Banshun (1949)


(director/writer: Yasujiro Ozu; screenwriter: from a story by Kazuo Hirotsu/Kôgo Noda; cinematographer: Yuharu Atsuta; editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura; music: Senji Ito; cast: Chishu Ryu (Shukichi Somiya), Setsuko Hara (Noriko Somiya), Yumeji Tsukioka (Aya Kitagawa), Haruko Sugimura (Masa Taguchi), Hohi Aoki (Katsuyoshi), Jun Usami (Shuichi Hattori), Masao Mishima (Prof. Onodera), Kuniko Miyake (Akiko Miwa); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; New Yorker Films; 1949-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“One of the director’s favorites.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 1949 Late Spring by Yasujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”/”An Autumn Afternoon”) was one of the director’s favorites and has been called by critics “one of the most perfect, most complete, and most successful studies of character ever achieved in Japanese cinema.” It’s the kind of family drama where a parent is the central figure and the emotions captured are universal but the social customs are purely Japanese: there’s a three minute Noh theater sequence, a tea ceremony in the opening scene that sets the film’s formal tone, Zen gardens, Japanese designed landscapes in Kyoto that reflect the seasonal changes and a temple ceremony that shows the Shinto and Buddhist purification rituals. Ozu uses this strictly Japanese iconography to show that ideologically the Japanese tradition can be merged with the more modern changes caused by the Occupation.

It’s based on a story by Kazuo Hirotsu; Ozu once again collaborates on the script with Kôgo Noda, someone he hasn’t worked with since 1935 but has worked very well with him in the past. Ozu will also bring a new simplicity in story, structure, tempo, and aesthetic (letting his camera remain still in long-takes, which gives the viewer a sense that contemplation is more important than the melodrama) that will dominate all his films from now on in what has been called his “mature period.”

The 56-year-old Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) is a widowed father who lives contently in the Tokyo suburb of Kyoto with his sweet unmarried 27-year old daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who feels it’s her obligation to take care of him. Noriko is at an age that some consider past the usual marrying age for a woman, thus the film’s title (the seasonal cycle seems only a double-meaning for the title). Somiya is pressured by his bossy younger sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) to arrange a marriage for his daughter, and after talking with his friend Professor Onodera (Masao Mishima), who suggests Somiya’s gentle young assistant Hattori (Jun Usami) would be a good marriage candidate, he decides to see if Noriko likes him. Noriko tells her dad after a bike ride along the beach with Hattori that she likes him very much, but he’s already engaged. The aunt not fazed by the news immediately finds a suitable prospect who graduated from Tokyo University and has a good future at Nitto Chemicals named Satake (someone we never see but are told by the aunt that “He looks like Gary Cooper around the mouth, but not the top part”), and the kindly father counters his daughter’s reluctance to accept the date by telling her the lie that he’s going to remarry the attractive young widow Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake) and reassures her further by saying if she met the right person it would make him happy if she married. Noriko tells her aunt she likes the suitor prospect and she marries (we don’t see the ceremony, only the father and daughter in their wedding outfits) and departs to live with her hubby in Tokyo, while Somiya returns to an empty apartment. This act shows him in the traditional role of the self-sacrificing parent, but with the modern twist that he only tried to get his daughter to make her own decisions and would never encourage her to marry someone she didn’t like. Nevertheless this arranged marriage looks terribly old-fashioned when viewed from modern times, as the assumption is made that she must marry. But in Ozu’s time, such was the prevailing view.

The story is set during the postwar period and it’s quite evident that Ozu is weighing in on how to preserve Japanese tradition in the face of liberal modernization brought on by the influence of the American occupiers. To show the Western influence Ozu films the boys playing baseball and does a long-take shot on a road sign ad for Coca-Cola. Ozu takes a modern liberal view of the new changes in family relations and marriage, and has the gentle father being the more progressive one in the family (he’s both a traditionalist and a progressive who believes in marrying for love while trying as best as possible to preserve the traditions) while his daughter and aunt are rooted in the traditional past and find it more difficult to change with the times. The supporting characters all represent the modern view: Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) is a free-spirited divorcee, who can drink with the men in a saké bar and supports herself handsomely as a stenographer; while Professor Onodera, Somiya’s outspoken best friend, is a widower who has remarried and expresses progressive ideas.

Ozu creates a beautiful drama that is very moving and poignant, as it balances the sense of loss with an optimism about the future. It tells in a warmhearted way about the aspirations of the middle-class family depicted and the need for them to recognize that with the passing of time change is inevitable even if it might cause discomfort. Using a spare plot and dialogue and instead concentrating on the full emotional impact of the situation, there’s nothing artificial, manipulative or sentimental about this most honest family portrait. It thrives on its simplicity, the outstanding performances by the ensemble cast and the depth that Ozu gives his characters, who are all treated with much love and affection. One of the best films ever made from the master.