Conventional narrative cinema thrives on conflict and the clash of opposing forces, but Yasujiro Ozu's films are unusual for their absence of malice: His major characters are unfailingly courteous and often want the best for each other, which creates its own set of problems. In Ozu's heartbreaking post-war masterpiece Late Spring, societal expectations open up a rift between a father and daughter whose harmonious relationship would otherwise continue unabated. If either one acted in self-interest and confessed to the other what they really wanted, then their continued happiness would be assured; instead, their deep consideration for each other leads them both down a path not of their choosing.
Ozu favorites Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara would later collaborate memorably in 1953's Tokyo Story, creating a similar dynamic to their relationship in 1949's Late Spring. Still, as with other Ozu films, the subtle differences are key. Rather than the affection and deference of their Tokyo scenes, Late Spring features a pricklier arrangement, as the pleasant harmonies of their life together are disrupted by concerns over Hara's future. Thanks to her aunt's meddling, Hara's widowed father has to confront the fact that she's edging into her late 20s, well past the traditional marrying age. At the same time, the aging Ryu depends on her for domestic duties and companionship, so he also has to consider the prospect of getting remarried. Neither really wants to marry, but once change becomes inevitable, their relationship grows tense and uncertain.
As in Tokyo Story, Ozu keeps the emotions largely under wraps until the very end, when Hara and Ryu finally speak their minds, though it's too late to change course. Few feelings in Late Spring are ever articulated; instead, they're relegated to awkward exchanges and private moments of despair, often via something as simple and powerful as a resigned bowing of the head. For those weaned on Hollywood melodrama, Ozu may seem to possess the most foreign of sensibilities, but he knows that life's most dramatic moments often pass with a sigh, not a bang.
Key features: An insightful commentary track by Film Society Of Lincoln Center head Richard Peña; Wim Wenders' 1985 tribute Tokyo-GA, a vague travelogue through the land of Ozu.