Banshun (Late Spring) is often regarded as the first of the late cycle of Ozu’s films and defines the style that is regarded, especially outside of Japan, as defining his work. It contains a number of those traits that have come to be seen as classic Ozu: from the visual traits such as sequences of travelling by train, the famous ‘pillow’ or ‘intermediate’ shots, which pepper the opening sequence or an elaborate tea ceremony that introduces the women of the story to the narrative pace, the focus on the intimate spaces of the middle class Japanese home and the narrative elision of important events. This last is a powerful means of skewing the structure to make those small moments and details the focus of screen time and, therefore, to allow the development of the drama through the intimate exchanges and not external drama. As part of this, the rhythms of daily life capture the emotional temperature and are used symbolically. The familiar greeting “tadaima” (“I’m home”) alters for Noriko as events threaten her happiness; the return of Somiya after his daughter’s wedding recalls an earlier scene of his homecoming and disrobing with some stark changes. What Ozu does so masterfully is to weave so subtly varied emotions into ‘set pieces’ that might on the surface appear very familiar, not least because of the reappearance of actors. Both Hara Setsuko and Ryû Chishû appeared in many of these late cycle films, Ryû was Ozu’s actor on most of his features (apparently all but two) and their playing of the emotions maximise the feeling of small moments that have deeply-felt repercussions for each of these characters. At times, it is in the nuance of an expression – at other times it is in a dramatic heartfelt outpouring. An observation of Hara (in character) is that she smiles when she is unhappy and cries when she is happy – adding to her enigmatic appearance, since her emotions are often contrapuntal when they are not hidden.
Something to appreciate about Banshun in the cinema, is how it is as much funny as it is dramatic or even tragic. Noriko (Hara) is a young women out of joint with her time – finding her father’s close friend and fellow widower ‘unclean’ for marrying again (although, in discussion at Bradford, we wondered whether something had been lost in translation there from the original Japanese?) for which she is constantly teased by him. Professor Somiya (Ryû)’s sister is played by another regular Ozu actress (Haruko Sugimura – the daughter, Shige, in Tokyo Monogatari) in a comic turn as the match-making aunt. Ozu jokes directly with us by leaving out narrative elements (as he does in other films in the visual language) – when he withholds certain information from us – Hattori’s engagement, for example.
As part of a Western audience, I can find things that are ‘very Japanese’ about the film – the noh play, for example (which is apparently Kakitsubata based on the Tales of Ise? If so, it performs a second function as a metaphor as a tale of loss and longing, of being banished on a journey. However, aside from recognising that what might appear representative of a culture to outsiders has a far more complex position within the culture itself, it’s also worth remembering that in Late Spring as elsewhere in these films presents us with a world that is Ozu’s own rigorous creation. Part of effect of this is the way in which the emotions are incredibly ‘globally’ resonant – the relationship between the daughter and the father is entirely recognisable and affecting. Ozu is involving in a way that can (whether it should or not) lead us to ignore the specific cultural setting and talk about the characters – as people. In the end, does Noriko move towards something that is ‘natural’ and necessary – the right course of action to start a life with her husband. Or should she have been left to choose her own, completely contented (and free) life, with her father?