If Kurosawa is known for his constant movement in cinema, Ozu is his direct opposite. Ozu is a director who moved the camera less and less in his career, something which would be artistic suicide in today’s cinematic climate. But the 50’s were different and you could take your time, your narratives did not have to be so literal. Even a film like Some Like It Hot did not drive forward in the relentless way we are now accustomed to in America.
Early Spring is a film that even though it is mundane is nevertheless complex. The story swirls with characters and faces. Each life seems rich and sophisticated, every person has untold stories. The dialogue is nothing except commonplace conversation: food, the Toyko heat, work and unplanned pregnancies.
The slow, methodical, intentionally repetitive structure of this film is a wonderful departure from the frenzy of action films we’re swarmed with. It is a serene departure from the heavy handed melodrama that we saw in this era and still plagues us today. When watching Ozu, you are given space. You can breathe and take the time to notice your breath. You can enjoy the subtle facial movements of the actors and take time to appreciate the masterful composition that Ozu so lovingly imparts to his films. At the same time you’re brought in close, which little in the way of head space and Ozu’s signature low-to-the-ground camera placement. This makes his films intimate.
Shoji Sugiyama is a salaryman and WWII veteran, struggling with meaning in his work and a cold distance in his marriage. The film’s crucial moment is when Sugi has an affair with his co-worker, referred to as Goldfish. What’s interesting is that the moment of the affair is not given any greater precedence than any other of the film’s events, whether it’s visiting a dying friend or Sugi’s wife, Masako, making lunch with her mother. The event haunts him, however, as he fails to discuss it with a single soul. All the while rumors among his friends abound and his wife grows suspicious, eventually discovering the truth and leaving Sugi.
In a film which bills itself around an affair, we might expect more intrigue, more guile, a greater sexual tension between Sugi and Goldfish, and of course actually seeing the sex when it happens. Ozu eschews all this and treats the affair as merely another occurrence in life, something else which demands his time and attention as he navigates his day-to-day. Sugi regrets his decision without ever saying so, which is made evident in Goldfish’s weird cruelty after they have sex. It’s as though she revels in Sugi’s agony, feels accomplished at having vanquished his wife in battle, gleeful. It’s only when Sugi accepts a transfer to a job in the mountains several hours away that he confesses to his affair to an old friend. “A mistake is a mistake,” his friend assures him. Masako is meanwhile being encouraged by her friend to give Sugi absolutely nothing.
Once in the mountains, Masako joins Sugi. He apologizes to her in his own stunted way, she admits she doesn’t want to make it worse and they agree to keep going and try again. This runs contrary to how we feel about infidelity today, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Perhaps the affair is as commonplace as discussing the weather and isn’t worth ending marriages and relationships over.
Actually, there’s a good TED Talk about that: