Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was beginning to improve but now that the desperation that went with hunger had dissipated it freed those who’d managed to climb out of post-war privation to wonder just what the point of their ceaseless toil was. Yasujiro Ozu’s primary subject matter remained the modern family, but 1956’s Early Spring (早春, Soshun) sees him heading in a darker direction as he weighs up the delusions of the salaryman dream and discovers that whichever way you swing it, life is disappointing. 

So it seems to be for salaryman Shoji (Ryo Ikebe). He and Masako (Chikage Awashima) married for love a long time ago, but it’s clear that there is distance in their relationship. They sleep in the same room but their futons are slightly too far apart, and the few words they exchange with each other in the morning are terse in the extreme. The truth is that for many a salaryman for whom long hours and interoffice bonding sessions are compulsory, work is the new family. Wives are welcome to join the Sunday hiking outings but it seems few do. Masako too declines, telling her mother she felt it to be too expensive, already irritated with her husband’s irresponsible spending on mahjong games and drinking with friends. 

Money is certainly a constant worry for her and as we learn from her mother they’re behind on the rent despite it being “very cheap”. Masako had made a visit home in part to ask for another loan, which her mother seems reluctant to give, offering her daughter a takeout of the oden her restaurant sells which is first declined but then accepted. Her mother also flags up the other problem in their marriage which is that they sadly lost a child in infancy and have had no more. Sorrow may have killed their love, but the fact her husband stays out all hours and wastes the little money he earns while failing to win promotions only makes the situation worse. 

As for Shoji, he is becoming very aware of the delusions of the “salaryman dream”. He is one of thousands of men identically dressed in white shirts and grey trousers that board the packed rush hour trains every day heading into the city. His life is one of pointless drudgery and its only victory is that keeps hunger from the door, not even quite stretching to a roof over his head. “All that’s waiting for us is disillusion and loneliness” according to a veteran salaryman growing close to his retirement and realising that he has little left to live on, his dream of buying a small stationary shop all but unobtainable. He was dead set against his own son joining the ranks of the salaryman, but in the end failed to prevent it.

It is perhaps this sense of frustration and impotence that draws Shoji into an affair with a younger woman, Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is admittedly very pretty but seems to hold little interest for him aside from her youth and beauty. Chiyo openly pursues her older colleague, declaring that she doesn’t care he has a wife but has come to hate her after the first time they slept together. Shoji meanwhile remains guilty and conflicted. He evidently continues seeing Chiyo, lying to Masako that he’s visiting a sick friend, but otherwise regards her as an irritation. When his co-workers figure out what’s going on they try to stage an intervention, but Shoji doesn’t show up and Chiyo angrily denies everything before arriving at Masako’s looking for Shoji only this time he really is out visiting a sick friend. 

Miura (Junji Masuda), the sick friend, is a true believer in the salaryman dream. Now that he’s ill, he misses the packed trains and elevators, not to mention his old workplace friends. All he wants is to be well enough to return to the office and his predicament perhaps has Shoji thinking that at least he has his health and things aren’t so bad for him after all. Masako, meanwhile, turns to other women for advice. The woman across the way recounts how she caught her husband out with his mistress and made a scene that’s rendered him docile and obedient ever since (a rare man in an Ozu film putting his socks neatly in the laundry basket and hanging up his own coat rather than throwing it on the floor for his wife to deal with). Her widowed friend is more sanguine, admitting that caution is necessary but it’s a little dark to envy the life of a widow for its “freedom”, while her mother thinks she’s overreacting because that’s just how men are in this generation or any other. 

Shoji’s old mentor agrees that “everyone’s disappointed” and all that remains is to try and make the most of it, but still he sees that Shoji has been reckless and inconsiderate in his treatment of both women. He avoids his wife because of the emotional distance between them born of grief, and only really has an affair with Chiyo because it was easier than refusing her. He didn’t even enjoy it, and doubtless it did not quite quell the sense of despair he feels with the utter pointlessness of the “salaryman dream”. Masako, in turn, is disappointed with married life, with her husband’s emotional cowardice, and with her own lack of options. Ultimately, Ozu sides with the mother, not quite condoning Shoji’s behaviour while perhaps excusing it as a direct consequence of dullness of his life while forcing Masako to accept complicity in her husband’s weakness. They may reunite, the stressors of their Tokyo life from the high cost of living to the lure of mahjong now absent, but there is a sense of futility in their eventual insistence that they will “make it work” through starting over in a new place while gazing at the train that, they assume, will eventually carry them back to the city and all of its false promises of a brighter future. 


Early Spring screens 19th/20th/21st October & 20th/23rd November at London’s BFI Southbank as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the UK via BFI Player and in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Girl I Loved (わが恋せし乙女, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1946)

The Girl I loved DVD coverThe post-war era, as confusing and chaotic as it was, offered several choices, among them that to change to course, choose to create a better, kinder world than the one which had led to so much suffering. As always, however, the human temptation is to choose the opposite and allow anger and resentment to make everything even worse than it had been before. Occasionally censured for his sentimentality, Keisuke Kinoshita was perhaps among the more defiantly positive of the post-war humanists whose fierce love human goodness knew no bounds. In The Girl I Loved (わが恋せし乙女, Waga Koiseshi Otome) he puts his ideas to the ultimate test as a young man recently returned from the war must learn to cope with various kinds of disappointment but eventually resolves to take solace in other people’s happiness even at the cost of his own.

The tale begins some years earlier when a baby girl is abandoned in front of the Asama Ranch, her mother apparently having taken her own life by jumping from a nearby cliff. The Asamas are good people and moved by the letter they find with the baby so decide to take her in. Yoshiko (Kuniko Igawa) is raised alongside older brother Jingo (Yasumi Hara) as an adopted sister always aware of her origins but very much a full member of the family.

Flash forward to the present day and Yoshiko has become a beautiful young woman. Jingo has returned from five years of war in perfect physical health, keen to resume his idyllic farm life in the beautiful Japanese countryside. The fact is that Jingo has long been in love with Yoshiko, though the situation is understandably complicated seeing as they were raised as siblings even if there is no blood relation between them. Somehow it seems a perfectly natural idea that the pair will marry and many assume this will be the case. Jingo, however, remains somewhat reticent and afraid to voice his feelings. It seems Yoshiko has something to tell him too and so he dares to hope as they both agree to share their respective secrets after the harvest festival.

At the festival, however, Jingo gets a shock. He sees the way Yoshiko looks at another man and realises that what she wanted to tell him was probably that she had fallen in love with someone else. Shaken and confused, Jingo bites his tongue. He knows to say anything now would only create more pain and suffering for everyone while he alone will suffer if he decides to stay quiet.

Nevertheless the temptation is there. Mr. Noda (Junji Soneda), Yoshiko’s intended, is a quiet man, an intellectual who returned from the war early thanks to injury and still walks with a cane. Yoshiko has been fearful that her family may object to the marriage on the grounds of Noda’s disability – something he has also been aware of and warned her about in explaining the potential hardship she may have to endure as his wife seeing as he is also merely a poor schoolteacher. Jingo could try to refuse her permission to marry, try to force her to marry him instead, or refuse to give his blessing for her to marry anyone at all, but if he did that all he’d be doing is condemning both of them to eternal misery. It would be understandable if he began to resent Noda and most particularly his disability which brought him home from the war early and enabled him to be here to fall in love with Yoshiko while Jingo was away and dreaming of home, but then it could so easily have been the other way around.

In the end, Jingo’s love is selfless and good. What he wants is for Yoshiko to be happy and if being with Noda is what that means then Jingo will not stand in her way no matter how much it may hurt him to stand aside. After all, as Noda says, aren’t they both lucky to be alive in this beautiful place? Having suffered so much, the two men understand how precious life is and know it’s far too short for pettiness or resentment. A quiet, gentle tale The Girl I Loved is a sad story of youthful disappointment in love, but it’s also a kind of melancholy manifesto for the new post-war world built on compassion and understanding as a young man decides to take the noble path in accepting that the girl he loved loves someone else and that’s sad but it’s also happy and if you can learn to rejoice in someone else’s happiness even in the midst of your own pain then perhaps everything will be alright after all.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)