Friday, May 05, 2017

Bakushu / Early Summer (The Nitrate Picture Show)



麥 秋
Yasujirō Ozu, Japan 1951
Print source: National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Running time: 124 minutes
The Nitrate Picture Show, George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, 5 May 2017

About the print
One of the best nitrate prints held by the National Film Center, the central Japanese film archival institution, this copy is made from at least two different sources, with some visible scratches. Also visible is some very slight and very occasional nitrate decomposition. Shrinkage: 0.5–1%

About the film
“I was interested in getting much deeper than just the story itself; I wanted to depict the cycles of life, the transience of life. . . . Consequently, I didn’t force the action, but tried to leave some spaces unfilled . . . leave viewers with a pleasant aftertaste. For this reason, Early Summer was one of the most demanding work[s] I’ve done in years. There was criticism about the children being unruly. In my view, children and adults have different ‘rules.’ When they grow up, they too will change. As for acting, it’s best to leave things unexpressed, something to ponder or savor. Those who appreciate this have themselves reached a transcendent state. Hara Setsuko is a fine person. If only there were four or five more such persons.”
– Yasujirō Ozu

“This is a work of art in which casual dialogue and nuanced gestures are charged with profound meaning, and it will be hard to comprehend if you arrive at the theater after it begins. You need to be settled in and ready to watch this film before it starts. Ozu’s films, deeply probing the meaning of everything Japanese in the style of a haiku, are well-recognized as gems of Japanese cinema. . . . But today to what extent do such Japanese qualities remain? The director himself seems conflicted, ultimately depicting the family as breaking apart.”
– Asahi Shimbun, October 2, 1951

This screening is co-organized by the George Eastman Museum and the National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, with the generous support of Kinoshita Group.

AA: There were electronic subtitles in English in the screening which was introduced by Hisashi Okajima.

I saw Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece Early Summer / Bakushu / [Barley Harvest Time] for the first time. To my knowledge it has not been screened or telecast in Finland. Watching it still felt like a tribute to Setsuko Hara (1920‒2015) who left us not long ago. Bakushu has been called the middle part of "the Noriko trilogy" directed by Ozu and starring Hara. That trilogy includes Early Spring and Tokyo Story which are legendary classics, but Bakushu is on the same level of excellence.

Among the topics discussed in the film is the woman's role in society after the Second World War. Society changed during the war when women became firmly involved in positions of responsibility, independently of men. "We have taken our natural place", state the newly independent women in Bakushu. "Then you can't get married", is the reaction of the tradition-adhering men. "Won't. Not can't".

The topic of marriage was almost an obsession in Ozu's films since Early Spring. (We remember that Ozu and Hara themselves never married although they were no hermits either.) In no other Ozu film is the marriage obsession more insistently hammered home than in Bakushu. "Some women don't want to get married", Noriko says in the beginning. "You are not one of those?" ask the old men of the family. It even feels that on some level Noriko finally agrees to marry just because she has had enough of the endless marriage discourse.

Bakushu is the only Ozu film where I remember having registered a dialogue such as this:

‒ Noriko ‒ is she interested in men?
The ladies have observed pictures of Katharine Hepburn on Noriko's wall.
‒ Is she queer?
‒ No way.

Marriage in this movie means a union partly in deference to tradition and family. At the same time it means, perhaps even more devastatingly, a separation. Kenkichi Yabe's mother Tami (Haruko Sugimura) is endlessly disturbed when she learns that her doctor son will be posted to Akita in the far north of the main island of Japan, far away from his mother. (The shock is enormous, and its impact is felt even more powerfully due to Ozu's extreme restraint in only showing us Tami's back). A similar shock reverberates in the Mamiya family when they learn that Noriko is marrying Kenkichi and following him to Akita.

The world is changing for all generations. As usual in Ozu's films, children are omnipresent. There is nothing ingratiating in the way they are shown. They are nice to grandpa just to get sweets. "I hate you" they say as soon as they have received what they want.

In the changing world tradition remains. There is an impressive and enigmatic Kabuki sequence conveyed entirely via ellipsis, reaction shots. Even more inscrutable is an immense Buddha statue around which the family gathers, with the children playing.

David Bordwell has analyzed Bakushu and indeed Ozu's entire postwar oeuvre as multi-character studies and counted that in Bakushu there are 19 significant characters who are present plus one who is absent.

Technically Bakushu represents the late mature Ozu style with some special twists such as the only crane shot in a late Ozu film. Donald Richie chided Ozu with the observation that Ozu had a tin ear for music. Here the theme tune is "Home! Sweet Home! (comp. Henry Bishop, lyr. John Howard Payne, 1823) which sounds slightly corny but at the same time appropriate for this movie.

Bakushu, an account of the bustle of life in a large family, is profoundly affecting thanks to its inner core, the power of its simplicity, the tranquillity of its sense of being, and the delicate sense of its humour. I watched the movie next to Japanese ladies who had come all the way from Japan and seen Bakushu several times. They were crying, as were we all.

The vintage nitrate print is brilliant and luminous. There are blemishes, but they do not disturb the general impact. For the first time I sense a special quality in Yuharu Atsuta's cinematography of this period: a refined black and white watercolour quality, a special softness in the backgrounds which is intentional, not due to a print being duped in several generations. I remember seeing something similar in very good prints of Kenji Mizoguchi from this period such as Musashino fujin from the same year. This visual quality is different from the starkly reduced impact conveyed by many stills from late Ozu films.

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