A classic “pillow shot”1 establishes the scene as just before dawn. A train rumbles by across a dark gray sky in the mid-ground. We cut to inside a house. An alarm clock goes off. A husband and wife awaken and start their day: getting dressed, eating a bite, leaving with a traditional “Ittekimasu” (I’m leaving). Eventually the man arrives at work. Traditional greetings-“Ohaiyo”s (Good morning)-are exchanged. Two workers stand at the window and observe the hustle and bustle of the day. With this train of movement, gently building momentum with the discreet shufflings of a world slowly coming to life in the morning, Ozu has captured the organic poetry in the small moments of every-day life, quite like nobody else in cinema can. For a film-maker renowned for his formalistic elegance and simplicity who relates universal stories, I’m constantly surprised by Ozu’s ability to, well, surprise.
Early Spring stars Ryô Ikebe2 who plays Shoji Sugiyama, a low-level, office-working “salaryman” employed by a firebrick company. Shoji is married to Masako (Chikage Awashima), a homemaker who does everything in her power to be a good wife and woman. However, Shoji finds himself restless and unsatisfied with his job and his life in general. He takes to organizing after-work group outings and activities, betting on Mah-Jong and drinking at bars, but nothing will assuage the sense of soul-crushing drudgery. That is until he catches the eye of a female office worker named Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), affectionately nicknamed Goldfish, and the two are tempted into an affair. This immediately sparks rumors around the office and the community, eventually reaching the ear of Masako who begins acting suspicious of Shoji in an attempt to find out the truth.
Early Spring was Ozu’s first endeavor after his most-famed “Noriko” Trilogy which culminated in the film many believe to be his finest masterpiece, Tokyo Story. Unlike that trilogy, Early Spring finds Japan living in a post-war, post-colonialism world (two years after occupying American forces had left) and attempting to return to a sense of normalcy. The film opens in a manner that seems to suggest the normalcy has been found: a husband and wife, a home, stable employment. But like so often in Ozu there’s more happening than meets the eye. One thing we quickly realize is missing from the familial equation is children, and we soon learn that Shoji and Masako’s only child died from an unspecified illness as an infant. The void left behind is as palpable and tangible as it is symbolic; even in a world free from war and occupation, there is still a sense of barrenness, of pervasive uncertainty and unhappiness, even beneath the veil of normalcy.
Ozu often said that Tokyo Story was his most popular film because it was his most melodramatic, and Early Spring seems to be a conscious shift away from such drama. Here, Ozu almost imperceptibly builds emotional resonance via subtle visual and narrative motifs. These seem to accumulate in meaning as the film wears on, and instead of releasing the built-up tension in bursts, such as the gathering during the mother’s death in Tokyo Story, Ozu diffuses it slowly, like helium leaking out of a blown-up balloon. At one point in the film we know that Masako knows that Shoji has had an affair, and though we keep waiting for a confrontation, Ozu never delivers one. Instead, he focuses his attention on the various perspectives on that affair, including Masako’s mother and Shoji’s co-workers.
That sense of covering multiple perspectives makes Early Spring one of Ozu’s richest and most expansive films. At the same time the film is distinctly about the marriage of Shoji and Masako and Shoji’s infidelity, it’s also a film about the unhappiness of living the life of a “salaryman” as well as their economic and spiritual troubles. But because Ozu takes to incorporating a large supporting cast he’s able to build these themes through sequences of ostensibly disconnected interactions. Indeed, all of Early Spring seems to play like a series of the most banal conversations and gatherings between ordinary people. But part of Ozu’s magic is his ability to take these inherently uninteresting pieces and assemble them into the most wonderful tapestries that are strangely riveting in the moment, and seem all the more brilliant in retrospect.
One might be tempted to criticize the excessive runtime, as Early Spring is certainly amongst the longest films in Ozu’s oeuvre. While the central “micro” plot might not warrant the length, I’d argue that the more “macro” social context does. It’s a film whose power is built on a carefully composed and orchestrated variety of life, and without the length much of that substance is lost. The characters also lack the three-dimensionality and sympathy of those in Ozu’s previous work, but the exquisite evocation of the milieu and the everyday life of the people in it more than makes up for it. So does Ozu’s formalism, which by now has achieved an organic effortlessness in which Ozu can make the slightest alterations seem monumental (like the sprinkling of tracking shots, or dolly-ins). Early Spring isn’t a film you’re likely to find yourself weeping at like Late Spring or Tokyo Story, and it doesn’t quite have the perfect grace of Early Summer, but it’s another phenomenal effort from Ozu at the height of his artistic powers. This is cinema at its most nuanced and its most rewarding, and equally at its most universally relevant.
2 Ikebe, veteran actor of over 100 films, passed away October 8th of this year.