Four years before he would direct what is widely regarded as his masterpiece — 1953's Tôkyô monogatari (Toyko Story) — Yasujirô Ozu would make Banshun (Late Spring), a major film in his body of work, and one of crucial transitional importance. Late Spring, as the film is most commonly known, and as the Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD is titled, is Ozu's first significant post-war film.
Made during the American occupation, it only hints at the disastrous national and personal toll the war took on its characters. More than that, it uses this moment in time as a catalyst to explore broader, more universal, concerns. Late Spring, on one of its many levels, is very much about shifts in Japanese culture and sensibility at this unstable time.
With frequent co-writer Kôgo Noda (notorious drinkers both, the two would judge their writing progress by the empty bottles of sake around them), and as per his tendency, Ozu would focus on an average, middle class family, emblematic of the Gendai-geki genre of Japanese film; and within that, he would examine most prominently the evolving institution of marriage, itself a common thread in many of the director's movies.
Here, the moral modifications of marital views are in the forefront. There is the unmarried daughter, Noriko Somiya, played by the charming and extraordinarily photogenic Ozu regular Setsuko Hara. She isn't concerned about finding a husband and she doesn't see the problem with her being 27 and without any prospects for marriage. She is more concerned with her most prized relationship, the warm rapport she has with her father, Shukichi, played by another recurrent Ozu performer, Chishû Ryû. Noriko is driven to act on the pressure to marry only after her widowed father seems interested in remarrying, like his friend has done, a thought that disgusts Noriko. Also adding a variation to this theme is the daughter's friend, the free-wheeling and extremely westernized Aya Kitagawa. She, against the antiquated norm, is happily divorced.
Being unmarried and not-so-subtly encouraged to finally marry, a decision that would turn one's world upside down; or considering the possibly of starting over again with a new spouse after the first one's death; or separating from a spouse for purely personal reasons, for simply wanting to be single again and away from that individual: these options all open up the possibility for a major change in the situation of these characters. They present the opportunity to make a decision that will have significant consequences, and they allow the characters to begin their life anew.
Starting with Late Spring and continuing up until his final picture, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), many of Ozu's films would be recognizable by their seasonal titles: Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960), among others. With Late Spring, the title truly signifies something. These characters are at a critical juncture in their lives. If spring is associated with rebirth, with newness, with change, then here too the characters are faced with an occasion for personal transformation, but the season is ending, the time to act is tightening.
Late Spring also carries this notion of impending change further — though not so definitively — to general transformations in Japanese life. The film presents several juxtapositions between the traditional and the modern. There is Noriko's somewhat old fashioned sensibility when it comes to remarriage, set against Aya's casual observations about relationships, but there are more cultural disparities at play here. Late Spring is about tea ceremonies giving way to drinking Coca-Cola. It is about Noh theater playing against baseball. The war has done unusual things to people; society would not be the same — these are signs of the times.
To those new to Ozu's work, two things will most likely be instantly apparent in terms of style distinction. The first is the filmmaker's choice in camera placement. A majority of the time, the vantage point of the camera is at an uncommonly low angle, about even with the point of view of someone sitting on the floor. Why is this? Some have argued that it is indeed based on this sitting position, reflecting the view of an individual on a tatami mat. For the interiors of his films, this is reasonable enough; when inside, his characters are usually sitting down. But why then does he maintain this angle when scenes are outside, such as in an alleyway or along a street? Another possibility for this preference is that this low angle is that of a child's view. Sure enough, Ozu's films are full of children, but this doesn't hold up against the innumerable scenes where children are irrelevant. There is also the fact that such a low angle, especially kept in a wider shot, presents more of a given room, most notably the ceiling. This does seem somewhat intentional; much of Ozu's visual design is concerned with geometric patterns, of lines and depictions of interior space. However, a theory that possibly carries the most weight is that this position best illustrates a sense of balance, of order. It's a stationary arrangement that puts the spectator at a stable position reflecting objectivity and poise. Leonardo da Vinci's The Vitruvian Man is often cited as a reference point for this idea of equilibrium, especially given Ozu's preoccupations with contemplation and calm solemnity. (It's little wonder that Paul Schrader included Ozu as a key figure — with Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer — in his influential text on transcendental style in film.)
The second feature instantly noticeable with most of Ozu's work are his transitions between scenes. We don't often think about these devices when watching a movie, but in any given film, when it comes to going from one scene to the next, we're brought there by dissolves, where the new scenes blends over the old, or by fades to black, which is then frequently followed by a fade from black into the next scene, or we're transitioned via straight cuts to the next scene, usually to an establishing shot of some sort that situates us in a new location. With Ozu though, he incorporates something unique. When one of his scenes ends, before the next properly begins, we are held back from the narrative via seemingly unrelated shots of trees rustling in the wind, of buildings glistening in the sunlight, of bodies of water slowly spreading, of factory smokestacks, of vacant rooms, of clothes hanging on the line, etc. These "pillow shots," as they're sometimes known, don't simply bring us to the next scene, they bring us further into the time and place of each story. They are pauses in the drama that orient us not so much in the narrative progress, but in the world of the film. They are brief moments of reflection, extraneous to the apparent "action" of the film. These are moments in opposition to our normal sense of simply "getting on with it."
Do these two stylistic characteristics alone make Ozu great? Certainly not. But they do attribute to him a distinct formal technique and a distinguishing tone. He is a singular artist in the cinema, and each of his films are notably his and his alone. Their visual and thematic consistency can cause some to decry him for having made the same film over and over again (the similar titles can also add to this verdict), but by establishing such ridged formal patterns, Ozu actually conveys remarkable differences from film to film. These traits may be similar, but against their frequency, the variations of story and character actually become more apparent.
When American audiences were devouring the action-packed samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa in the 1950s (films equally great in their own right), Ozu was seen as being too restrained, too traditional, "too Japanese." But now, in retrospect, as Richard Pena points out in his commentary track for the Blu-ray and DVD, Ozu can be regarded as one of cinema's exceptional modernists. He ranks among the international masters of the form, and Late Spring is one of his best. Pena even goes so far as to argue that stylistically and thematically it is "perhaps his most perfect film."