Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ozu at IFC: Early Summer

Sorry, no CGI or 3D here, just family drama of a universal nature. Few directors handled such material as assuredly as Yasujiro Ozu. For a prime example, check out Ozu’s Early Summer, now screening at the IFC Center as part of their ongoing Ozu weekend series.

Life is realistically pleasant for the Mamiya family. The eldest son Koichi is a doctor, married to the dutiful Fumiko. They live with his parents, their two young mischievous sons, and his younger sister Noriko. There is someone missing though: the younger brother still listed as missing in action, several years after the war. His fate remains a source of pain for the Mamiya parents, but it has dulled with the passage of time (a major Ozu theme). In fact, they have more immediate concerns, like that unmarried twenty-eight year-old daughter of theirs. It turns out they are not the only ones considering her matrimonial prospects, starting with her matchmaker boss.

In many ways, Summer is a perfectly representational Ozu film, featuring a relatively large ensemble cast in an intimate family setting. As in next week’s Late Spring, the plot is driven by attempts to marry off a daughter named Noriko played by Ozu regular Setsuko Hara. It also features two willful young boys, who come across a bit brattier than the brothers of I Was Born But . . . It also features his trademark still shots that in Summer (as well as Spring) evoke a feeling of comfort and security in the characters’ working middle class homes. Ozu’s pacing is gentle and reassuring with important events often happen off-screen, as they usually do in real life.

Of course, it is hard to imagine either Noriko lacking a parade of suitors. A radiant screen presence, Hara was dubbed the “Eternal Virgin” in Japan, largely for her roles of familial fidelity in Ozu’s films. (She also played the assertive, morally ambiguous lead in Akira Kurosawa’s unfairly dismissed adaptation of The Idiot, almost single handedly rescuing the troubled production.) Indeed, she had a pure but earthy beauty, like a Japanese Loretta Young. Her performance as Summer’s Noriko is lovely, charming, and ultimately quite human.

However, in Summer Hara has plenty of support, including small but endearing turns from a spirited Chikage Awashima as her decidedly single best friend Aya and Shûji Sano as her slightly goofy but well meaning boss Satake.

Though hardly a conflict driven plot, Ozu still keeps us engaged thanks to the ever present sense of tempus fugit. Time passes and it is clear these mostly idyllic moments will not last forever. Wise and sensitive, Summer is a pleasure to watch quietly unfold. A good place to start appreciating the work of both Ozu and Hara, it screens today (8/28) and tomorrow morning at the IFC Center.