The Melancholy of Marriage: Early Summer

Every week or so, Sook-Yin Lee and Adam Litovitz have a movie date. Then they talk about the movie. Taken from the vault and discussed this week: Early Summer (1951) by Yasujiro Ozu.

ADAM: I thought it was appropriate that the first image in the movie is not a landscape or a character, but the title, Early Summer, set against burlap—a coarse, densely woven fabric. The first sound we hear, at the same time, is of a choir singing together. There’s an immediate sense of how interwoven the characters we’re about to watch are going to be. The family vibrates together, despite their differing of opinions. The next shot is of a dog slowly wandering out of frame on a desolate beach landscape, and then the camera holds on this emptiness. Along with this dense, burlap-like community, there’s a sense of individualities straggling through the movie, and later this is paralleled in various ways.

SOOK-YIN: The opening is super-Japanese-y with long, dissolving shots of waves, and calligraphic titles, and a choir of voices. It lulls you in and casts a spell. Then, we’re brought into the home of a typical Japanese family circa-1951. It’s almost Leave it to Beaver, but not.

ADAM: It was like an extended-family version of Father of the Bride, with everyone’s machinations around trying to get the 28-year old daughter Noriko [Setsuko Hara] to finally marry someone, to save her from the “old maid” status that they’re all so collectively fearful of. The movie showed how reliant these characters are on fantasy projections of hope for her. There’s a beauty to it, and I’m sympathetic to them, but it’s scary how obsessed they are with a vicarious pleasure they get through control of Noriko.

SOOK-YIN: Early Summer is a kitchen-sink drama involving three generations of family who live together. There’s oddball Noriko who, in every sense, is a beautiful, vibrant woman, but poses a great deal of consternation for her older brother, Koichi [Chishu Ryu], who wants to marry her off. Her parents are sick with worry. How will she continue living? Noriku is a modern woman, she’s a secretary who wears contemporary clothes, she’s positive and energetic, and yet everyone sees her as a problem. Eventually, she sees herself as a problem. It’s an alien mindset to visit, knowing that there’s an entire culture, and a large part of the world, that puts pressure on women to marry, considering them fuckups if they don’t. It’s bizarre to me.

ADAM: While I agree that there’s an alien quality to it, I still saw glimpses of not only my own family, but of other families’ lives that I’ve been privy to, including yours. Events happen within families, people are put in certain situations, and we collectively dwell on them. The movie does a great job of dwelling on this particular need for Noriko to marry, and shows how that ripples outward as gossip, or as a kind of research project for Noriko’s brother, who tries to figure out whether potential suitors are good enough. There’s a lot of spying. There are group decisions being made. It’s often like watching a hung jury. They’ll be undecided as to whether a suitor is good enough, and then finally they’ll come to a consensus agreement. It reminded me of watching my own family express different kinds of concern about a particular family member—say, someone is out of work, or experiencing one crisis or another. A family will surround that issue and form opinions. Sometimes it’s crass, but it’s also philosophical to go through the process of imagining futures for family members. The movie manages to merge a philosophical quest about what marriage means with quotidian concerns like a kid crying over his train set, or worries about the weather in a foreign city.

SOOK-YIN: I don’t want to get married. I don’t feel like life ends because I’m not married. Yet, the necessity of marriage was the prevailing attitude in 1951, and for many it still is. So, to me, this movie was a strange look at a kind of cultural insanity. Families are microcosms of madness. Though they support us, and can create a place of solace and safety, they’re crazy-making—a whole family turns Noriko into a problem. Seeing her buckle to her family’s concerns, and allowing them to become her concerns, was alarming. Even though the movie has lovely moments of interplay between family members, there were still these arbitrary expectations.

ADAM: To get to know this family in such an in-depth way, you have to work very hard, at first, to get in touch with what’s going on with them. They have their own family dynamic, and it took an effort to see where it was coming from. We aren’t given any information really easily, and have to figure out the different kinds of interrelationships between these characters. To address what you were saying about Noriko succumbing to peer pressure: I agree there’s that sense, but there’s also a sort of reclamation of power, as she, on a dime, decides to marry someone entirely unpredictable. There’s arbitrariness to this union, and that’s additionally emphasized by us barely seeing the couple together. We hardly see her new husband’s response to marrying her. We just have her making up her mind, and everything shifting. The family has to adjust to this decision, struggling against their counter-justifications. In the end, there’s a kind of hard-won acceptance that everyone has to work towards. It’s beautiful seeing calmness and anxieties sit beside each other, interweave, and form a continuity.

SOOK-YIN: There’s absolutely no romance between Noriko and her fiancée. She agrees to marry him because his mother is worried about her own future. When she joyously tells her son that Noriko will marry him, he grunts. He’s apathetic. Noriko agrees to marry him, not for love or romance, but because “she knows him well and feels safe around him.” But more importantly, marrying him allows her to leave Tokyo. It’s her only escape from the family she loves, but that demands control over her. It’s also heartbreaking for her to leave. Ozu’s dealing with the bittersweet choices that it takes to break the cycle of family, to find freedom, sort of.

ADAM: The movie shows that the breaking of a cycle is concurrent with its continuation. There are characters that are simultaneously wise and senile. One family member that prompts the family decision to find a mate for Noriko is a toothless, nearly deaf great-uncle who’s wise to the world, but is constantly having tricks played on him. Noriko’s nearly arbitrary decision to marry a man just to move to another city is a decisive move, but is still a version of succumbing to peer pressure. She’s both foolish and wise. The movie shows how our choices are inseparable from both these factors.

SOOK-YIN: The women are always smiling and affable and servile. It’s like a mask. Noriko’s boss complains that modern women expect men to be kind to them. He thinks kindness shouldn’t be assumed, but only respect between the sexes, yet it’s that same boss who calls women “perverse” if they’re unmarried: evil, conniving, and too knowing. He insults the women in the office and laughs at his own jokes. The women have to smile and appease him. It was a difficult position for women in Japanese culture at that time, having to make the transition between the old and the new, and we see how Noriko must carefully negotiate it.

ADAM: A lot of that maneuvering comes down to seemingly serious gestures, like choosing a lifetime mate, and at the same time, a constant game play. Just as Noriko’s boss laughs at his own jokes and makes his own games, we see the other characters constantly doing this, whether it’s adult males sitting down for a board game, or kids taking a train set very seriously, or young women chasing each other around a beach. Seriousness and play coexist. There’s necessarily seriousness at the heart of game play, and game play at the heart of seriousness.

For a movie with marriage as such a key component, we never see one. One of Noriko’s friends gets married in the middle of the movie, yet we don’t see it. We simply see the leftover cake being eaten. Traditional romance is unseen or elided in the film – there’s no kissing or cuddling – but there’s a sense that loving relationships exist among families in rerouted ways, not simply between couples. It’s people sharing leftovers, or doing the laundry together, or making big decisions in strange ways.

SOOK-YIN: Marriage becomes not an act of passion or romance but an extension of the framework of family. It’s not an individual or a couple that shines, but how they support the larger structure of the clan. Towards the end, there’s a marriage procession with a woman in full, traditional regalia, and Noriko’s mother and other family members are watching it from a distance. There’s a bittersweet, melancholy resignation as the elderly mother notes, “A bride is passing. I hope she’ll be happy.” There’s a deep pathos in the world of women. Marriages do not necessitate happiness, and it’s the luck of the draw, particularly when brought about by these cultural pressures. There’s solitude and loneliness for these women even as they’re surrounded by their brood, and what comes to be their family. Essentially, there’s been a sacrifice of self, often with large consequences. At the time, it was extraordinary that Ozu could see this. He was, in his subtle way, trying to question those values.

Which makes me wonder about the kinds of cultural values we live by and perpetuate today. How will we be seen in sixty years time?

Illustration by Chester Brown


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