Classic Film of the Week #2: Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring is a 1949 Japanese film directed by the legendary Yasujirō Ozu, and stars Setsuko Hara and Chishû Ryû. It is the story of a 27-year old woman, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who lives with and cares for her aging father, Shukichi (Chishû Ryû). The two share a very close and tender relationship, strengthened by the death of Noriko's mother and the hardships of the previous war, during which she suffered a serious illness. However, both Shukichi and her aunt begin to grow concerned over Noriko's co-dependent relationship with him, as she is getting older and doesn't seem interested in marriage or a career, merely a life of standing by her father's side. A series of small, but nonetheless impactful changes in both of their lives ultimately force the pair to consider what they really want for the other, and for themselves, as they move forward with their lives.

Late Spring is one of Ozu's most enduring masterpieces: a quiet, contemplative, and deeply human examination of the love between parent and child, and what it means to let go. The love between Noriko and Shukichi must be one of the most beautiful depictions of a father-daughter relationship in cinema, and it's so effectively drawn that the audience can't help but side with Noriko when she pleads with her father to let her continue to share her life with him: the idea of this pair being separated, even in a way that's completely natural and necessary as a child transitions into adulthood, is heartbreaking. The monologue that Shukichi delivers in response to both Noriko and the audience is one for the ages, with so many powerful words of wisdom about love, happiness, and growing up. The section that hit me the hardest was when Shukichi discusses happiness as something that we need to put effort into, not simply wait around for. In pop culture, happiness is usually expressed through the overly-optimistic lens that people can choose to be happy, or the overly-pessimistic one in which true happiness is unobtainable, or even a myth. The concept of happiness being something a person can work towards and eventually achieve feels like the perfect bridge between these two viewpoints, and resonated so strongly with me; it's a message that came to me at the perfect moment and one I know I'll hold onto for a long time to come.

The film is very heavy-handed in its emphasis on marriage, something that might feel outdated or even archaic to a modern audience, but I believe Ozu's real message transcends changing societal norms and continues to ring true: what Shukichi truly wants for his daughter is not marriage, but independence. He's shoving her out of the nest because he sees that she's ready to fly--even if she doesn't know it yet--and marriage is simply the most common way for a woman to achieve independence from her parents at this point in Japanese history. I think this point is further proven by a scene near the end of the film, where Shukichi reveals a sacrifice he made for Noriko's sake that is so kind and selfless, and makes it clear that above all he just wants what's best for her, and he'll make sure she gets it even at a personal cost to him or the relationship he has with her. It's a very bittersweet moment, in the best way.

Late Spring is a film that transcends both time and culture, a nearly 70-year old Japanese film that manages to convey so many powerful messages that are just as relevant to North Americans today as they were to Japan back then. Ozu's slow, methodical style of filmmaking may not be for everyone, but this film has such a powerful emotional core that I truly believe it's essential viewing for all fans of cinema, especially character-driven cinema. Late Spring comes highly recommended, and is available from Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray.


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