There is a certain sadness that permeates Ozu’s films, of the passing of time and an era; of transience, of a time that will be long gone, but needs to be preserved. This is most particularly true for his so-called “Noriko Trilogy”, which stars Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s muse; Last Spring is a part of the trilogy. The film follows Noriko as she is living with her father, her devotion to him and her reluctance to get married and leave him. It is a domestic drama that strives for simplicity, but also portrays an era Japan is going through, the post-war period. The rapid change of social structure and most particularly young generations is presented.
His other films, Tokyo Twillight, for example, show the consequences of those changes for the structure of the society, most notably the family. Ozu is called “the most Japanese” of the directors famous in the West; Akira Kurosawa was never recognized in Japan in a way the Western societies valued him. Ozu was called a “social conservative” by the New Wave Japanese directors, and that may very well be true. His portrayal of the changes that ocurred in the post-war Japan show the impact of Westernization policies in everyday life and in the prevailing atmosphere.
Late Spring opens with a shot of a railway station sign written both in English and Japanese and a shot of a traditional Japanese building. This scene alone shows that the film deals with the traditional and newly emerging influence on the Japanese culture. Later, Coca Cola sign appears; it was not unusual for Japanese directors of that era to use its symbolism as a sign of the Western influence on Japanese culture – the ending of Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods uses this particular symbol extensively. When Noriko’s father and his friend are talking about in which direction Tokyo, the ocean and the shrine are located, his friend seems to lose orientation with regard to the exact location of the places and static objects. This implies that Japan is losing its cultural locus and identity in the historical changes, and is lost in the transformation that is taking place; the identity needs to be rashaped and found again.
The changes are not just cultural, in the sense that children are playing baseball and Gary Cooper is a symbol of masculinity; they are broad in the sense that the societal structure is changing, but there is a need to preserve the traditions of the people. This particular tension is the major force behind Ozu’s most important works. Late Spring seems to be a personal film for Ozu, since he never married and stayed with his mother until she died, he passed away two years later.
The film is mainly about filial devotion and care, and ultimately the sacrifice for the loved one. A particularly powerful scene is the one in which Noriko and her father are at a Noh play in the theatre. Noriko, anticipating the possibility of leaving her father and marrying, looks down sadly, while the chants and music are being performed. The camera beautifully captures Noriko’s feelings and sadness over her anticipated departure, the solemn atmosphere and her father’s face showing delight make it the key scene in the film.
Noriko’s father tells how she was engaged in forced labor during the war and used to “spend her holidays scrounging for food” and how that built her character. Ozu implies that character is built through sacrifice and suffering. The scholar Motoori Norinaga invented a term to define the essence of Japanese culture; it is called mono no aware, the phrase derives from aware which means “sensitivity to things.”. This kind of sensitivity is particularly present in Ozu’s films, Late Spring seems to capture the moments with great care and the film delicately captures the feelings of the protagonists and the spirit of the tradition. There is a certain warmth in this portrayal, characters are shown as deeply sensitive and caring toward others and prone to endure what is necessary.
“If I had said otherwise she wouldn’t have married”
Noriko’s father lies about remarrying, wanting to leave impression that he will ve someone to live with and take care of him. This is particularly hard for him since Noriko repeatedly expressed her wish to stay with him so he can be taken care of. When they talk for the last time before her marriage, she says: “Even marriage couldn’t make me happier. My greatest happiness is to be with you.” Ozu uses an ellipsis, which is a characteristic of his cinematic style, when he does not show Noriko’s marriage on screen; her fiancé is not present as well. Her father’s lie about remarrying is what Plato presented as a “noble lie”, a lie which is necessary to be the foundation of something of utmost importance; for him the foundation of a state, for Noriko’s father the prospect of his daughter starting a new life in marriage.
Noriko’s father’s friend remarries and Noriko calls him “unclean”, jokingly, but she sees that act as indecent, to say the least. Her father’s sacrifice is thus even greater since the biggest lie he told, as he says, involves an act which his daughter sees as immoral. The viewer cannot but feel respect toward a man who does not shy away from putting his honor at stake for good ends; at the same time he loses his loved one and condemns himself to loneliness.
The film ends with father entering the house, sitting on a chair and peeling an apple. There is immense sadness in this scene, and the viewer cannot but feel father’s pain, alongside him. His head falls down in despair; he is left alone so his daughter can have a prospect of a good life and happiness. One cannot but think that this symbolizes the end of the old Japan, as it was known to many. A shot of the sea at the end reminds us of the transience of life, but also that endings are the new beginnings. Thus, with life’s spring ending, a new season begins.