Although I have loved the few Yasujiro Ozu movies that I've seen so far, writing about why I have loved them is difficult. The Japanese director clearly has a deliberate style in approaching these modern family dramas, but I become so quickly enveloped in the carefully sketched and deeply felt lives of Ozu's characters, that whatever intellectual importance can be assigned to his specific technique seems superfluous. Perhaps that's the gift that his often still and simple frames afford his audience: an unobtrusive glimpse into the quiet rhythms, yearnings and despairs of life in Japan.
In the second movie of Ozu's "Noriko Trilogy," Setsuko Hara plays yet another young woman with that name whose marital status is a subject of concern. Like in Ozu's brilliant Late Spring, Noriko is single and nearing 30, and is nudged by her family to consider marriage. This Noriko, however, is neither opposed to marriage nor actively seeking it; rather, she happily lives as a working single woman, sharing a house with her extended family and enduring their endless nudges toward starting her own. Noriko and her other single friend, Aya (Chikage Awashima), tease their married friends with their independence, but accept that there may be benefits to married life, if only the right offer would come along.
The most immediately obvious distinction between Early Summer and the other two "Noriko" movies is how much funnier it is. From the impertinence of Noriko's spoiled nephews, to her playful interactions with Aya, and the sometimes racy interjections from her boss (Shūji Sano), there is a lightness to Ozu's tone for much of the film that doesn't fully prepare for the tougher emotions yet to come. This may be part of why, ultimately, I found it less emotionally impactful than either Late Spring or Tokyo Story. The sharpest supporting characters in Early Summer are, in some respects, the least vital, while others sneak up in importance despite little screen time, and Noriko's immediate family is not as distinctively drawn as in Ozu's other films. It may be that Early Summer is a movie best seen at least twice — and I'm already itching to give it another look — allowing knowledge of its third-act to inform its development; but, a "lesser" Ozu film is still a treasure, and the always magnetic Hara gives yet another intensely captivating performance at its heart. With a slightly saucier sense of self this time around, Hara is less inhibited, and still beaming that effusive smile which is at once completely genuine and also a mask for more complicated emotions. When that infectiously omnipresent smile fades, its absence connotes a profound shift that few other actors are capable of affecting so effortlessly. It's another purely pleasurable performance from Hara, who, over these three films, has become a cherished favorite. Less crucial in Early Summer than in the other Noriko movies, but no less striking, is Chishū Ryū, as Noriko's brother, Kōichi — if only because it is alarming to see the actor who portrayed Hara's elderly father in the other films looking so young here. Chieko Higashiyama — who played Ryū's wife in Tokyo Story — appears here as his mother.
Early Summer was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Bas van Stratum. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #286/2390 (88%), where it's his eighth favorite movie out of 21 produced by Japan's Shôchiku movie studio. It ranked on my Flickchart at #506 (87%), where it's #5 on my chart of only eight Shôchiku productions.