“Early Spring” - Yasujiro Ozu (1956)

Like most of the films of his mature period, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (Soshun, 1956) concerns the various personal and social relationships that structured contemporary middle-class Japanese life. In this case the primary theme concerns the workaday dissatisfactions among the burgeoning class of low-level white-collar workers. The men (the primary breadwinners)  refer to themselves as “salarymen”, and for the most part, they feel their work is boring and meaningless – they merely work to collect their meager weekly salaries.

The story concerns one of these salarymen, a young married office worker, and it traces events that bring about a crisis in his life.  The ending of this crisis may bring about different critical interpretations, depending on how one views the bigger social picture.  But whatever your interpretation, a key component of the film is, of course, the manner in which Ozu tells the story cinematically. 

Ozu’s Cinematography
Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of cutting on action, which evokes the idea of the camera representing the “invisible” witness whose focus of attention changes naturally with an action cut.  Sometimes, at dramatically significant moments in the story, there is a straight-on camera shot, with the principal character speaking directly to the camera, which places the invisible witness directly in the middle of the interaction, empathetically assuming the role of the recipient of the speaker’s words.

For scene transitions, Ozu often shows static cityscape images that are empty of human content.  Sometimes these scene transitions elliptically pass over a significant piece of action that must be inferred by the viewer.  Altogether these effects create their own special cinematic atmosphere  that seems to place the viewer in an intimate position to witness the scene, and yet not always privy to everything that is going on. 

Ozu probably developed this consistently rigorous visual methodology during his early days in the period of silent filmmaking.  Surviving storyboards of Ozu’s work show his meticulous concern for background compositions and are indicative of his static camera methods [1].

Using these cinematic techniques, Ozu presents in Early Spring over the course of two hours and twenty-four minutes, Ozu’s longest film, a close-to-the-ground study of the pointless tedium of modern middle-class existence.  Despite the careful brush strokes, however, I wouldn’t say that this film aesthetically matches the enervating existential ambience of Olmi’s Il Posto (1961). 

The Cast
There are three principal characters in Early Spring:
  • Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe), an office worker at the Toa Fire Brick Company,
  • Masako (Chikage Awashima), Sugiyama’s wife,
  • Chiyo Kaneko, “Goldfish”, (Keiko Kishi), a girl at Sugiyama’s work place.
The focalization is almost exclusively on Sugiyama and Masako. Nevertheless, I would say that there are three focal spheres in the story, and the narrative meanders back and forth across all three spheres throughout the film:
  • Sugyiyama’s world - the man's world
  • Masako’s world - the woman's world
  • The salarymen milieu at the company office.  It is this third sphere that is, in my view, the most important.
The Story
The story moves through four stages, and in each stage the three subject spheres are visited.
1.  Morning in the City
In the first part, we are introduced to the rather regimented world of the Tokyo office workers [2].  They all live in cramped apartments, all wear the same “office” clothes, and commute back and forth to work in crowded trains. Sugiyama and Masako are just one couple in this crowd.  During a lunch break, a number of the workers decide to break the monotony of work by going on a day hike at a nearby mountain.
2.  Sugiyama and Goldfish
On the hike, Sugiyama begins chatting with a girl from the company’s typing pool, “Goldfish”.  Soon they are shown having lunch together, and thanks to the vivaciousness of Goldfish their acquaintanceship blossoms into an affair.  The actual moments of passion are omitted by Ozu’s ellipsis here.

3.  Breakdown at the Office
Although Sugiyama and Goldfish conceal their relationship, their gossipy coworkers at the office begin to suspect something. A few of them arrange a fake party that is intended to serve as a kangaroo court to accuse Goldfish and Sugiyama of adultery. Sugiyama is preoccupied with news that he is going to be transferred by the company to the remote town of Mitsuishi, and he misses the setup party.  But Goldfish show up, and she is reduced to tears by their nasty allegations.

4.  Breakdown at Home
Eventually the suspicious Masako becomes sure of Sugiyama’s infidelity, and their ensuing quarrel leads to her moving out of their apartment to go live with a girlfriend.  Masako cuts herself off from Sugiyama, hanging up the phone when he calls her up.  So Sugiyama glumly goes off alone to Mitsuishi to take up his new post.  In the end, though, friends and family intervene to convince Masako to go join her husband.  They meet up, mutually apologize, and agree to start a new life together.

Some people view this story as a heartwarming domestic drama about a good traditional marriage that is almost ruined by the crafty machinations of the immoral Goldfish.  According to this view, Goldfish, whose hairstyle and clothing have a Western look, represents the corrupting influences of modernity.  Sugiyama is seen as initially succumbing to the evil temptations, but he eventually repents, and order is finally restored by his forgiving wife. 

But I take a different view.  To me the film is about the hollowness of “modern” Japanese middle-class life.  Among the men at the office, there is little authentic communication.  They compulsively reach for their cigarettes in order to give the appearance of being occupied. Much of the time they complain about the barren life horizons of all the salarymen [3]. At one point in the story when Sugiyama is having a drink at a bar, he hears an elderly white-collar worker at the adjacent barstool tell him, “I’ve worked 31 long years to find life is just an empty dream.”  In fact in this social climate, drinking alcohol seems to be the only means that a man has to throw off the yoke of his social harness and be uninhibited.  This is shown when Sugiyama gets together with his war veteran buddies, and they all get heavily and satisfyingly drunk.

In the milieu of the women, life is equally dreary.  Masako chats with her mother and various female acquaintances, and they all tell her that men are inherently cheaters.  Although the mother is rather stoic about this, the others advise her to make men suffer as much as possible for their sins.

Goldfish, in fact, is the only authentic person in the story.  She is the one person who can feel love, honestly express her emotions, and make direct engagement with the people around her. Her habitually good-natured demeanor arouses jealousy. When the man she loves, Sugiyama, turns his back on her, she accepts and forgives him, only asking him to be honest with her. At the kangaroo-court party after Goldfish departs in tears, the men, who had just sanctimoniously attacked her, then admit to each other that it was probably Sugiyama who had seduced her. This is an erroneous belief – Goldfish had actually seduced Sugiyama – but it shows how men typically and immediately heap blame on women for acts in which they themselves are complicit. They go on to confess that they actually envy Sugiyama’s good luck at having scored with Goldfish.  Hypocrisy is the rule with everyone but Goldfish.

So to me the narrative of Early Spring ends gloomily – as a defeat.  Sugiyama and Masako succumb to the oppressive, dead-end system that surrounds them and vow to make a go of it.  But the joys and wonders of life, its magic as represented by the way Goldfish engaged with it, are evidently abandoned.  This is a sad ending indeed.

  1. “The director’s storyboards suggest Ozu envisioned his trademark rigorous-style compositions long before cameras rolled. In them, sets are lined with geometric beauty and are much darker than drawings done to illustrate the characters.” – quoted from “Ozu's Movies Continue to Win New Fans”, by Noriki Ishitobi and Aiko Masuda, The Asahi Shimbun, January 28, 2014.
  2. This was by no means only a concern in Japan.  Everywhere there was a growing concern about the new social forms of the “Organization Man”, as attested to by bestselling books of that time:
    • The Organization Man (1957), by William H. Whyte, Jr., Doubleday Anchor Books, and
    • The Lonely Crowd (1953), by David Riesman, Doubleday Anchor Books.
  3. This, of course, is a worldwide problem.  Consider this contemporary commentary on the salaryman's dismal landscape (from “World Processor”, by Jacob Silverman, The Baffler, No. 25, 2014):
    "Utopian reveries spill forth almost daily from the oracles of progress, forecasting a transformation of Information Age labor into irrepressible acts of impassioned fun. But we know all too well the painful truth about today’s ordinary work routines: they have become more, not less, routinized, soul-killing, and laden with drudgery.
    . . .
    The computerization of the workplace brought regulated workflows, surveillance by managers, deference to the dictates of software, and a machine with which you couldn’t keep up. It meant a noticeable loss of autonomy and a dawning sense—seen in the rapid turnover guaranteed by planned obsolescence—that productivity and growth had become ends in themselves. The most dangerous -isms turned out to be those preceded by 'Ford' and 'Taylor,' and they exerted their ultimate hold by becoming technologized and dispersed throughout our homes, our offices, our cars, and our cities."

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