Late Spring

This is part six of “Films of 1949” series (Part 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5).

Nobuyoshi Araki, a renowned photographer and an artist, admires young Setsuko Hara in “Late Spring” in his own particular way. He considers her sturdy build and impressive physique the most “photogenic”, very favorable human (female) features in visual arts. For Hara was uniquely “different” from other actresses of the era in this regard, Araki notes, she radiates her visual presence on the screen tremendously. He comments rather jokingly on the scene in which Hara was readied for wedding in the last of “Late Spring”(1); “It looks like a transvestite show.” True, as placed in traditional Japanese architectural frames, she looks utterly awkward and moves cautiously. This remark reminded me of another metaphorical image; a butterfly grown too big for her cocoon.

As the title of the film suggests, Noriko is a woman who stayed too long in her own cocoon, and delayed her mating to the point it is becoming too late. Did she romantically attached to Hattori? If so, she (and he) missed the opportunity by let her feeling dwindled in conversation. It seems she misdirected her sexual energy toward her father as if she were an old female in the troop, misjudging her father as her potential mating partner. It is suggested that father is partly to blame, since he did not plan her future as “normal family” would do. Then, her aunt comes in, cooking up the scheme, acting as a “mother” to coerce Noriko to separate from her cocoon.

This story somewhat parallels to that of the most influential novel in modern Japanese literature published around the same time. “Makioka Sisters (Sasame-Yuki)” is the monumental work by Junichiro Tanizaki, written during war but left unpublished until 1948. Tanizaki explored sexuality, especially its intense power hidden under multiple layers of murky veils, only to explode at the narrow margin of existence. His novels such as Sisei (Irezumi), Manji, Shukinsho or Naomi were made into films, sometimes multiple times. While “Makioka Sisters” does not contain explicit sexual text, it is one of the most gorgeously told tale of womanhood in 20th century. It is a story of four sisters, mostly centered around Yukiko, third sister, from the third person narrative, though very closely placed near Sachiko, second sister and her husband. They are looking for desirable young man to match Yukiko, who is already past her “prime” (thirty years old). Their family saw better days, but its business is declining and gradually they are deflected from the orbit of rich society. This decline does impact the marriage prospect for Yukiko negatively, in addition to their (especially Sachiko’s) not-so-small ego and pride. Yukiko, shy and demure, yet uniquely beautiful, does not express her feelings openly (therefore does not seek romance or relationship), in contrast to the youngest of the four, Taeko. Yukiko seems to be satisfied with living with her sister, and it is this tendency of her that really worries Sachiko and her husband.

Though this novel is an idealized tale of women against extravagant backdrop of prewar nobility, it nonetheless weaves the web of marriage, family and sex. Most of all, it silently infers risk of young woman immaturely seeking romantic relationship. Taeko elopes with a man of “less than Makioka’s statue”, spewing a tragic mess, which Yukiko and her husband quietly cover up to save family’s name. Though Makioka Sisters is a picturesque roman in the tradition of Tale of Genji, not a moral tale, it definitely mirrors the moral of the time. It suggests the emergence of young women like Taeko, who seek relationships independently, try to escape from old sphere of “families”.

“Group Matchmaking”, Tsuruoka Hachimangu, Kamakura, 1948

Unconditional surrender in 1945 and subsequent postwar confusion overturned the condition of sex and marriage. First of all, there was a serious issue of availability. Many young men, drafted as soldiers, single or married, were still detained in many parts of ex-Japanese military stations, where they remained as POWs for months to years. Then, when they did come back, many of them found the communities torn apart, family members killed, and no prospect for decent jobs. In another words, even if they wanted “marriage arrangement”, the time-consuming ritual in which the social order in community is prerequisite, they were less likely to find decent matchmaker in the first place.

There were public events designed for those who seek partner, but not knowing how. Many accounts tell us the same story (2); in 1947, the “Kibo (Hope)” magazine showcased an event called “group matchmaking”. Anyone who was seriously looking for marriage could join the event to meet someone. Stunning 386 people showed up on the bank of Tamagawa River to meet possible partner. This event was so successful that other newspaper agencies and publishing companies followed the suit and produced the similar events. It sounded good idea; quick and efficient, especially for those who were looking for the partner to start the family.

Late Spring, Tsuruoka Hachimangu, Kamakura

It seems, however, they were simply publicity stunts rigged by tabloid journalism. Ango Sakaguchi, one of the most pivotal figures in modern Japanese literature and the quitessential critic of the era, happened to witness such an event one day (3); hundreds of single women and men showed up in the barren land along the Tama River. Sakaguchi saw some familiar faces among them. They were the reporters and cameramen of the the publishing agency, disguised as innocent participants. He estimates half of the hundreds of participants were employed by the agency, which was supposed to be running the show for uninitiated. There were some “professionals”, beautiful models and what-not, decoys for photographers and other journalists. Other half, who innocently believed they would be introduced to possible partners by the professional matchmakers, were simply duped. (They were handsomely ripped off of admission charges, I believe.) Sakaguchi notes; “In any case, those who having a good party time were all fakes, while more than two thousand genuine matchseekers stood aimlessly, watching those fakes having a good time. They don’t have a courage to get up to talk to members of opposite sex. … They are too self-conscious and afraid, wondering if someone is looking at them right now and talk to them. But, in reality, nobody was looking at them. “

According to many records by those who knew him, Ozu had been quite shy and somewhat self-conscious about the relationship with women. Moreover, when it comes to marriage, it was a disaster. He did have a girl-friend of many years, whom his mother didn’t object, but he never quite brought himself to propose to her. I think it was his mother who said, “I should have pushed him to marry that girl. She was alright. I think she, and he, deserved marriage. ” This “push” must have been the key to drive many relationships forward. Those who depicted in the Sakaguchi’s essay needed this “push” desperately.

In one sense, ”Late Spring” is about this “push”. Through Ozu’s lens, the society in 1949 looks and feels quite different from that of Imai. Noriko, though more vocal and inquisitive about romantic relationship, is not accustomed to talk about her own relationships. She is certainly interested in romantic relationships, but does not know how to deal with it or how to start one. She has aversion to ex-marital relationships (though cases of Onodera and of her father are not ex-marital technically, but to her eyes, they are) and believes that the romantic relationship has to be the bases of marriage. But as the story goes, it didn’t happen that way for her.

The question remains: How come her father’s marriage “pushed” Noriko to accept arranged marriage? Her father’s marriage should have nothing to do with how Noriko decides her partner. But it did. Why? Is it because she realized she would be nuisance in her father’s new ‘home’? Or she cannot admit her loss? Did she realize she was past prime and getting too late? This was the same anxiety shared by contemporary audience. They got nervous as they aged, wasting their prime in war years and post-war confusion. Though some of them fantasized about romantic relationships described in literature and films (such as that in Green Mountains), they were hardly ready for such leap of faith. For them, “group matchmaking” sounded splendid idea. It’s quick (you don’t have to worry about other’s intentions; they are in the same pit as you are), it’s guaranteed (by news agency, of course) and still you can taste the experience of “finding your partner by yourself”. Too bad, most of them were just marketing events to collect admissions from innocent participants and publicity photos for weekly magazines.

“Someone who looks like Gary Cooper” is going to be Noriko’s partner. The film never presents him in person. This absence can be interpreted in various ways. If we take this film as re-evaluation of arranged marriage in the times of postwar sex revolution, it is quite natural he should remain mystery. Some say that the most interesting part of arranged marriage is the process of growing intimacy. In such marriage, you don’t know each other at the beginning, but gradually build the relationship after the marriage ceremony. It would take months, years and decades. So he remains blank at the time zero. The process would make the marriage more stimulating and rewarding, if it works out. However, this requires the fundamental trust in other fellow human beings, and such trust can be only found in the society of harmony and stability. Sadly, the postwar Japan was anything but society of trust.

“The Green Mountain” was about building trust among individuals, while “Late Spring” was search for trust lost. Either way, it is a testament to the fact that there was little trust among people in the years immediately after the defeat, as can be evidenced from the Sakaguchi’s account on group matchmaking fiasco. Though his absence creates the sense of wonder and anticipation in a small world of Ozu’s fantasy, in the world of cutthroat mentality, “someone who looks like Gary Cooper” has to remain a void.

(1) Shincho 45, March 2011
(2) For example, see John W. Dower, “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War I”
(3) Ango Sakaguchi, “Shu-dan Miai”, 1948

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