An independent-minded 28-year old woman living in cosmopolitan, postwar Tokyo may seem immune from the societal pressures of marriage, but in Noriko’s (Setsuko Hara) environment, it is a perennially surfacing, unavoidable topic. Her father, Shukichi (Ichirô Sugai), and mother, Shige (Chieko Higashiyama), are unable to retire to her uncle’s house in the provincial town of Yamato until their duty to marry off Noriko to a worthy suitor has been fulfilled. Her visits with school friends invariably break down into playful arguments between the married and unmarried women. Even her office director offers to introduce her to a 40-year old business acquaintance, providing her photographs of the obscured prospective suitor to take home to show her family. Upon learning of Noriko’s suitor, her brother Koichi (Chishu Ryu) takes it upon himself to investigate the businessman’s suitability (as the businessman similarly dispatches a detective to inquire about Noriko), and encourages their marriage, despite the age difference. Meanwhile, Koichi’s recently widowed friend and colleague, Kenkichi Yabe (Ryudan Nimoto) has been transferred to an agricultural province. During Noriko’s farewell visit to the Yabe family, Kenkichi’s mother (Haruko Sugimura) confesses her hope for her son to marry Noriko, an offer that she impulsively accepts. However, her family is less receptive to the idea, believing that Kenkichi’s modest income and young child would lead their beloved Noriko to a life of hardship.
Yasujiro Ozu’s signature low angle camera strikes a delicate, harmonious balance in Early Summer, and echoes the dichotomy of contemporary Japan: tradition versus modernization, selfishness versus altruism, respect for elders versus independence. Compassionate and characteristically reserved, Ozu chronicles the disintegration of the traditional extended family as an accepted process of life, and the film evolves with a sense of appropriate inevitability. The contrast between the elders, usually contemplative and at leisure, and the younger generations – the overworked Koichi and the impatient children (with literal one track minds) – reflect the various stages of life. Episodically, the opening images of the beach and caged birds are reflected throughout the film, providing a sense of continuity to the ritual of existence. In the end, it is the words of the usually reticent Tamura that seems to provide the key for a successful life: “We shouldn’t want too much.” It is a thought that is similarly shared by Ozu in the filming of Early Summer – a spare, beautifully realized story of profound, yet fundamentally human emotions.
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