilliant, heartbreaking stories of friendship and mortality and got butchered by incompetent studio execs with their eyes on the bottom line. I’ve worked on things that made it into theaters without my name on them, I worked on things that ended up with my name on them that I really wish did not have my name on them, and many many things that bought me houses and educations for my children that never got made at all. The fact is, a screenwriter has very, very little power over the moviemaking machinery, despite being perhaps the most crucial element.

              • robolizard says:

                Oh wow. Sorry about that… did anyone try to establish a creative studio, like what Image Comics and Dark Horse are to the mainstream comics community?

                [anything interesting in those mysterious… nameless projects!? Ooh, cause those sound… oh so chilling…]

                • Todd says:

                  did anyone try to establish a creative studio

                  That happens all the time. Mostly they try, and fail, and get absorbed. Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford tried it in the teens and formed United Artists. That’s the only one I can think of that still exists, even if it’s only a label at this point.

                  anything interesting in those mysterious… nameless projects!?

                  The ones not made? Oodles and oodles of interesting things.

  5. 😀 An Ozu fan! Not that they’re rare, but…