Monday, March 24, 2008

More Ozu

I am sorry I didn't get to this yesterday, but I was so busy with work that I didn't have time to write.

Saturday and Sunday night two more wonderful films by the celebrated Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu premiered on my tiny computer screen: Early Spring and Tokyo Twilight. Faithful readers of this blog will recall Mr. Ozu from a post in early January, where I discussed his film Ohayo, or, Hello. A little Ozu on the weekend seemed like a nice way of rounding out a couple afternoons of Japanese grammar.

Both films are set in mid-1950s Tokyo and concern families adapting to the new realities of post-war life in Japan. Today I would like to talk about the first one, Early Spring, from 1956.

Early Spring opens with a 30-something veteran (of WWII), a salary man, Shoji (who works for a brick manufacturing company), and his wife, Masako, a housewife, rising in the morning. It is clear that she has much easier time waking up than he does--although she might not enjoy the world she wakes to any more than he does. We soon discover how a crushing daily commute to Marounuchi, obligations at work, obligations to friends, a dull, mind-numbing job, a son dead of disease are slowly conspiring to dissolve their marriage.

An initial flirtation between Goldfish (an office girl) and Shoji becomes increasingly serious, after a company outing. They arrange a date. They drink a bit too much. They kiss. And Shoji and Goldfish spend the night together at a small hotel. Later, Masako discovers lipstick on a her husband's handkerchief. She says nothing to him, and only alludes to the discovery to her mother. Soon, Shoji begins coming home later, and later, and finally, one night, Goldfish comes to the house of the Sugiyamas to confront Shoji. After this, Masako packs her bags and moves back in with a friend.

This is the story in the foreground. Behind it, there are several parallel stories being told simultaneously. The miserable life of the salaryman, the matter of fact way older couples cope with infidelity (a shrug of the shoulders and the proverbial rolling-pin applied to the peccant husband's head). There is also the embryo idea of democracy, on a local, personal level--choosing a path for yourself over falling into one prescribed by a closely structured society: abandoning office life to run a coffee shop, for instance. In some sense, these are the choices facing the generation charged with the task of rebuilding Japan. Will you exchange your wife for your mistress? Where do your loyalties lie? Can you be loyal to the past and to the future? Can you be loyal to yourself? Shoji makes peace with Goldfish with a handshake at his going away party.

Just prior to his wife's departure, Shoji is presented with a choice: to accept a three year transfer (with the prospect of a promotion) to a branch office in a distant depopulated prefecture, or stay in Tokyo. After his wife leaves, and a determined effort at reconciliation on his part, which Masako rejects, he decides to abandon Tokyo.

The final few scenes of the movie are set in the brick factory in the mountains where Shoji now works, and in the apartment he occupies in the poky little town surrounding it. Suggestively, enormous brick smoke stacks may be seen from every window, constantly belching smoke, working hard to rebuild Japan. It is a gritty place to live. But Shoji can walk home now, and he doesn't have to bother with trains. He may not enjoy the wild nightlife of Tokyo, but he does have time for reflection, and reading.

No life is without regrets, and none without its surprises, as Shoji finds, one afternoon, when he shuffles home from work to find one of his wife's dresses hanging on the wall. She has decided to join him. And it is here, in the ugly little factory town, surrounded by smokestacks, and mountains, they resolve to put their lives back together.

Like all of Ozu's films, this film is beautifully filmed and quietly understated. It is also very Japanese in the tension between social obligations, personal and public lives--ancient necessities that seem as distant and arcane to us today as private tears.

Never in the film did I doubt that Shoji and Masako deeply loved each other. But love is not always enough. And I was never sure that their marriage would survive until the final moment where Shoiji returns to his rented rooms in the mountains and we (both the viewer and Shoji) see the dress hanging on the wall.

Although they decide to begin rebuilding their lives in this new place, Ozu does not leave us with a rising crescendo of music signaling that all will turn out for the best. The last image we see is a departing train passing behind a black smoke belching chimney in the mountains. Above the chimney , soars a large white radiantly beautiful cloud. The future is remains obscure, of course. But for Masako and Shoji, we may have reason for hope.

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