Criterion Sunday 331: 晩春 Banshun (Late Spring, 1949)

I somehow contrived to put off watching this film for years, despite my deep love for the other films in the so-called “Noriko trilogy” which comprises this, Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). The radiant Setsuko Hara, of course, plays the Noriko in each of these films (a different character in each, though), and remains best known for her work with Ozu. She retired from film acting the year he died, and herself lived until the age of 95 (she would have been 100 in June this year).

However, I needn’t have worried, because both this film and Hara’s performance are both exceptional, though made in what would become Ozu’s signature style, which is to say contemplative, almost meditative, with a still camera and sequences broken up little still lifes from nature or detail from the environment the characters are in (like the empty railway station that begins the film). That’s not to say the film is without humour — there are these moments of comedy between characters, as when Noriko denies her professor father (Chishu Ryu) a game with his friends, so he huffily grumps about having no tea, or when the professor’s sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) finds a purse and he keeps urging her to hand it in. These moments would probably not make much impact in most films, but each finds a distinctive place in Ozu’s world, making up a complex movement of emotions. For while I used the adjective “contemplative” above, I’d probably avoid one like “gentle”, given that, for all its deliberate pacing and quietly observant nature, much of the film is essentially roiling with bitterness between the characters (for all her winning smiles, Hara even glares a few times at her father). This all leads in the end to a sort of heartbreak, albeit one prompted by the father doing what he feels is best for his daughter’s long-term happiness. And at the same time, there’s a critique of occupied Japan in a sub rosa way, with these glimpses of English-language signs alongside an affirmation of traditional Japanese culture. It’s a complex film in many ways, and an emotional one, but it’s very easy to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.

山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain, 1954)

Mikio Naruse made three films in the year before this one, and I’m willing to bet at least one of those is equally brilliant, because he was very much on form this decade. A lot of his work was adapted from the writing of Fumiko Hayashi, but she is not the source for this one but rather the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, though it uses a lot of the same key cast as Naruse’s earlier film.


This is some film, one of Mikio Naruse’s finest, and I don’t want to attribute all of its success to one person, because it’s made with such sensitivity by everyone involved, but Setsuko Hara must be considered pretty central to that. Partly it’s the role she’s playing, a wife shunned by her husband (who is having an affair with a younger woman), but Hara is expert at making it not just a tragic account of this woman, but a far more rounded and nuanced portrait of familial relationships, in which Hara’s character is not to be pitied, but instead a really developed character whose motivations and actions cut against the expectations of her society and her family. I just find her every expression to be that little bit heartbreaking (not unlike in Tokyo Story, where she proved that sometimes smiling cheerfully is the saddest emotion of all). The film itself is framed by her father-in-law (So Yamamura), who is disappointed in his son (Ken Uehara) and just trying to understand Hara’s situation and consider what is best for her, which is why his reaction to news of her abortion is both so deeply felt and also so unusual in a film of this era. Surely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and I still have so many Naruse films yet to watch.

Sound of the Mountain film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (baed on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, So Yamamura 山村聰, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 January 2019.

めし Meshi (Repast, 1951)

Continuing the Naruse theme, I’m now starting in on his 1950s masterpieces. All of these major films from the 1950s are easily available on DVD through the Masters of Cinema label in the UK, while many of his minor works can be viewed on YouTube (many with English subtitles).


This is, as one might expect from Naruse, a beautifully modulated film about Michiyo, a woman unhappy in her marriage. Setsuko Hara (surely familiar to even the most idle viewers of Japanese cinema from Ozu films like Tokyo Story and Early Summer) plays Michiyo, and Hara remains so very brilliant at conveying her dissatisfaction even as she’s smiling and reassuring people. Such indeed is the weight of societal expectation that there’s no meaningful way for her to confront the misery of her household chores and the disinterest of her husband (Ken Uehara), who only becomes animated when his young female cousin comes to visit spontaneously. My favourite moment is when Michiyo is asked “so what do you talk about with her husband?”, and she pauses, looks away and replies “I have a cat.” (It’s a very cute cat.)

Japanese films confronting domestic politics aren’t a million miles away from those of other traditional cultures (old British films like Brief Encounter seem to operate on a similar subterranean level, as everyone observes the correct etiquette and minuscule breaches are punished), so here too elaborate codes of conduct loom just beneath the surface of everyone’s actions, and it’s a great testament to the filmmaking skill that it’s all so very evident without being showy and didactic. Within this context (and I am treading carefully in how I phrase this), I was initially disappointed with the ending, but in retrospect it feels like a bitterly sardonic riposte to everything that has gone before, like the way Hollywood tacked on demonstrably phony ‘happy endings’ to films that really weren’t heading that direction. This is a brilliant and watchable — and, at times, even light-hearted — film about profound unhappiness.

Repast film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成, Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, Yukiko Shimazaki 島崎雪子; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 240: 麦秋 Bakushu (Early Summer, 1951)

Setsuko Hara always has a way to just smile and smile and smile and break your heart, but maybe that’s also innate in Ozu’s filmmaking too, the way he picks apart these delicate domestic stories to find the hurt and conflict within. She’s being pestered by her family to marry as she’s reaching the grand old age of 28, and there’s a sense in which you wonder whether she’s just settling for someone, or reacting to them, or whether even all this talk isn’t out of step with the times. After all, there’s a lot of play around the generational gaps, about post-war Japan’s youth not adopting the same values as their parents and grandparents’ generations, and that all seems to play out here. For me, it’s one of Ozu’s very finest films, and Hara is just such a watchable actor.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 217: 東京物語 Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953)

Oh sure, yes, it is deliberately paced, as so many Ozu films are, but for all its acclaim (it used to regularly show up on best-ever lists, and I think it still does), it is one of those films that really does deliver. I’m not even personally very good at communicating with my family sometimes, but I still get all up in my feelings whenever I see the way all these grown children act atrociously towards their elderly parents, who are visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Obviously Ozu is, to an extent, commenting on modern society, and we get interstitial shots of trains and built-up urban areas, but none of that is particularly forced, and this works very well too on simply an emotional level — what it means to get older, the responsibilities you continue to have to family, showing respect for the elderly. Only Setsuko Hara’s character (the daughter-in-law) seems to make much of an effort, and the way she radiantly smiles at the camera even when she’s clearly upset just seems to make it all the more poignant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu; Writers Ozu and Kogo Noda 野田高梧; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Chieko Higashiyama 東山千栄子, Setsuko Hara 原節子; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at Victoria University, Wellington, Monday 27 April 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 May 2018).