Sōshun (Early Spring, 1956) follows Yasujirō Ozu’s classic Tōkyō monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953) in continuing to develop the director’s characteristic themes, including the demands of family life, the maintenance of tradition, the personal and professional obligations of the individual and the impact of changing times on people. However, while this film could be classified as another of Ozu’s family dramas, it also presents a group that acts as a surrogate family towards the main characters, a device employed by Ozu in other films, such as the travelling acting troupe of Ukikusa (Floating Weeds, 1959) or the group of men acting as matchmakers for a widow in Akibiyori (Late Autumn, 1960). As Paul Schrader observed about some of Ozu’s films, including Early Spring, “the office ‘family’ replaces the household family unit. Ozu focuses on the tensions between the home and the office, the parent and the child, which are extensions of the tensions between the old and new Japan, between tradition and Westernization, and – ultimately – between man and nature.”1

These themes are immediately apparent in the opening shots of Early Spring. The film begins with a huge vertical sign looming over a landscape, followed by two more establishing shots showing a group of houses and a passing train nearby blowing its horn, before a cut to an interior of a house shows two people sleeping, with an alarm clock ringing soon after. In just a few shots, Ozu not only introduces the two main characters – the married couple Masako (Chikage Awashima) and Shōji (Ryō Ikebe) – but he deftly presents images that express key ideas in the film. The presentation of these images makes them seem unobtrusive, but their placement – both in the juxtaposition of shots and the use of elements in each one – makes them function as opposites: a quiet landscape is disrupted by a speeding train, the modern world intruding into the countryside; a peaceful sleep is interrupted by a mechanical device, disturbing people to get them up at a set time.

After this, the viewer is given a sense of the closeness of this community, not just in terms of the people knowing one another, but of seeing persons virtually stacked next to each other due to their homes being in such close proximity. This feeling of confinement is increased by the static, low-level camera, a typical Ozu composition, which shows simultaneous action in the foreground, midground and background. However, shots like these also allow the viewer’s gaze to wander the frame and select characters and objects upon which they wish to focus, whilst also showing people in the background, passing in and out of sight, suggesting a world outside the confines of the frame.

After the introduction to Masako, Shōji and their community, some people are then shown walking to a train station, beginning with a trickle of individuals that quickly, through a series of edits, grows to a multitude of commuters. Daily life is swiftly sketched, but this sequence also suggests a rather mundane routine that workers repeat almost unconsciously. However, these people are not anonymous, with Ozu quickly taking us from the general crowd to specific individuals, showing a collection of workers chatting cheerfully on a platform, a group of characters whom viewers will come to know more as the film progresses. Donald Richie notes that “the opening of Early Spring consists of fifty-some shots,”2 an opening that starts with introductory rural landscape shots and concludes with a shot of Tokyo: specifically, “an overhead scene of the station plaza.”3 He suggests,

“By showing us this single two-hour period of the morning in such a laconic and detached manner, with nothing at all irregular or dramatic occurring along the way, Ozu successfully evokes at the very beginning of his pictures one of his major themes: the boredom and meaninglessness of such a life.”4

However, there are also a few moving shots in Early Spring, an unusual technique for Ozu, a director noted for his stationary camera. Richie ponders Ozu’s use of dolly shots in general and the way they are used in this film in particular, claiming that:

“Ozu’s often gratuitous dollies generated a feeling of strangeness and mystery that deepened his films. The most notable example of this occurs in Early Spring, the last film to use traveling shots. Several times one is in an empty corridor in the office building where the characters work. At times the camera is stationary, at times it creeps forward. The effect is disquieting. In this world of no camera movement which Ozu has established, the slightest movement of the camera calls attention to itself. And in this film we have no idea why the camera is moved. Nothing is to be gained by it; indeed, nothing is in the scene, it is just an empty corridor. Because of the rigid, immobile context, however, the effect is disquieting, mysterious.”5

The “disquieting” feeling identified by Richie, the sense of “boredom” and “meaninglessness”, is reflected in the characters Masako and Shōji. Both seem dissatisfied with their work: Masako, with her place in the domestic sphere; Shōji, with his salaryman office job. It seems as if these are roles that they are expected to fulfil almost unconsciously, just as many others have done in the past and continue to do in the present, as is expected by society, but they seem to bristle at these obligations. Masako expresses her concerns to her mother and a friend, while Shōji seems to supress any feelings he has, at least until he begins an affair with Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), a female colleague mockingly nicknamed “Goldfish” by her co-workers. The problems created by the affair, which constitutes the main drama of the film, are amplified by the gossiping of their co-workers. At the same time, Masako is having seeds of doubt about Shōji planted in her mind by a friend. While the affair is real, the reasons behind it and what is actually occurring during it are often not known, misunderstood or exaggerated by the people around Shōji and Masako.

The incident that sparks the affair between Shōji and Chiyo appears to occur during a hike with their colleagues, when the two mischievously hitch a ride on the back of a passing truck while their co-workers are left to finish the hike on foot. David Bordwell notes the film’s “very oblique handlings of melodramatic clichés,”6 and cites this moment as an example, stating that “when Shoji and Goldfish ride the truck during the hike, the scene ends abruptly, with a moving shot from the truck. Denied any access to the rest of the hike, we can only speculate on what might have happened between them.”7 Although moments from the affair are shown later in the film, the omission of key events creates a feeling of uncertainty, making the viewers of the film, along with its characters, question if certain events occurred – and, if they did, how they happened. Characters and viewers alike attempt to piece together the events of the affair, basing their conclusions on suppositions rather than any facts that are seen or otherwise known.

While Shōji seems to internalise his feelings about the affair, Chiyo seems more at ease with the situation. Despite the teasing from her colleagues earlier in the film marking her as an outsider, Chiyo represents a more modern woman: for instance, she appears comfortable being the sole female socialising with a group of males, as shown by her presence at a mahjong game. However, societal pressures seem to take their toll on her when she is cross-examined at a noodle party, arranged by some of her male colleagues as a way to discover information about her relationship with Shōji. These seemingly modern, younger-generation men are still entrenched in traditional values: specifically, their expectation of what a woman should be, with the suggestion that Chiyo’s behaviour is, to them, not befitting their idea of a woman’s role. Similar sentiments are expressed in a scene between Masako and her mother, in which the elder woman wishes that her daughter would have a child. As for how Shōji feels about his life, a conversation in the latter part of the film between a bartender and an older patron in a bar that takes place while Shōji sits drinking silently seems to express both his frustration at his salaryman role and act as a portent of things to come (indicated by the appearance of an older male co-worker seated next to Shōji during the closing scenes of the film).

Early Spring is, like Ozu’s other seasonally-titled works, a film about the passing of time, about the changes in society that sweep individuals along and about the struggle between maintaining tradition and embracing modernity. This story in particular shows an estranged couple trying to navigate an uncertain world. The film is about women resisting their expected role of housewife and mother, about men contemplating that a life of salaried work may ultimately amount to nothing. The final moments of Early Spring echo the opening shots of the film, but the characters and their circumstances have changed dramatically. These closing scenes could be seen as “disquieting”, but they also suggest that Shōji and Masako are both looking within themselves – examining what has happened in their lives that has brought them to the point they have reached – and learning from their experiences, while also pondering the future and wondering what it holds for them.8

• • •

Early Spring (Soshun) (1956 Japan 144 mins)

Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Shizuo Yamanouchi Dir: Yasujirō Ozu Scr: Kōgo Noda, Yasujirō Ozu Phot: Yūharu Atsuta Ed: Yoshiyasu Hamamura Prod Des: Tatsuo Hamada Mus: Takanobu Saitō

Cast: Chikage Awashima, Ryō Ikebe, Keiko Kishi, Teiji Takahashi, Chishū Ryū, Sō Yamamura

Endnotes:

  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (with a New Introduction: Rethinking Transcendental Style) (Berkley: University of California Press, 1972/2018), p. 48.
  2. Donald Richie, Ozu (Berkley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 166.
  3. ibid., pp. 166–7.
  4. Donald Richie, Ozu (Berkley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 167.
  5. ibid., p.113.
  6. David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1988), p. 337.
  7. ibid., p. 337.
  8. For further details on Yasujirō Ozu, see Nick Wrigley, “Ozu, Yasujiro,” Senses of Cinema 26 (May 2003), http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/ozu/

About The Author

Martyn Bamber works in subtitling and translation, and is based in London. He has previously written for Senses of Cinema, and is a contributor to the book Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.