Cast & Crew
Everyone gets into the act of finding Noriko a husband, but her unexpected choice evokes a shock and causes the breakdown of the original family unit.
Early Summer (1951)
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
Early Summer (1951)
Early Summer on DVD
Early Summer is a classic example of the "home drama," a Japanese film genre devoted to contemporary domestic life; the home drama was one of the Shochiku studio's specialties and Ozu its most revered practitioner. What sets Ozu apart from most other directors is his wealth of mundane details and the unhurried way in which his plots unfold, showing an unparalleled sensitivity at portraying daily life. The underlying thrust of this film is dramatic enough: the breakup of a family, which is the key theme of Ozu's work, as scholars such as Donald Richie and David Bordwell have pointed out. At the same time, the serious subject matter is balanced throughout with humor, from the childlike games of the adults (Noriko and her unmarried pal Aya's verbal sparring with their married friends, the adults in the Miyama household hiding pieces of cake under the table when a kid enters the living room) to the boys' potty humor and even some vulgar innuendoes having to do with clams. In that respect, Early Summer is a fully rounded articulation of its director's worldview, in the same way that The Wild Bunch is for Sam Peckinpah and Fanny and Alexander is for Ingmar Bergman.
Stylistically, the film is characteristically Ozu, from its exclusive use of straight cuts rather than wipes or dissolves, low camera setups for interior shots, and the frequent use of "pillow shots"--empty compositions of settings or objects that serve as transitions between scenes or pauses in the action. While Ozu is commonly associated with a static camera, this film also has judiciously placed camera movements, including a subtly expressive crane shot during the beach sequence. This is unquestionably one of Ozu's most visually fluent and confidently directed films.
Early Summer is also marked by excellent performances. At front and center is Setsuko Hara as the unwed daughter Noriko. Devoted, polite and modest, but at the same time independent-minded, Hara embodies the complex interaction of tradition and modernity in postwar Japan, and thus serves as the thematic fulcrum for this and the other Ozu films in which she appears. With her winning smile, it's not difficult to see why she was arguably the best-loved Japanese actress of her day and a figure of identification for many young Japanese women at the time. Ozu's favorite male actor, Chishu Ryu is fine in a somewhat unsympathetic role as the dour brother. Ozu fans may also recognize Cheiko Higashiyama (Noriko's mother) and Kuniko Miyake (Noriko's sister-in-law) from Tokyo Story (1953). Shuji Sano, who plays Noriko's boss, is a bit stiff compared to the other actors, though his awkward laugh does somehow fit his character. In the final analysis, I would rank Early Summer perhaps just a notch below Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story, which is to say that it is merely exceptional.
Criterion's new transfer is gorgeous, with rich contrast and detail. A few shots appear to be taken from inferior film elements, but overall the print is in good condition for a Japanese film of this vintage. The mono sound is clearly reproduced. Special features include: liner notes essays by Jim Jarmusch and leading Ozu scholar David Bordwell; a typically insightful audio commentary track by Donald Richie; and a 47-minute documentary entitled "Ozu's Films from Behind the Scenes," consisting mainly of a conversation between an actor/sound technician, assistant cameraman and producer involved with Ozu's films. While their recollections are invaluable, the style of the documentary too self-consciously imitates Ozu for my taste. The Criterion Collection is releasing a slew of great titles this year, but don't let Early Summer slip through the cracks--it's a must-have for any serious film buff and it repays multiple viewings.
For more information about Early Summer, visit Criterion Collection. To order Early Summer, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen
Early Summer on DVD
Winner of Kinema Jumpo's Best Film Award.
Released in United States 1951
Released in United States 1994
Released in United States 1951
Released in United States 1994 (Shown in New York City (Walter Reade) as part of program "Cinema's Sacred Treasure: The Film's of Yasujiro Ozu" January 21 - February 16, 1994.)