Noriko Mamiya (Setsuko Hara) is twenty-eight years old and unmarried, which in the Tokyo of the nineteen-fifties practically classes her as a spinster, but she really doesn't mind too much, happy to live with her parents, her brother Koichi (Chishû Ryû) and his wife and kids under the same roof. Today begins like any other day, with the family gathering for breakfast, the two young boys acting up a little but still managing to get to school on time, and Noriko setting off for her office job, one she relishes because it helps her in her independence as a woman in the modern Japan...
But will she bow to the pressure society has been placing on her and finally get married? This was part of writer and director Yasujirô Ozu's so-called Noriko Trilogy, named as such because they all (including his much-acknowledged classic Tokyo Story) featured star Setsuko Hara playing a character with that name, though not the same person in each film. However, as with many of Ozu's works they had other things in common, themes on family and the place of the individual in a strictly conservative, even conformist society as Japan had in the immediately post-war years, and how that was changing.
Sadly, he died before he could appreciate how the younger generation was trying to shake up that society come the sixties; it would have been fascinating to see how his approach would have changed, if at all, considering his form was very strict itself, especially visually, with its mid-distance camera, shallow focus and a point of view taken from somewhere just above floor level. Perhaps fittingly, Hara being the actress most associated with Ozu (some called her his protégé), she left movies just as they began to catch up with her unconventional personality around the same point. A ray of sunshine in many a Japanese movie of the fifties, could her lack of interest in men in real life have inspired her mentor?
Take the scene where Noriko is being discussed and someone mentions she is a fan of Katharine Hepburn, which prompts the question, is she gay, then? Just one of the issues that might have emerged should you decide marriage is not for you in a staid community such as that, but with everyone in the story preoccupied with persuading the woman to get married, as if a loveless marriage is better than none at all, the pressure begins to tell. Not only on Noriko but on us as well, as while the characters are depicted with a certain affection their adherence to unwritten rules does grow suffocating after a while, particularly when they all start the film so happy and end it, as with many an Ozu film, facing an uncertain future where their latest choices have presented them with unforeseen upheaval.
Remembering the director himself shunned marriage for himself as well and you can discern his mixed feelings on the subject, which can make Early Summer a difficult watch when the cheery Noriko has the joie de vivre knocked out of her, however gently: the scene where she finally breaks down in tears is quietly upsetting. But this is not the sole concern on the film's plate as there are asides to the way the elderly are treated in Japan now that seemingly their previously unimpeachable place at the centre of respect there is now under threat (another favourite worry of Ozu), and how the young in turn are acting up, rebellious and impertinent. The point seems to be if you think the otherwise pleasant and polite Noriko is an affront to society, imagine what these kids of Koichi will be like when they grow up with their bratty, spoilt behaviour. Will the future be in the hands of the chronically disrespectful, the film wonders? Or will the conservatives win out and cow women like our heroine to their rules? So this was emotional in its way, but strangely unsettling too. Music by Senji Itô.