Yasujiro Ozu, “Early Summer” (1951)
Calm and serene with a thin plot, “Early Summer” looks at a family and the changes it undergoes as a result of one of its members deciding whether or not to marry. The movie is set in early 1950’s Japan which was under American occupation and associated social influences at the time. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a clerk in her late twenties under pressure from her parents and her married brother at home to find a suitable husband. Even her boss at work jokingly suggests she should meet an old school friend of his to see if they’re a good match for each other. Noriko sweetly bats off all these hints that she’s nearing her meat-market use-by date and should be settling down to obedient, passive housewifely duties. Her social set divides into singleton and married-women camps arguing the pros and cons of singlehood and supposed wedded bliss so she’s well aware of what she’d be walking into if she got that gold band on her finger. Interestingly, the one person who doesn’t hassle Noriko about getting married is her sister-in-law who’s harried by two small sons who are spoilt by their grandparents.
The visual style of “Early Summer” is highly commendable: the camera positions place considerable physical space between us viewers and the characters, and the cameras themselves are set at table height or at the level Japanese people traditionally kneel down to eat at low tables when at home. Deep focus fixed-camera shots are used so people are often filmed in the background having conversations or doing things while framed by doorways, furniture and other interior fixtures. If the camera moves at all, it is to track people coming towards it or going away from it, or to pan slowly across the screen over a nature scene. The effect is to give “Easy Summer” a static, almost stage-like quality and viewers will feel very much like voyeurs peeking into people’s private business. The very minimal acting places psychological distance between us and the characters. By forcing such physical and psychological distance, viewers observe the story as it develops and don’t get deeply involved; this helps to reinforce the film’s theme about how change affects families and the relationships within them for better and for worse. We shouldn’t get upset if people suffer as this may be a short-term effect of the change and there may be long-term benefits; equally a short-term benefit may lead to adverse long-term effects.
“Early Summer” observes the pressure Noriko is put under to conform to tradition and expectations under social, political and economic conditions that aren’t static, and the frustrations and distress that she experiences when social custom clashes with changing reality. At first she’s unwilling to surrender her freedom, financial independence and closeness to her relatives but after continued pressure from family and friends alike, she suddenly decides to marry a widower with a child. The irony of her decision is that her relatives disapprove of the idea of a proven family man as husband over a man aged 40 years who’s never married and might not be family-man material; and Noriko’s impending marriage means her income will be lost to her family so her brother and his brood must move to a smaller house in Tokyo and the parents must live in the country. The hypocrisy and shallowness inherent in forcing a woman to marry purely to preserve social standing and harmony without thought for practical consequences become apparent.
The acting is so sparing in its expressiveness as to seem stereotyped: most of the women are chirpy and giggle a lot; the men stick to one mode of expression throughout the film so Noriko’s boss is usually jovial and her dad and various other aged people usually act bemused at the pace of modern life. Hara does a good job within the limits set by director Ozu at portraying a woman who hides her anger, sorrow and despair behind a cheery and upbeat façade.
Scenes of restless nature (beach scenes of rolling waves near the beginning and the end of the film, a scene at the end of rippling wheat ready for harvest) and of the Tokyo cityscape reflect the ongoing and impassive nature of change. The small children with their obsession with model train sets and demand for lollies and gifts are the focus of a small subplot emphasising generational differences.
Slow and reserved it may be but “Early Summer” isn’t at all stodgy; it just glides by, inviting neither scorn nor sympathy for its characters. The film does suffer from not being in colour which would enhance Ozu’s style of filming by adding depth to deep focus shots. Mood and atmosphere might be improved with appropriate colour choices in the interior and costume design. Unfortunately for Ozu, the technology to film in colour was never available to him, Japan at the time being an impoverished country ruined by war policies pursued by its governments in the 1930’s – ’40’s, and by the time the country’s film industry could afford colour filming (some time in the mid-1960’s), Ozu had already died.
One aspect of “Early Summer” that some viewers might find troubling is the fatalistic attitude expressed by Noriko’s parents in their new digs in the country when they kid themselves that they’re happy and shouldn’t ask for more in life. Their facial expressions suggest their confusion, unhappiness and feeling of being tricked or trapped in some way at the way things have turned out as a result of their daughter bowing to convention and tradition. This moment captures very well the bewilderment of a society caught up in political, economic and social changes not always of its own making.