If you looked up the term “minimalism” in a film dictionary, you would almost certainly see a still of a low-angle 50 mm lens shot from any of Yasujiro Ozu’s 30+ surviving films as illustration. But the term has been used and abused so much its descriptive power is limited, too generic. Perhaps it is more useful to say that Ozu’s films are remarkable both for their formal restraint and their narrative economy. Or, put another way, nobody does more with less than Ozu. With “Late Spring” (1949), Ozu trains his trademarked fixed camera on the deceptively simple story of a father and daughter and finds in it nothing short of the whole wide world, including, but not limited to, a universal tale of generational differences, a very specific story about the transforming family unit in a post-war Japan now missing a full generation of men, and an epic poem about sacrifice.
Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) is a rapidly aging widower who lives with his adult daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Noriko is approaching her late 20s, almost past marrying age in 1940s Japan, but she feels duty-bound to care for her father whose mental faculties may or may not be faltering; suffice it to say he is a bit “eccentric” and very dependent on his not-so-little girl.
Noriko’s busybody aunt decides it’s time for her niece to wed, which seems like a sensible idea except for the fact that neither father nor daughter care much for the idea. Noriko is content – not joyful, but simply content – with her current arrangement and sees no need to alter it, and will not even consider it as long as her father remains single. Shukichi feels the same way, but he also feels duty-bound to push Noriko out of the nest (or at least he does once his sister begins insisting on it), so he pretends to court a younger widow so that his daughter is free to… do what she doesn’t want to do in the first place, but feels obligated to do.
That’s the central tragedy of “Late Spring,” one of Ozu’s darker films, though it might not always seem so. Sacrifice may be a virtue, but if everyone gives up what they want, nobody gets it. But is it foolish even to consider personal happiness in post-war Japan where Coca-Cola signs loom large and remind every Japanese citizen that they’re not the ones calling the shots anymore? Society demands that sacrifice, even if it is to no good end, and so father and daughter follow their carefully proscribed roles to the bitter end.
Shukichi at least has the luxury of wallowing in his own misery (and sake) from time to time, but Noriko must keep up sunny appearances. Her constant broad smile, worn like a mask throughout the film, is one of the most indelible images in the history of cinema. It’s an all-purpose signifier, which is to say it becomes its own referent, a smile worn only for its sake, equally capable of indicating happiness, disdainl, resignation, and sorrow. Its rictus-like constant presence, always captured in uninflected form by Ozu’s implacable camera, bears down so intensely on the viewer, one can’t help but feel that “Late Spring” is one of the most carefully modulated horror films ever made.
Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are probably the two performers most identified with Ozu, and they are never better (OK, maybe in “Tokyo Story”) than here. No matter that Ryu was only 45 during shooting while Hara played roughly at her 25 years – he passes for three times her age with ease, only enhancing the generational chasm between them, one stretched even farther by the depredations of the war. Hara conveys so many emotions with that relentless smile, she’s nothing short of a marvel. As is “Late Spring,” a reasonable contender for the title of Ozu’s greatest film, and therefore a perfectly reasonable contender for the title of greatest film of all.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The source print obviously has significant problems which were plenty noticeable on Criterion’s 2006 SD release of “Late Spring.” It appears they have done some clean-up for the high-def transfer but are still working from the same print. There are scenes that still show considerable wear and tear – vertical scratches, specks, and overall fading. The 1080p improves on the image resolution of the SD so there aren’t as many spots with soft detail, but the damage looks, if anything, even more prominent at times in high-def. However, even with the damage, the black-and-white contrast is strong, and the depth is generally quite rich. This is still a very pleasant transfer to watch; it simply isn’t pristine and never will be until they get a fully restored source print to work from.
The LPCM Mono track provides no discernible upgrade from the Dolby Digital track on the SD. The audio is generally in better shape than the video though there are still bits of crackle and distortion at times. The mono track still has a certain ambient immersiveness to it, however, and the plaintive score by Senji Ito is well treated here. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
The extras have been duplicate from the 2006 SD release, which means we just get the excellent audio commentary by Richard Pena and the 1985 Wim Wenders documentary “Tokyo-Ga” (92 min.) Wenders visits Tokyo ostensibly to find traces of Ozu’s Japan, but spends more time being sidetracked by the modernized city with its pachinko parlors that now bears only a passing resemblance to Ozu’s work. Then again, Ozu’s chronicle was of four decades of changing life in Tokyo, so who would have expected it to stay the same? Wenders speaks with Chishu Ryu and also runs into Werner Herzog, of all people. It is, in a sense, an extended and unusually accomplished fanboy video. It’s not Wenders’ best work, but it’s certainly worthwhile. Don’t expect it to add much to your understanding of Ozu though.
The insert booklet, also duped from the 2006 release, includes essays by Michael Atkinson and Donald Richie and a brief statement by Ozu (from his 1964 biography) about screenwriter Kogo Noda.
It’s always great to have a great film in high-def, but Criterion can’t do much about working with a somewhat problematic print. “Late Spring” benefits from the high-def treatment but perhaps not by enough to justify a double dip for those who own the 2006 SD. However, if you don’t yet have this Ozu masterpiece in your collection, this should be at the top of your shopping list.