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Early Summer

May 8, 2020

Early Summer (1951)
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Actors: Setsuko Hara, Chishū Ryū, Chikage Awashima

Early Summer (1951, Yasujirô Ozu) / Cinematography by Yûharu ...

Synopsis: A few weeks in the life of the extended Mamiya family in Kamakura, Japan. The marital status of the 28-year-old daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), becomes a developing point of interest for all the members of the family.

Review: There is a universality and timelessness to this exquisite ode to family and the pang of transience by Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu.

Taking as his nominal focus the everyday happenings, comings and goings of the unexceptional Mamiya family in Kamakura, Ozu succeeds – in his usual stealthy way – in building a progressively emotive and profound tapestry around these micro-portraits.

Set in the years after the Second World War, there is some merit in seeing the film as a wry recalibration of Japanese gender politics. The single status of Noriko, the unmarried daughter, becomes the emerging focal point of the family’s conversations, and her age (28) is a recurring concern – not only to her parents and patriarchal brother, but her boss and friends too. Thus, it’s revealing and rather powerful that Noriko ends up choosing, almost nonchalantly, a widower she is friendly with rather than the older, more respectable, match that her boss had recommended. Of course, it would be remiss not to mention that Noriko is played by the incomparable Setsuko Hara, and there is a lovely scene of her character’s inherent gracefulness when she has just accepted to marry the widower in conversation with his mother, and on leaving her house she bumps into that very future husband – naturally, she gives a courteous nod but says nothing!

Ozu’s style and the precise setting of this story are so resonant too. The film’s central theme of transience – hence the very evocative title, Early Summer, a time for growth and exploration – is apparent in the family living in a small seaside town, Kamakura, some miles south of Tokyo where many of them work. Kamakura’s tiny train station becomes an important psychic space in the story. It’s the place that takes the younger generation away from their parents (in the case of Noriko, permanently), and there is a subtly moving scene when the ageing patriarch of the family takes a small walk outside his house, but has to take a seat by the railway crossing as a fast train is moving on through.

Ozu’s rectangular, ‘still-life’ framing is a regular feature of his films, and here, it has the effect of making the home and all its paraphernalia (the apparatus for everyday life) as much the subject of the scene as the characters that play their life out from within that tableau. Also, Ozu makes a feature of lingering on rooms after they have been emptied and basking in that void throughout the film. It helps amplify Early Summer’s bittersweet dichotomy of absence and transformation, a sentiment beautifully delivered by the father in a soft lament about the impermanence of his family unit when he says to his wife, “I wish we could live together forever.” (May 2020)

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