There is no real upside to writing a “meh” review of Ozu’s Late Spring, so why do it?
More often than not, naysaying reviews of venerated films are a form of preemptive trolling. There’s no such thing as negative attention on the Internet, right? In such a climate, perhaps a “yes, but…” review will go a longer way towards prompting dialogue than might the more conventional, “you have to be kidding me” faux outrage that normally accompanies such dissents.
Yes, Late Spring is an acknowledged masterpiece by a master of world cinema, but…at times it feels too opaque, too much like portraiture rather than cinema. A twenty-seven year-old Japanese woman lives with her widowed father in the aftermath of World War II. She looks more like a domestic servant than a loved daughter, and she resists her family’s attempts to get her married before it’s too late.
I stated on Letterboxd that I could not celebrate the decisions these characters made, and one respondent countered that the movie did not ask us to do so. That’s probably true, but neither does it appear to call on us to critique those decisions nor even to strive to understand them. Societal expectations in the form of a meddlesome aunt are a fait accompli, too powerful to resist. Noriko, the daughter, must be married, because…that is what is done. Okay, the official reason is that Shukichi’s (her father) eventual death would leave Noriko alone at a time where it would be harder to get married. I suppose that could happen, but the future is no more certain for married women than it is for young spinsters.
Noriko goes on long bicycle rides with a male friend who is engaged to another woman. She judgmentally condemns another widower who remarries too soon after his wife’s demise. Are these meant to be clues that point to some psychological motivations the film cannot discuss overtly? I don’t think so, but I was never sure. In the film’s one surprising scene, Noriko expresses her wishes clearly and directly to her father. She wants to stay with him, even if he gets remarried and she is relegated to an inferior social position. His response is to lie and say he is going to remarry because…shrug.
It probably didn’t help any that I returned to the film in the wake of its being voted to the lofty #2 ranking at the recent Arts & Faith list of the Top 25 Spiritually Significant Films about Growing Older. I love that list and and the people who made it, but I worry still that the the subject was too broad, essentially meaning too many different things to different people.
For some, “Growing Older” could simply be a polite label for films about the elderly. The site had debated a list centered around “coming of age,” which Growing Older was meant to incorporate without becoming beholden to. Things really didn’t shake out that way. Films such as Boyhood, High Fidelity, and Moonrise Kingdom that examined people growing between childhood and adulthood, while nominated, had a hard time gaining traction. 35 Up, Persuasion, and Before Midnight bubbled high enough to represent the midlife-crisis genre — or at least to represent films where coming-of-age, however delayed, occurred before the characters’ autumn years.
Ultimately, though, it was not the word “Older” that I had a hard time applying to Late Spring so much as it was the word “Growing.” The list has, to be sure, several films about characters whose stasis renders their aging all the more painful. King Lear is one obvious example. Gertrud, while less obvious, depicts the process of aging, divorced from growth, as something excruciatingly painful. The same might be said of Remains of the Day, in which Stephens’s inability to act on whatever epiphanies aging brings makes him a pitiable rather than venerable figure. Anders Bergstrom, in his blurb for the the list, calls Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries a reflection on “sorrows and regrets.”
At the age of 53, have I merely arrived at the place where I prefer my narratives of painful aging to have a side of grace and a pinch of wisdom? Perhaps. Beyond personal preferences, though, I struggle with the fact that others I respect appear to see these elements in Late Spring where I cannot. My friend Russel Lucas, for example, characterizes Shukichi and Noriko as content and happy, positioning the film as one which pits notions of familial duty against those of personal preference. The late Roger Ebert floats (then quickly walks back) the idea of an incestuous subtext. That strikes me as a big reach, but it also underlines the point that even those who feel (as Ebert says he does) that the father’s decision is “wrong” seem to see it as an act of love and yet struggle to explain it as such.
It may well be that Shukichi is more enslaved to societal expectations than even Noriko, who at least bucks them enough to verbalize her preference. Even so, Ozu tracks his reaction after Noriko’s nuptials. As he silently peels a piece of fruit, it is evident that the audience is meant to pity him as much, if not more, than the daughter he gave up to an undesired match.
I get that in a world that cares little, if at all, for the desires of the individual, stating what you want out of life can be terrifying and difficult. But Noriko did it. In this case, it seems to me, that growing older means only losing whatever small window one might have where the desperation to live one’s life outweighs the oppressive inertia of an indifferent world that calls upon each of us only to go along in order to get along.