Early Summer

Lacquer screens and marital expectations frame Yasujirō Ozu’s 1951 classic Early Summer. As with so many of Ozu’s films, this familial portrait of breakaway love and of marriage as the moment of transition begins at the level of the tatami. The cinematic style is synonymous with Ozu, the camera lens positioned low to the floor, at eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat, placed as if on a pillow.

The intimate view this conjures is not one of outright lust, however, and neither is it meant to accentuate moments of erotic escapism. Deviant sex and pillow talk were later to arrive in Japan than Hollywood. Instead, in the face of tradition, organised marriage, and the subsequent “death of female identity” (as critic Robin Wood attributes to the women “married off” in Ozu’s films), the rebellious love of Early Summer in post-war Japan asserts itself in more reflective, but no less determined ways.

Noriko, a 28-year-old unmarried woman, embodies this idea of a less impassioned but nonetheless radical love, and the generational change she embodies in defying familial expectations occurs here at a much slower pace. Noriko is greeted early on by her uncle, who proposes she marries an older man, the 40-year-old businessman who — in a Floridian real estate way — plays golf. After much deliberation and family pressure, Noriko agrees to the proposal. This begins the film’s bittersweet relationship with love, commitment and necessarily, therefore, with change — though, as in his 1949 film Late Spring, Ozu leans into the bitter.

Slow-panning dolly shots create a film introspective to the process of its own making and context. In a narrative sense they suture the social changes of the post-war years and Noriko’s wish to depart family life to the experience of one family’s struggles to accept her. Slowly emerging from the rubble of war, Japan in 1951 was a contradiction. Imported American optimism met families grieving dead or wounded sons, while traditional values and a newly-installed democracy simultaneously attempted to stitch society back together. Bernard Rudofsky would later describe Japan as a “rear-view mirror” of the American way of life – the intricate structures of social obligation, still housed in the traditional minka architecture, are in Early Summer under stress as modernity propels a new, foreign world into their midst.

But it would be a mistake to view Early Summer as a film that shies away from embracing change. Instead, Ozu picks his moments. In a rare crane shot that pictures Noriko and Fumiko striding across the dunes before running down to the sea at Kamakura, Ozu’s cinema appears at its most free. In what feels like a tremendous release of energy and emotion, Noriko reaffirms her desire to leave for Akita in the North to join Kenkichi. The sudden stylistic and scenic break seems to emotively signal this as her epiphany, the end-point of Ozu’s diegesis, and the culmination of the process of change, Noriko’s parents having now accepted her will. However, returning to the family house one last time, Noriko breaks down, suddenly aware of the fissive effect her impending marriage will have on the family. Noriko’s last heartfelt scene thus ends with the tatami, as does Ozu’s 50mm camera.

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