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Prolific director Yasujiro Ozu, who made 54 films between 1927 and his death in 1963, has been called the "most Japanese" of all that nation's directors, and that may be one of the reasons why his films were little seen in the West until the 1970s. Yet his themes are universal: Family, work, class, conformity, and--in his postwar films--the evolution of all of these as Japan became one of the world's greatest economies.
In the 1930s, Ozu had made several "salaryman films," referring to stories about white collar employees who worked for large corporations and helped oversee Japan's modernization as it evolved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Early Spring (1956) returns to the salaryman genre, examining the life of Shoji, a restless young World War II veteran. Bored by his job and his marriage, he embarks on an affair with a perky typist, seeks diversion by partying with co-workers, reminisces at drunken reunions with his war comrades, and neglects his equally restless wife.
The provocative situations and focus on younger characters in Early Spring were in part imposed on Ozu by his longtime studio, Shochiku. The studio's supremacy was being challenged by science fiction schlock, rock and roll films, and erotically-charged dramas being turned out by its upstart rivals. Directives went out to Shochiku filmmakers: More sex, more youth, more big stars. Early Spring has all that; but it also has Ozu's characteristic formalism, elliptical style, and deceptive simplicity. His distinctive visual style--low camera angles, static camera, carefully composed shots of building exteriors or landscapes as transitional devices, lack of dissolves--serves the story of urban malaise well. As one older character on the brink of retirement says late in the film, "That's what we've got waiting for us--just disillusion and loneliness. I worked 31 long years to find out life is but an empty dream." Ozu himself said of Early Spring, "I tried to portray the pathos of the salaryman's life as society undergoes transformation."
But the film is not entirely bleak. The workers share a genuine camaraderie, there are comic moments, and the young woman with whom Shoji has his extramarital fling (Keiko Kishi) is spunky, lively and independent. Her spirit has not yet been broken by the oppressiveness of the office worker's existence.
One of the key relationships in Early Spring is between Shoji and his mentor, Onodera, played by one of Ozu's favorite actors, Chishu Ryu, who appeared in 52 of Ozu's 54 films. Onodera has been transferred by the company to the provinces. The dignity and wisdom with which he accepts his fate provide a model for Shoji, and Onodera also becomes a catalyst for Shoji's eventual reconciliation with his wife.
Lesser known than other films about the lives of white collar workers such as The Crowd (1928) and The Apartment (1960), Early Spring deserves to be ranked among the classics of the genre. When it was finally released in the United States nearly two decades after it was made, critics commented on Early Spring's continued relevance. Nora Sayre wrote in the New York Times in September of 1974 that the film "Feels utterly fresh and contemporary. This modest classic also conveys the claustrophobia of office life better than any other film I've seen....Ozu finds dramatic depths in quiet, ordinary lives."
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Art Direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Kojun Saito
Cast: Ryo Ikebe (Shoji Sugiyama), Chikage Awashima (Masako Sugiyama), Keiko Kishi (Chiyo Kaneko, nicknamed "Goldfish"), Teiji Takahashi (Taizo Aoki), Chishu Ryu (Kiichi Onodera), So Yamamura (Yutaka Kawai), Haruko Sugimura (Tamako), Takako Fujino (Terumi Aoki).
by Margarita Landazuri