(Originally posted on 6 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
As Edith Wharton wrote, "a man may marry, but a woman must." Through history, few institutions have been so fussed over as marriage, especially for women — not simply the wedding itself, but also the ages of the participants, their families, and their social standing. Not exactly romantic.
Yasujiro Ozu's 1949 masterpiece Late Spring is a story about marriage, but one in which the father and daughter are perhaps the least enthusiastic participants. This has a lot to do with their situation — Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) is a widower, and his only daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) enthusiastically cares for him. It's an arrangement that's agreeable to both of them.
But at twenty-seven, Noriko's nearing the tail end of traditional marrying age. Several people in her life (a meddlesome aunt, a friend from high school and an old friend of her father) commit a great deal of energy to marrying her off. Noriko is happy where she is, and tells everyone as much. But Shukichi begins give in to the pressure. Believing that Noriko will never leave home unless he can convince her that he'll be cared for, he hatches a plan to deceive her into thinking that he'll remarry. As a result, Noriko reluctantly marries a man proposed by her aunt.
At the end of the film, Shukichi returns home, having finally married off his daughter. His house, usually so full of cheer, is dark and empty. Shukichi takes off his tuxedo jacket and puts on a bathrobe, then sits down. Noticing an apple on the table, he picks it up and begins peeling it with a knife. The apple is about halfway peeled when the peel breaks off and falls to the floor. Shukichi, suddenly overcome with emotion, slumps down in his chair and emits a heavy sigh. As the music swells, Ozu cuts away from Shukichi to the image of waves crashing against the shore, and the movie ends.
Much has been made of the importance of great opening scenes, but perhaps even more important are great closing scenes, and Late Spring has one of the greatest. One of the most interesting choices Ozu makes is to end his film with Shukichi instead of Noriko. Noriko is the center of the action for most of the movie, but this scene reveals that Shukichi is the story's emotional linchpin. Other people outside the family pressured Noriko to get married, but it was his actions that ultimately made the wedding happen.
Despite its placid surface, Late Spring has strong undercurrents of anger and despair. The film's view of marriage is not positive, probably because Ozu is less interested in marriage as a union between two people than as a institution imposed by society. Consider how we never meet Noriko's eventual husband, or her aunt's husband for that matter. Recall that Noriko's closest female friend has been divorced. Even Shukichi doesn't paint a cheerful picture of marriage: "Your mother wasn't happy at first. I found her weeping in the kitchen many times." Why then does everyone insist on Noriko finding a husband? Is it just that important a hurdle for every woman to clear in her lifetime? Or could it just be that misery loves company?