Not a Movie Snob - Yasujiro Ozu: The 'Noriko' Trilogy (Late Spring, 1949, Early Summer, 1951, Tokyo Story, 1953)

Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Yasujiro Ozu: The 'Noriko' Trilogy [Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953)]

Movie Review by Not a Movie Snob X

Although he isn't well known in the west outside of film buff circles, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is one of the towering geniuses of world cinema. Known for his post war examinations of family life and the trials and tribulations of navigating those dicey waters, Ozu made art that even audiences in Japan found unique and unusual. He made over fifty films from 1927 until his death in 1963.

Generally, when people speak about Ozu the filmmaker, they are talking about the run of movies he made after WWII, starting with Late Spring, in 1949. Over the next five years, he made five movies, three of which featured a character named Noriko, always played by Setsuko Hara, one of the most popular Japanese film actresses of the time. These three films came to be known as the Noriko trilogy. And they are three of the director's most beloved and highly acclaimed works.

Although all three films feature a character named Noirko and they all concern family and cultural dramas, marriage in particular, Early Summer and Tokyo Story are not sequels to Late Spring. Rather than the ongoing saga of a single family, they are three separate stories about three separate families in and around Tokyo in the late 40's and early 50's.

In Late Spring, Noriko lives with her father Shukichi, played by the venerable Japanese actor Chishu Ryu. One day, Shukichi's meddling sister reminds him that he isn't going to live forever and that if Noriko isn't married off by the time he dies, there will be no one to take care of her and she'll be left alone. Shukichi and Noriko are happy with the way things are, living together and taking care of each other. But Japanese cultural norms, particularly at a time when the country was still trying to recover from the war, dictated that women must be married off and the sooner the better. The idea being that there must be something wrong with a woman who turns thirty and still has no husband. Shukichi reluctantly agrees and they go about setting Noriko up with a husband and marrying her off by the end of the film.


The power of Late Spring lies in its sadness. Noriko doesn't want to get married. She's happy with the way things are. She only agrees after her father lies to her and tells her she has to get married because he is getting remarried himself (her mother died some years before). The film ultimately becomes about this Noriko character smiling politely and nodding in agreement to all of these plans being made on her behalf, while masking a deep unhappiness with the whole ordeal.

Early Summer is also about marrying off the Noriko character, except this time, instead of marrying the suitor her family picks for her, she decides to marry a man her family does not approve of. In Early Summer, Chishu Ryu plays her brother, who is a jerk and refuses to give her his blessing, because she is not marrying the man he had pre-approved for her.


Finally, Tokyo Story, the most celebrated not only of the Noriko pictures, but of Ozu's entire filmography, concerns an older couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their kids, who have no time for them. The Noriko character plays a lesser role in Tokyo Story then she did in the other two films, but her arc is similar. This time, she is the daughter-in-law of the older couple. Her husband (their son), died in the war eight years earlier and they spend their time with her in the film trying to convince her to forget their son already and remarry before it's too late. Meaning before she turns thirty and no one wants her anymore.

Tokyo Story is not just one of the best Japanese films of all time, it's very likely one of the greatest films period. It's basic plot is not only deceptively simple, it's also deceptively surface. This film is a deep examination of the relationship that develops between children and their parents after they have grown up. In Tokyo Story, that development becomes one that is unfair and perhaps even cruel to some extent. The children no longer need the parents as they once did. Now the parents are the ones that are in need. But when it comes time for the children to do the caring, they have no time for them.


There is a sad and all too real scene in Tokyo Story, where in order to get the parents out of their hair, the kids send them to a spa outside of Tokyo. When the parents return early (the spa was too rowdy), their daughter scolds them, telling them they should have stayed longer because they are just too busy to entertain them. The parents had to take a train for a whole day and a night just to be there with their kids to spend time with them, and the kids treat the parents like they are little more than a nuisance the entire time they are with them. In fact, the only person who is caring and civil to the couple is Noriko, who isn't even their blood.

If you had never seen an Ozu movie and all you knew of his films were their synopses, you might ask yourself what the big deal is. Can all three of these films not be boiled down to a family simply trying to get this Noriko character to find a mate before she ages out? 

I can't argue with that, except to say that you have to watch the films themselves to understand. These movies are not stories, they are experiences. The families in these dramas carry on as if they don't realize they are being filmed. The camera sits on the floor and observes them as if it is a cat, observing with quiet curiosity the comings and goings of these relatively unremarkable family units. Ozu's trademark style is to place the camera at eye level (if you were sitting on the floor on a pillow) with the action played out in deep focus and the composition of each shot so exquisitely framed, you can't help but be sucked into its beauty. Cinematography literally means motion picture photography. Nothing could be more true when it comes to Ozu's films. You could freeze frame any moment from any one of these movies, print it out and blow it up and you would have a gorgeous piece of black and white photography to frame and hang prominently in your home or office.

To me, Ozu's films are meditations. Ozu died in 1963 and on his gravestone is inscribed the character for the word 'Mu', which means nothingness. But not nothingness in the literal sense, nothingness in the Zen Buddhism sense. Nothingness of the self, of the ego.

That is perfect, because Ozu's films are zen in the truest sense. Unhurried. Quiet. Peaceful. Humble. Watching Late Spring, Early Summer or Tokyo Story is like sitting in the lotus position, clearing the mind and following the breath as it enters and exits your lungs. A process that is as uncomplicated and as refreshing as dying and being born again with every moment.  

Calgary Showtimes: Late Spring (1949) > | Early Summer (1951) > | Tokyo Story (1953) >


NOTE: The showtimes listed on come directly from the theatres' announced schedules, which are distributed to us on a weekly basis. All showtimes are subject to change without notice or recourse to