"No wonder Japan lost the war," says a young woman irritably, referring to her husband's rowdy, drunken war buddies who visited late the night before. Yasujiro Ozu's 1956 film Early Spring (早春) is about the futile, endless cycle of a Japanese office salary man's career in the 1950s, a life with no hope of advancement accompanied by the need to continue for survival's sake. But it also explores the fundamental illusory nature of relationships and there are signs of Japan's loss in World War II as an omnipresent symbol of dead dreams. Filled still with the affectionate reverence Ozu had for life, it's also a great portrayal of the subjective and fragile nature of love.
Chishu Ryu, the actor who appeared in almost every film Ozu made, appears twice in Early Spring, at the end and the beginning, both times to remark in conversation how a young man who graduates from school to work in an office is filled with optimism but is gradually made acquainted with the intractable reality of his career. But the male protagonist of the film, Shoji (Ryo Ikebe) finds himself emotionally numbed by more than his job.
His wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima), becomes convinced Shoji is having an affair when he begins to come home from work late consistently or sometimes not until the next morning. And we learn Shoji is indeed having an affair but that's not always why he doesn't come home. Two reasons his wife is sure are excuses are in fact perfectly true--he visits his terminally ill and bedridden coworker, Miura, and he goes out drinking with his war buddies, two of whom (Kurosawa regulars Daisuke Kato and Koji Mitsui) he brings home one night to her annoyance. It's hard to tell if she's more annoyed by their behaviour or the proof that her husband hadn't been lying. Because his honesty on this occasion is only a delay in a matter she senses without doubt is real. After all, she remarks, Shoji forgets the anniversary of their son's death.
And that's how we learn the young couple had a child who died, when Masako mentions it off-handedly in conversation. The revelation helps explain Shoji's distance and his consciousness of the meaninglessness of his endeavours. It's not unlike Masako's flippant reference to Japan's defeat in World War II. But she's not alone, of course everyone carries on like everything is normal, and Masako and Shoji had been carrying on the same way with their marriage. They live in a world of buried trauma. Although Shoji visits the dying man, Miura, almost every night, when he finally learns at work Miura has died, Shoji's reaction is little more than to pause a moment and say expressionlessly to himself, "So. Miura is dead."
It's the young woman from his workplace, nicknamed Goldfish (Keiko Kishi), who initiates an affair with Shoji, kissing him at a restaurant after the two had had a pleasant hike with their coworkers. The impression isn't so much that Shoji wants her as that he can't see any reason not to accept her advances.
Reminding me somewhat of the way Kurosawa used contrasting Japanese and western wardrobe in Drunken Angel to show in the former sense institutional corruption and in the latter an acceptance of more democratic western values, Ozu in this later film makes an opposite statement. Goldfish wears western attire while Masako wears kimonos throughout the film until she decides to leave Shoji. No longer subject to the American censors, in 1956 Ozu was allowed to be more critical of the western cultural influence in Japan, and of course the subtle statement works in conjunction with the spectre of Japan's defeat and the vanished dreams of the culture.
Ozu is famous for rarely moving his camera, preferring low static shots of careful composition. But he moves the camera a couple times in this movie, most strikingly in one shot of an office corridor that reminded me of an eerie shot of a hospital corridor in David Lynch's second season premiere episode of Twin Peaks--after a series of protracted static shots of several interiors, Lynch slowly starts to move the camera forward on the corridor, creating the impression of something happening, a sense of a living being that is unsettling because the mind can't immediately identify the source. Ozu's shot of the office corridor works in a similar way. So much of the lives the people in this movie lead are rote, meaningless, but this quiet movement of the camera says that something is there anyway that can't be quantified and maybe that's why everything else hurts so much.
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