Ozu’s “Early Summer” is a delightful movie to watch, pleasant and light in its story, yet thoughtful and sensitive in a good many respects. It is also a triumph for Ozu’s simple-looking but carefully conceived style of film-making, and the material in the story parallels the style in a natural but satisfying manner.
Noriko (Setsuko Hara) lives in postwar Tokyo with her extended family. Although she enjoys her career and her friends, her more traditionally minded family worries about the fact that she’s still single at the advanced age of 28. When 40-year-old business associate Takako (Kuniko Igawa) proposes marriage, Noriko’s family press her into accepting.
Early Summer (1951)
Yasujiro Ozu’s films are often family focused and deal with the complex relationships that can be found within the inner circle but he also addressed the changing face of Japan as the 20th century unfolded. I am gradually ticking off films from Ozu’s vast collection with Tokyo Story remaining his masterpiece thus far. My viewing pleasure this time took in Early Summer.
The film focuses primarily on a 28 year old woman named Noriko who is single and lives in a large household with her parents – Shukichi and Shige – as well as her brother, Koichi, his wife, Fumiko, and their two sons. Sounds like a version of hell to me. It’s a nice set-up with Noriko maintaining her independence, going out to work and socialising with a small network of friends – some married and others single the same as she is. When an elderly uncle comes to stay with the family, he is perplexed that Noriko is not yet married. This prompts the rest of the family and indeed Noriko’s own boss at work to start some far from subtle nudging towards her about considering marriage. The problem for the family is that Noriko seems content with being single and independent. Will she be able to withstand the pressure from her family or will Noriko be forced into a marriage she does not desire?
Watching Early Summer I couldn’t help but smile at the multitude of familiar faces to be found in the cast. You’ll notice it too if you watch a few of Ozu’s films. He clearly liked working with specific actors and none of them let him down here. People here are unquestionably polite but emotionally restrained when it comes to issues that might make families in other countries erupt into full-scale verbal attacks. The film contains a nod to Japanese tradition but in Noriko it also reflects a Japan that was changing in the post-war years. She is her own person and doesn’t wish to be defined by a husband. While all the cast are very good here, the film belongs to Setsuko Hara as Noriko. Beautiful and charming throughout, her performance captures a myriad of emotions with the impending changes Noriko potentially faces being well conveyed. I was saddened to learn that Hara apparently did not enjoy acting and only did so to support her family. If that is true, then her performances are even more impressive. There are many joyful moments in the film but the second half becomes increasingly poignant, a reflection of how the dynamic of families inevitably changes as children grow up and parents enter their winter years. It’s a reality the majority of us will come to face in our lives.
Verdict: Another solid family drama from Yasujiro Ozu with a delightful performance from Setsuko Hara.