Yasujiro Ozu’s gentle family dramas often feature aging parents in prominent roles. Early Spring, in contrast, spends the bulk of its time with a young married couple, Sugiyama and Aoki. The couple, like nearly all of Ozu’s protagonists, is dealing with a significant transition—in this case, the very survival of their marriage.
Sugiyama works for a brick factory in Tokyo, a salaried employee whose job offers the benefit of stability but also uncertainty over whether he will ever receive a promotion. Married for several years, parent to a child who died in infancy, and living with the reality of a much-cooled relationship with his wife, Sugi feels trapped in his routine. He breaks out of the rut by engaging in a short fling with a vivacious young woman her friends call Goldfish. As the pressures mount both within the home (his wife suspects him of adultery) and outside the home (Goldfish is subtly looking for commitment, a friend and colleague nears death, and a changing work situation), Sugi begins to lose control over his situation and faces a personal crisis.
Ozu’s film builds to its final climactic moments with the easygoing and layered presentation one comes to expect from his films. A number of diverse scenes paint a vivid picture of life in post-war Japan. The close, often stifling living, work, and even play spaces serve to underscore Sugi’s own feelings that he’s missing out on something more. A series of scenes portraying Sugi with different groups of friends show the varying perspectives they have on his life. The younger admire him and his position, while the older understand the long, and often mundane, road ahead for the young man. All the while Ozu understates the central conflict brewing in the marriage—the couple is clearly not at peace, even if their interactions are almost entirely tranquil. This kind of ambiguity serves Ozu well as it invites the audience into the experience of the film, rather than dragging us into it through overwriting and over-emoting.
Early Spring comes together beautifully in its final half hour. A work transfer, an embittered wife, and a disappointed mistress leave Sugi completely alone in his world. When Sugi heads to a bar run by a good friend of his mentor, Ozu throws the crisis into stark relief by sitting Sugi next to an older man nearing retirement. As Sugi listens to the patron and the bartender talk about the unrewarding aspects of working life and their uncertain future, Sugi seems more downtrodden than ever. This is no more clear than when the bartender pours all three of them a drink. Sugi and the patron drink theirs in unison. Will Sugi become even more demoralized if he stays on his current path?
So he tries to change. For the remainder of the film, Sugi shows himself to be humbled and focused on getting his life together. He tracks down his wife (who has left him), but she won’t even see him. His emotional goodbye with Goldfish at a going-away party is wonderfully simple. A conversation with his mentor—played by the always excellent Chishû Ryû—makes clear what’s most important. And a surprising reunion with his wife won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
Ozu’s gentle handling of difficult material reveals a humanist sensibility that invites rather than repels. Even as characters engage in despicable behavior, there always seems to be in Ozu’s presentation an underlying charity toward those characters, a willingness to see them for who they are, and a hope that maybe, just maybe, change is possible.