Early Summer (1951)

After being disappointed with my first Ozu (Tokyo Story), I was instantly worried that I’d feel the same way about his other works. And with Early Summer, I’m once again treated to a multi-generational story of domestic life in Tokyo with a similar still life aesthetic. And yet, for a handful of reasons, I found this one much more compelling and enjoyable than Tokyo Story.

Part of why it works better, for me, is that this story lends itself more to the aesthetic of the film. Once again, Ozu and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta, focus more on still shots, but this time they feel more composed and controlled to me and I found that the set design and deliberate placing of visual elements suited the film much better.

The story complements this aesthetic better because it’s not quite as forced or narratively constructed as Tokyo Story. Here are simply glimpses of lives and the dynamics of families. Loose casually gives the film some structure, but most of the film is content in simply letting moments unfold that feel natural and organic in the context of a family unit.

The characters also have more compelling relationships in this film. The temperamental son clashes with the controlled and assertive father. He comes into question by a playful family friend who suggests he’s becoming too wrathful towards his children. And then there’s the fun and playful dynamic of the womenfolk who nosarcastically dividing themselves up between married and unmarried individuals.

The film also has a nice sense of humor involving a handful of deceptions and misleading acts. While they are humorous acts within themselves, they’re also moments that speak to social situations or conditions that prove telling upon reflection. When the father brings home a package that the son mistakes for something else, it’s a funny gag, but also suggest that the family can manage little more than the necessary provisions.

On a more personal note, I think part of my enjoyment of this film is that I understood the socially bold areas it explored and found it more affective and touching than Tokyo Story. Part of the reason is that I was more invested in the characters and felt their lives had a bit more of a universal relevance even though they exist in a specific cultural context.

Early Summer is a bit sweeter, subtler and funnier than Tokyo Story. And it’s not as if the two films are that far apart, making me interested in revisiting Tokyo Story. What it does better is letting the family dynamic unfold in everyday life instead of trying to tease out themes by imposing extraordinary measures on the characters.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing