Early Summer: The Criterion Collection
A camera is affixed to a tripod set three feet from the floor, peering forward through a 50mm lens. The height is meant to duplicate the straightforward angle of an individual sitting cross-legged on a mat, while the lens is the closest approximation to the vision of the average human being. This is the familiar gaze of Yasujiro Ozu, Japan's second most celebrated director, and while no westerns or gangster films or intergalactic serials were ever directly inspired by his work, it's hardly diminished, for no director before or since has been so relentlessly and unerringly attuned to the human experience. His fascination with the life's many nonnegotiable compromises, and the sadness that accumulates with each minor surrender, and how this sadness ages into a bemused resignation was honed in such silent classics as I Was Born, But and A Story of Floating Weeds, but the unhurried, meditative (more impatient viewers might say "slow") aesthetic commonly associated with Ozu would not fully materialize until 1949's Late Spring, which, though a fine film in its own right, seemed a stylistic gearing up for his first post-war masterpiece, Early Summer (1951). At an intimidating 125 minutes, here was Ozu defying classical narrative convention to examine, via close to 20 characters, the inevitable breaking up of family. Though he had been yearning for (and, to an extent, attaining) such thematic profundity in his earlier works, Ozu was, at the age of 47, finally old enough to authoritatively capture the complete emotional range of the human life span. Whether it was the war or a presaging of his own relatively early passing 12 years later, there's little denying that Early Summer is the work of a man who has loved and reveled and grieved, but, above all, lived. The primary narrative arc of Early Summer concerns the Mamiya family's long-delayed marrying off of their 28-year-old only daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), but Ozu confounds audience expectations by avoiding any major dramatic conflicts until the second act, preferring instead to spend an unusually generous amount of time introducing and developing the several present generations of the clan, as well as their various friends and co-workers. As would be the case in his later works, Ozu's lingering interest in his dramatis personae creates a rich tapestry of identifiable human behavior, from the visiting, hearing-impaired great uncle to the bratty exploits of Koichi's adolescent sons, making the absence of structurally necessitated incident far more palatable than it might be in the hands of a lesser filmmaker (see or better yet, don't Magnolia). When Ozu finally allows the question of "Who will Noriko marry?" to propel the nearly imperceptible plot forward, it seems as if it's happened organically, rather than through the machinations of the director and his longtime co-scenarist Kogo Noda. Slowly, and rather amusingly, Noriko's family and friends surreptitiously busy themselves to secure for her an advantageous match, which proves to be an exceptionally tricky task, since all involved in the endeavor have such a high opinion of their daughter/sister/friend. Candidates come and go, background checks are run, but, for all of their careful planning, what no one could anticipate is that Noriko would choose a husband on her own. Unfortunately (i.e., in the estimation of her choosy family), she selects Kenkichi, a previously married father-of-one whose job will soon move him out to the provinces, a far cry from refined Tokyo society in which everyone dreamed the intelligent Noriko would flourish. Her surprise decision is at first met with anger, and then gradually, acceptance; the family is to be "scattered" at last, and this disappointment, as with everything else, will be assimilated into the melancholy passage of time.
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To pull off a multi-character epic in the present day, most filmmakers retreat into the safety of bold eccentricity as a means of sustaining audience interest, and while there have been reasonably entertaining recent entries in this genre (e.g. Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums), few have evinced Ozu's daring to cleave to the mundanity of real life in order to attain a wholly honest resonance (in this respect, only Edward Yang's Yi-Yi stands out as an effective successor). Yes, Ozu's late career triumphs do require that rigorous attention be paid by the viewer, a debit that accounts for his heralding by cineastes and no one else, which is particularly sad because there is nothing within these films that is beyond the understanding of the average filmgoer. While mass acceptance eludes many critical darlings due to the esoteric form and content of their films, Ozu's disconnect is based entirely on an unwillingness by most viewers to slow down and contemplating life's many minor victories and defeats, and how they eventually sum up one's time on this planet. Typically, it's the moments of repose in an Ozu film that stay with the viewer, and Early Summer has no shortage of them: the grandfather taking an unplanned pause at a railroad crossing and getting lost pondering the heavens as a train breezes by, or Noriko eating dinner alone in the nighttime silence of the house in which she was raised. But the most universal shot of all is the final one of the village from the distant wheat field. Though undeniably Eastern in its congregation of architecture, all that has transpired over the last two hours signifies to the viewer that this could, in theory, be any neighborhood in any city on any continent. Such connections are phenomenally rare in the cinema, and this is why, leisurely pace be damned, Ozu will always matter.
The Criterion Collection presents Early Summer in a very nice full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with serviceable Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include an, as ever, enlightening commentary from Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, and "Ozu's Films from Behind the Scenes" (48 min.), an enjoyable remembrance of the long-since-departed director by three of his collaborators (soundman Kojiro Suematsu, camera operator Takashi Kawamata, and producer Shizuo Yamanouchi). Also on board is the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.