Noriko and her father live together in 1940s Japan sometime after the war. They are happy – he works as a professor and she, now 27 years old, cares for him and makes treks to the city alongside him. It is the ideal set-up for them both filled with love, respect, and admiration. One day, the father’s sister mentions to him that Noriko is coming to that age where she must be married or else it may be too late. It is this time in Noriko’s life where the film gets its title – the nearing end of a season that has grown and flourished in preparation for something else. But Noriko does not see it this way. She is happy where she is and desires to stay.
A comment often heard about Ozu is that his cameras are almost always still and that when they do happen to move, it is all the more powerful because of it. It is the same with the smiles of the characters, and specifically with Noriko. Roger Ebert said in his review that the smiles were there to hide the true feelings. Whether Noriko felt disgust or discomfort or happiness, her expression remained the same – a beautiful and seemingly true smile. You get used to this expression similar to how you become used to Ozu’s camera – never moving and always low, facing characters nearly head-on. When Noriko’s smile first fades an hour into the film, a feeling grips you that something tragic has occurred inside her. It is a shocking sight, one that brings the viewer’s emotions to that dark place she is now finally showing.
Late Spring is divided into three parts: the first forty-five minutes of drawing us into the world of their family life, the next forty-five of Noriko’s dilemma, and those beautiful but brutal final fifteen. The first section displays the carefree and friendly life Noriko and her father live through. They are not just father and daughter, but best friends. They care for each other and travel on trains, they drink sake, laugh, pester each other, and talk. They go to plays and are concerned for each other’s happiness and success. This seemingly unbreakable bond is what becomes, not tested, not broken, but pried apart by some outside force.
Who is to say that Noriko must marry but she herself? Her aunt is seeing it from the more old-fashioned viewpoint – that Noriko’s age is catching up with her and that it is important as a woman that she marries. The aunt convinces the father, but it does not seem like he is relenting for these same reasons she has in mind. It is possible this idea of marriage now led him to believe he has been selfish in letting her spend her whole life with him. It is possible he wants to see her succeed in life and move onto something she finds more important and fulfilling. It is possible he wants to see her grow and to start a family – to have children who one day will care for her as she cares for him.
This desire to not marry has its root in staying with her father to care for him, as she prefers their current way of life more than she could ever imagine something else. But it also seems that independent of her father, she would have no desire to marry otherwise. The most brilliant part of this film is in those last fifteen minutes – the introduction to their lives and the dilemma that the characters were faced with now all come to a climax. Noriko is in her elaborate wedding gown as her father and aunt go upstairs to see her. There is no expression of happiness or resolve on her face as they fawn over her beauty, she simply stares at herself in the mirror in seeming agony. And as she finally stands to leave to attend the wedding, after the viewers have been conditioned to expect total emotional control from her, she breaks down at her father’s feet thanking him for all he’s done.
Her father is not exempt from this emotion either. Ozu masterfully obscures the father’s emotion more so than he does Noriko’s. While Noriko has been shown to have this perfect emotional resolve throughout the first part and most of the second part of the film, she does eventually break down and we understand her true state of mind in those last fifteen minutes. Through her tears and pain, her father still holds on to every bit of stoicism that he has had from the beginning. So, not only have we been conditioned to expect his perfect composure as we have her’s, but Ozu has now given us a comparison with someone who has lost all resolve as he still holds onto it. It is not until that final scene, and one may even argue it is those final few seconds, that he too breaks while sitting in his chair, peeling an apple, alone.
These moments in the last section of the film break the viewer in some of the most subtle ways possible. There is no grandiosity in the plot, just the simple story about a father and daughter pulled apart. Ozu shows his mastery of storytelling through the creation of true and simple tales that have more power than those which are grander and more complex. His control of emotion and motivations, and his intense love for the characters he created, all come together to form what is one of the most affecting films I have recently seen.
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