Often overlooked by those looking for a quick fix of Japanese filmmaking in favour of the more widely known and imitated Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu’s status as one of the countries most important directors has grown, leading to the British Film Institute to set out on a mission to release the majority of his films on Blu-ray and DVD, starting with Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953).
Unofficially dubbed the ‘Noriko trilogy’ thanks to the appearance of actress Setsuko Hara in each film as a character named Noriko, the three pictures all have one more thing in common: family.
Late Spring sees a currently single Noriko gradually pushed towards the realisation that she should perhaps move out of the family home and away from her father, Shukichi Somiya (Chisyu Ryu), when he plants the seed in her mind and begins to do some matchmaking.
Unofficial sequel Early Summer once more focuses on Noriko, this time complete with (a different) father and mother, actor Chisyu Ryu now playing her brother, Koichi.
Noriko is once more to be married off, this time more for the benefit of her family than herself, with a series of events leading to her deciding to marry a man her parents are less than delighted about.
The final film, Tokyo Story, sees Noriko as a widow whose parents, including a returning Chisyu Ryu as ageing father Mr Hirayama, arrive in Tokyo to meet their children, only to find they are too busy to spend any time with them.
The parents’ acceptance of the situation is made worse when Mrs Hirayama suffers a health scare while being pushed from pillar to post trying to accommodate her offspring.
To summarise these films in just a paragraph each is to do them a disservice, Ozu’s ability to create well rounded characters and believable family situations in a short space of time testament to his skills.
Yes, there’s a touch of soap opera to the goings-on of these people, even a dash of sitcom at times as misunderstandings cause problems for Noriko and her various fathers, but there’s much more just beneath the surface.
Scenes of people kneeling at dinner tables and interacting in various areas of the house may not sound exciting, but there’s a feeling that these are real people, or at least close approximations of Japanese families living just a few short years after the Second World War and still coming to terms with changes in society and the increasing independence of women.
Quite whether Ozu agrees with the change of the status quo is up to the viewer to decide.
This isn’t to say that these films aren’t slow and hardly the stuff of modern blockbusters, but if you’re willing and able to set aside a few hours to immerse yourself in 1950s Japan and put yourself in the hands of a director who deserves attention from a wider audience, then this trilogy is worth picking up.
Adding to the appeal of these releases is the decision to release them in dual format editions, both Blu-ray and DVD, future-proofing them for anyone thinking of upgrading to hi-def. Due to the archive nature of the films, the picture quality is as good as it is likely to get on these discs.
Also tucked away on the sets are additional, lesser-known, Ozu films released for the first time in the UK, as well as informative booklets. My review discs didn’t contain the extra films, but these are a welcome addition.