Early Summer - Poetry in Motion
By Doron B. Cohen (Kyoto, Japan)

Ozu is famous - or notorious - for his static camera. In fact, in his later films he dispensed of camera movements all together, but his art did not seem to have suffered by this loss. However, when the camera did move, magic often happened. In Early Summer Ozu still used tracking shots relatively often, and a few of those shots are truly unforgettable.

The film opens with a shot - from a static camera - of gentle waves breaking against the shore in Kamakura. We then move gradually into the house of the Mamiya family, situated not far from that shore, getting to know its seven members one by one as they go through their morning routine. The main concern of the family is soon made clear with the visit of the rustic old uncle: the need to katazuke the youngest daughter, Noriko, who will soon be past the marrying age. The meaning of katazuke that first come to mind is "tidy up", "clear up", or "clear away", but it also means "give / dispose of one's daughter in marriage". Perhaps these associations of meaning do not sound strange to the Japanese ear as they do to the foreigner's, but still, the daughter's reluctance to get disposed of by marrying the family's choice, a bachelor 14 years her senior, is understandable. She acts independently and ends up choosing her partner without the family's consent, but her rebellion is a mild one: after all, she's marrying the neighbors' son, who was the best friend of her missing brother, and she will join him and his little daughter in remote countryside, where he will head a hospital ward. On second inspection, she is perhaps more "traditional" than "modern", as even her best friend Aya is surprised to realize. She also follows her heart, as would other young women in Ozu's subsequent films. Her marriage causes the household to split three ways, but that's the way of the world, and would have happened sooner or later, as the old father tells her kindly. In an earlier scene we have seen him going out of the house, stopping at a train crossing, sitting down, waiting for the train to pass, and not hurrying to get up again once it does: he realizes life is passing him by, but he accepts it with no great ado.

Much has already been written about the camera movements in this film - mostly by David Bordwell in his extensive book about Ozu - so there is no need to analyze theme once again, perhaps only mention a few of them shortly: the breath-taking shot on the sand dune, in which the camera seems to detach itself vertically from the hold of the earth's gravity; or the last, dizzying shot, in which the village and mountain remain solid in the middle of the frame while the camera travels over the barley fields (the original title of the films also means "barley harvest season"), echoing the sea in the first shot. These and other sequences in the film are pure poetic moments, created by a cinematic artist at his peak. But notice should also be given to how Ozu's playfulness and humor are enhanced by the use of camera movements and editing. For example, we see Noriko and her friend Aya tiptoe down a corridor towards the camera, which tracks back as they advance; then the angle is reversed and the camera is tracking forward, but rather than seeing the two from behind as we would have expected, we find ourselves back in the family's house, going towards the kitchen. This method of cutting and editing was already used once earlier in the film, and would be used again even in some of the later films. From cinematic point of view, Ozu is often the master of the unexpected: he would not show us what we expect to see, but rather hide something from us, or skip forward to a different point in time or space. In the above example what we expect to see but are not shown is what the two friends actually saw when they picked into a room where the man Noriko would not marry was having dinner. Our curiosity about him is not to be satisfied. We see, instead, Noriko coming back home to a cold welcome by the family, having her solitary dinner in the kitchen, but steadfastly standing her ground.

Apart from the story, rich in humanism and relevant beyond its specific time and place, Early Summer can also be viewed as a historical document reflecting, sometimes inadvertently, the reality of life in post-war Japan. Almost every scene in the film contains treasures of social information. For example, reflecting on the old uncle's previous visit, which took place a few years earlier, not long after the end of the war, Fumiko tells her sister-in-law Noriko, "I was still wearing monpe then", referring to the baggy work pants that women had to wear during that period of austerity. By now (1951) the situation has improved considerably, and the women can once again wear kimono or skirts, and occasionally even indulge in shortcake, in spite of its prohibitive price. Later, in one of the last scenes, Aya warns Noriko that if she will indeed go with her chosen spouse to Akita, she will have to wear monpe - apparently those remote, rustic parts of the country are not enjoying yet the new-found prosperity of Tokyo. But Noriko says she certainly will wear them, demonstrating once again her resolution to persevere on the path she has chosen, even if it means giving up all luxuries of modern life in the big city, for the sake of accompanying the man with whom she believes she could be happy. Many more such instructive moments occur in this great film.

Among Ozu's films, Tokyo Story is usually considered his great masterpiece, appearing on various lists of "10 Greatest Films" and so on, but Early Summer is a masterpiece of no lesser quality, and in some cinematic and thematic aspects is even richer than the more famous film. I tend to regard Ozu's oeuvre as a unity, but when pressed to name his best realized or most representative films, Early Summer will always come to mind as one of his greatest achievements.

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View the scene at the shore in Kamakura: