Even among the few who are skeptical of the Path of Yasujirô Ozu, it’s generally agreed that Late Spring, the director’s seventh sound film, is a great masterpiece, deserving to be classified as such in any manner of speaking. It’s the earliest film of his late period, the first that appears to act as a summation of what we think of when we talk about “Ozu,” both aesthetically and thematically. As with Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, Ozu would remake Late Spring twice, his last film (An Autumn Afternoon) being the second.
As the cinematic medium slouches along toward the promise of digital permanence, we might stop to meditate on the fact that many of the greatest films are linked thematically by their consideration of the passing of things, the very impermanence that our modern age claims to want to obliterate, as a cultural, or capitalist, ideal. Few films have expressed, with as much force and lyricism as Ozu’s Late Spring, the various emotions (melancholy, bittersweet joy, impassioned regret, taciturn resignation) associated with the ongoing, perpetual dissolution of “the world as we know it.” Like so few other films, Late Spring illustrates that we might acknowledge, even celebrate, the moment when we are rushed, unceremoniously, from life’s stage by the ceaseless momentum of youth and currency and newness, there’s no rule that says we have to be happy about it.
The plot is slight, frequently transpiring, as it often is in Ozu’s films, in observations made by characters over meals, tea ceremonies, or drinks. It involves Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and her transition from living with and supporting her writer father (Chishû Ryû) to assuming a “normal” life of her own as a married woman. Camera movement is minimal; Ozu’s home city of Tokyo plays a supporting role; the director’s iconic “pillow shots” give the film a sense of equilibrium between the ephemeral and the eternal. It’s a film about being afraid of, getting worked up over, and finally accepting imminent change; in other words, it’s a film about life and death.
In a way, the template of Ozu’s father-marrying-off-his-daughter trilogy resembles Chaplin’s Limelight, in which the tragedy of one form’s dissolution is transcended by the sheer ecstasy of the continuation of another form. Ozu, of course, owes much to Leo McCarey (recall that Tokyo Story is a virtual remake of the latter’s Make Way for Tomorrow), especially in his patient sensitivity in matters of daily life, and the strength of his ability to look upon his characters with gentle, teasing humor and deep affection in the same moment.
Materially speaking, the state of Yasujirô Ozu’s work improves as one moves, chronologically, toward his late period; prints of his color films tend to be almost flawless, if and when 35mm stock exists. (The pinnacle in this regard is his 1960 quasi-remake of Late Spring, Late Autumn, one of the most glorious color films ever made.) The print of Late Spring, as seen here, is finely detailed if consistently worn and scratched; in other words, contrast and depth are impressive, with glistening, silvery nitrate and dense blacks. Hairline scratches and other sorts of minor damage keep me from grading this as a top-drawer presentation, but Criterion’s transfer work is reliably excellent, and there’s some evidence of restoration and repair that makes this a slight improvement over their already very fine 2006 DVD.
The sound of Ozu tends to be characterized not just by dialogue and ambient sound, but also a sweeping, romantic, melancholy score (here composed by Senji Itô, who worked with Ozu on five other features), appearing not only at the head of each chapter, but during passages of ordinary conversation, often serving as an emotional reverberation to the emotional subtext of a given scene. Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a fine, uncompressed mono track, evenly managed and respectful of Ozu’s simple, effective soundscape.
No new additions or alterations from Criterion’s 2006 DVD: an audio commentary by Richard Peña, Wim Wenders’s 1985 essay doc Tokyo-ga, and a booklet of essays and notes. As a set, it’s a little skimpy, considering how high Late Spring ranks in the canon. That may be the cost of producing supplements for a master whose best movies are so well-represented by Criterion (their discs for Tokyo Story and Early Summer, among others, certainly have their own share of the pie). In any case, what’s here is choice: Peña comes correct with a thoroughly researched, yet passionate walkthrough of the movie, focusing on specifics rather than slathering the commentary track with superlatives, however well-deserved they may be. Wenders’s doc is best when the Paris, Texas auteur doesn’t speak: His Tokyo-ga features a rare interview with Chishû Ryû and Chris Marker-inspired footage of the Japanese capital, but as a thesis on modernization and modernity, it’s best taken with a grain of salt.