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With: Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake, Ichiro Sagai, Chieko Higashiyama
Written by: Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 10/03/1951

Early Summer (1951)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Summer' Interlude

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've begun to look forward to the Criterion Collection's Ozu films the way I would look forward to a weekend or a vacation. Yasujiro Ozu's films fill me with such a profound sense of serenity and emotional richness that it makes me wonder why people rent or buy anyone else's movies.

The Criterion Collection has just released Early Summer (1951), their fourth Ozu disc, after Good Morning (1959), Tokyo Story (1953) and Floating Weeds (1959). It's yet another masterpiece and another feather in their already plumage-heavy cap.

Ozu is famous for having stripped down his style to the bare essentials, cutting away montage, moving cameras, special effects, etc. Early Summer came at a mid-point in Ozu's career and still contains a few tracking shots, but they are as subtle, beautiful and moving as any of the famous still shots. This film also shows off his gorgeous use of black-and-white, which he used for most of his career. (Since two of the four Criterion discs are in color, viewers might be fooled into thinking it's a common occurrence.)

The great Setsuko Hara stars in what could be considered the film's central role, although, like most other Ozu films, Early Summer is really an ensemble piece. Noriko (Hara) is 28 and unmarried, which in 1951 prompts nearly everyone who runs into her to ask, "Why don't you get married"?

Instead she works in an office and supplements her family's income so that they can live in relative comfort. She carries with her almost at all times a genuine smile, as if she is constantly amused by the strangeness and goodness of the world. Noriko spends time with three friends, bickering about who has it better, the married ones or the unmarried ones.

Her brother Koichi (Chishu Ryu, Ozu's most loyal and constant player), who acts as the family's father figure, spends most of his time worrying about her and trying to find a match for her.

Ozu sprinkles many other characters throughout Early Summer, including the two brat boys who want nothing more than extra tracks for their train set. More correctly, the older boy wants the track. His younger brother merely worships his older sibling and follows in his footsteps.

Koichi and Noriko's parents are still around and live in the house, but they've long given up any ruling power. The father passes time by making birdhouses, which appear in many of the film's "pillow" shots, i.e. peaceful images that give the audience a breather between "plot points."

Of course, Ozu doesn't much care about plot. If Early Summer has a point, it's to see Noriko married. Her boss finds her a potential match, and everyone else raises their hopes about him, but Noriko suddenly chooses another match toward the end. In a Hollywood movie, she would marry for romance, but here she chooses security and convenience. It's not even that important who she has chosen. What matters to Ozu is that her family home has been broken up and her income has been lost.

That's why Ozu spends so much of the film with the other characters, to emphasize their importance to the family. It doesn't matter a whit whether the boys get their train track or not, but at the end, we remember them and realize that the family can no longer afford such luxuries.

DVD Details: Once again, Criterion has presented a beautiful black-and-white transfer, above reproach. Unlike the previous two Ozu discs (Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds), this one is merely a single disc, but comes with a commentary track by Japanese expert Donald Richie and a featurette interviewing some of Ozu's co-workers. In addition, author/critic David Bordwell and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch provide essays for the liner notes.

One small error crops up in the subtitles. At one point, a character reveals that Noriko has collected a stack of "Audrey Hepburn photos." In 1951, hardly anyone knew who Audrey Hepburn was; she was only a bit player and didn't get her big break until two years later in Roman Holiday. The subtitles should have read "Katharine Hepburn," which would help explain the independence that Noriko so cherished.

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