Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review – Early Summer

September 13, 2008

Early Summer – Japan, 1951

Yosujiro Ozu's Early Summer opens with a normal morning. Noriko and Fumiko, her sister-in-law, eat breakfast with Fumiko’s two small children. The younger of the two, Isamu, doesn’t want to wash up and exerts more energy avoiding doing so then he would spend by simply following his mother’s instructions. Fumiko’s husband stands at a mirror preparing for work. Before long most of them will be sitting around the table, occasionally talking, occasionally silent, but always smiling. They are, in short, a collective unit. The audience sees this family from a distance, and in doing so, they are able to see something extraordinary. This is a house with no closed doors. Hallways lead to open rooms, and at any turn one can expect to bump into a family member. It is as if nothing is hidden in this house, as if their lives are as connected as the halls they occupy daily. It is an attachment that will be tested by Western ideals and a clash in post-war ways of thinking.

It is 1951, and Japan is a country undergoing a significant transformation. While some women in Japan have embraced more Western styles of dress, others continue to wear traditional kimonos. While some hold onto time-honored notions of the importance of marriage, others celebrate being single because of the financial and physical freedom it gives them. The chasm between those adhering to tradition and those adopting Western values is evident. Witness the way Noriko and her friend Aya tease – and anger – their married friends by insinuating that married women are more restricted and less content than single women. Their friends give back as good as they get, but there is no denying that the back-and-forth banter wounds them on a personal level. This is evident later when a party planned for the four of them turns into tea for two, with those women with husbands choosing to stay away, perhaps permanently severing their long-time friendships.

Much of the drama in Early Summer comes after Noriko’s boss, Mr. Satake, suggests that Noriko marry a friend of his, Mr. Manabe. Noriko says she’ll consider the offer, but never appears to seriously think about it. Word of the possible match spreads through Noriko’s friends and family, not through Noriko herself. No matter, the offer is out in the open, Noriko’s family quickly gets behind the idea. After all, Mr. Manabe is successful, he’s from a respectable family, and he will enable the family to maintain their financial position. In addition, Noriko is already 28, a fact that causes her family to worry that she is already too old to get married. Notice that neither of these reasons is that love has blossomed between the prospective bride and groom, and for a woman like Noriko, that omission may be a deal-breaker.

As the film moves along, it becomes clear that Early Summer is very much about the passage of time and how irreversible the change that comes with that passage is, even if many prefer the cultural norms of their grand-parents. For their part, Noriko’s family clings to many long-held roles, such as the one that assigns certain powers and privileges to the eldest son. In this case, that son is Koichi. It is he who investigates his sister’s prospective husband, and after he deems the match acceptable, it is he who chastises his mother for having second thoughts, accusing her of wanting too much for her daughter. Like his parents and wife, he is blind to the quiet revolution that is taking place in front of him. A young woman has seized control of her destiny, and her family, as well as her country, has been permanently altered. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

4 stars

*Early Summer is in Japanese with English subtitles)

No comments: