Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Yumeji Tsukioka, Haruko Sugimura
Written by: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu, based on a story by Kazuo Hirotsu
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 09/13/1949
IMDB

Late Spring (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Spring' Break

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lately the films of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) seem farther away than ever.

Yes, there was a giant touring retrospective of his work in 2003, the 100th anniversary of his birth, and yes, there have been five top-quality DVDs from the Criterion Collection, and yes, many filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismaki, Paul Schrader and Claire Denis, have cited his influence.

But that exquisite pacing of his -- that relaxed state of life in flow -- rarely if ever turns up in any contemporary films.

That makes Criterion's new release of Late Spring (1949) doubly essential, since it gives movie fans a much-needed breather, a shot of something true.

It also happens that Late Spring is, along with Tokyo Story, Ozu's greatest work.

The great actor Chishu Ryu -- forever playing old men, even when in his 40s -- stars as Shukichi, a widower living happily with his grown daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara, with her life-affirming smile).

Convention says that Noriko, in her mid-20s, should be married by now. Noriko makes no bones about the fact that she takes care of her father and likes doing so; she has no interest whatsoever in getting married.

Not to mention that there is a new atmosphere in Tokyo, just four years after the end of World War II. (Ozu includes a few not-too-subtle references to encroaching capitalism, like a Coca-Cola sign.) Noriko's suffering is over. Why should she begin it once again by marrying?

Other filmmakers might have interpreted this situation as a quasi-sexual, post-Freudian relationship between father and daughter, but for Ozu, it's merely a family thing.

In the world of Ozu, no one comes out directly and says what they're thinking. So Shukichi, worried about his daughter's well-being, tells her that he's thinking of re-marrying and that his new wife will be taking care of him.

Noriko takes the news hard and considers marrying a businessman; someone describes him as looking like Gary Cooper, but that's a flight of fancy.

But before anyone takes a vow, father and daughter take one last weekend together, to Kyoto. They share their most candid conversation, but still Shukichi would rather give her up for honor's sake than keep her around, which is what he really wishes.

Late Spring ends with perhaps Ozu's most overt expression of emotion; following his daughter's wedding, Shukichi returns home, sits down, peels an apple and lets the peel fall to the floor. It's such a small gesture, but devastating.

As ever, Ozu's presentation never falters from his established style. Nearly every shot comes from floor level, or sitting-down level, the action centers around family, the characters deliver their lines with the slightly slower pace of real life, and relaxing "pillow shots" (mostly clotheslines, trains and landscapes) break up the action to give viewers a chance to breathe.

In 2006, the Criterion Collection released a deluxe two-disc DVD set. The gorgeous black-and-white film was transferred from a master positive and a 35mm theatrical print. The result was a bit on the shimmery side; the brightness tended to pulse in and out, but it was nothing to really complain about. Richard Pena, the program director of New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, provided the commentary track. (Pena also recorded a track for Manoel de Oliveira's excellent I'm Going Home.)

A second disc came with a surprising bonus, Wim Wenders' 1985 documentary Tokyo-Ga, in which the filmmaker traveled to Tokyo looking for remnants of Ozu's world. He interviewed several cast and crew members from Ozu's films and documented life in general. It was more of a travelogue than anything else, but it contained some valuable bits of information about Ozu. The DVD also came with a 24-page booklet with essays from film critics Michael Atkinson and Donald Richie, as well as a note from Ozu himself.

All in all, it has been one of my top favorite Criterion discs.

Now, in 2012, Criterion has issued a single-disc Blu-Ray, with identical extras and liner notes, but with a startlingly gorgeous transfer, with more depth and clarity, closer to the experience of a projected film. It also comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
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