Early Summer (1951)
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In a career packed with esteemed classics, Early Summer (1951) is something special from director Yasujirō Ozu. A longstanding filmmaker in Japan since the silent era, Ozu was in the middle of his black and white sound period with this film in 1951, which appeared between two of his other acknowledged masterpieces, Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953) (both of whom feature a main character with the same name as the one in this film, Noriko).
Like almost all of Ozu's films, this was made for the Shochiku studio, which had been operating in films since 1920 and had given Ozu his start during the silent era. As with many of his other features, Ozu wrote the film with co-scenarist Kôgo Noda, with a story focusing on the bonds and rifts between generations in Japanese family life. Here the dramatic source is Noriko, a secretary approaching thirty whose family feels her independent spirit and regular employment need to be tempered with a husband. The fact that her parents won't feel they're able to move out of the city to retire until she's married off adds a sense of urgency to the match up, and the ideal man for them seems to be an older man recommended by her boss. When Noriko decides to choose her own path to happiness, the entire family is deeply affected.
A meditation on modesty and the small pleasures in life, Early Summer is arguably more oriented around women than any other film in the Ozu canon (and, in some translations, briefly broaches the subject of homosexuality, a rarity at the time in Japanese cinema); furthermore, it makes clever use of hidden or unseen elements to subtly comment on society. The most obvious is the unseen suitor being groomed for Noriko, a plot element rather than a genuine character whom the audience may sketch in however they see fit. Even the wedding itself is handled in a much more oblique way than audiences would normally expect, shifting the focus to a family tie being created outside of the normal man and wife union.
Like many of the director's signature films, his then-innovative use of "tatami" compositions (mimicking the approximate point of view of a person seated near the ground on a tatami mat at home, give or take a foot or two) is well in evidence here. However, as David Bordwell noted when the film was released by Criterion, it also contains the only crane shot in Ozu's existing works, a major aesthetic jolt for anyone accustomed to the look of his other films. It's tempting to read this as a break in style meant to reflect the sweeping transition between pre- and postwar Tokyo, symbolized as well with the multiple ages and genders among the film's 19 characters, though any other number of interpretations are also possible.
Like the other films in the so-called Noriko trilogy, Early Summer uses a number of recurring motifs (even dovetailing with the concluding setting of Late Spring) as well as some of his most noted symbolism, including the simple but powerful use of a single balloon. The film also features many members of Ozu's stock company of actors. As Noriko (in all three parts of the Ozu trilogy), Setsuko Hara was already a seasoned actress since the mid-1930s (after getting her start at Nikkatsu) and had earlier appeared in Akira Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth in 1946. Still alive today, she retired from the screen upon Ozu's death in 1963, a year after her last noteworthy role in the epic Chushingura.
Other Ozu regulars seen in the film include Chishu Ryu, who plays Noriko's brother Koichi and appeared in 52 films for the director. The colorful Ichiro Sugai, who also enlivened Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) and such classics as The Life of Oharu (1952) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), also appears as Shukichi, the family patriarch.
In Japan, the film was originally released as (Bakushū) (which literally refers to the start of the barley harvest, reflected in the final shot of the film), and like Ozu's other films, it was warmly received. The following eleven years saw ten more films from the esteemed director before his death, with four of them also reflecting specific seasonal times and continuing his delicate studies of modern Japanese life.
By Nathaniel Thompson