For "Early Spring," the follow-up to his 1953 masterpiece "Tokyo Story," Yasujiro Ozu wisely decided to switch gears a bit. Of course, his gaze remained focused on the contemporary Japanese family, but this time his main characters were of a younger generation than that of the couple Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama portrayed in the earlier film. Also, the main source of conflict in the story – infidelity – marks a noticeable deviation from his usual topic of generational rifts between parents and children while providing the basis for a quietly intriguing, insightful drama.
Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe) is a young office worker who, like many of his fellow employees, is quite discontent with the banal lifestyle they all lead to make ends meet. One day, some of them plan to go on a hike in the countryside. It is there where Shoji begins to form a close bond with the spirited Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is nicknamed “Goldfish.” Her behavior towards him steadily progresses from not-so-subtle flirtation to full-on romantic advances. As their relationship grows into an affair, Shoji’s interaction with his wife Masako (Chikage Awashima) becomes increasingly tense, her fraying patience soon giving way to suspicion and distrust. Both Shoji and Chiyo soon experience the consequences of their actions and reconsider their respective situations.
One of "Early Spring"’s chief merits is the remarkable level of attention given to human behavior as the effects of the affair become more pronounced. The initial sparks between Shoji and Chiyo are small, but telling. During the hike, they gleefully hitch a ride into town together on a truck, leaving behind their protesting colleagues. Later, she appears at a mahjong game in a fashionable dress and sits next to him as, ironically, he smokes with his wife’s cigarette holder. Chiyo certainly does her part to gain Shoji’s attention, but with her bubbly personality and wide-eyed innocence, she is more of an irresponsible child than a cruel-hearted temptress. Shoji is much more at fault for his insensitivity towards both Masako and Chiyo, and pursues the latter for no better reason than to alleviate some of the boredom in his life, it seems. Even when Chiyo tries to express her affection for him, he responds in a gruff, impatient manner. Naturally, the viewer’s sympathies become primarily aligned with Masako as she grows more fed up with her husband. In one scene, there is a small surprise when, on yet another night when Shoji is out, he is actually with his war buddies instead of Chiyo. Yet little comfort is taken in that fact, particularly when he arrives with two very drunk friends late at night and forgets about the anniversary of his son’s death the next day. When Masako confronts him later on, her pent-up frustration is all too understandable.
Aside from the main storyline, Ozu divides much attention to the practical and moral downsides of being a salaryman in postwar Japan. The opening moments of the film consist of one poetic ode to the daily grind after another: an alarm clock going off in a rural household in the still-dark morning, white-shirted workers leaving their homes and making their way to downtown Tokyo for another day, a train platform packed with commuters. More than once, characters acknowledge the hardships of life in the rat race and voice their regrets and doubts regarding the future. Luckily, the younger people that Shoji and Chiyo socialize with possess an upbeat vitality that hasn’t yet been completely dulled by disillusionment.
Ozu’s unique, customary expertise is very much present throughout "Early Spring." During a secret meeting at a restaurant after work, Chiyo moves closer to Shoji for a kiss – at which point the director politely cuts away to a rotating fan. A more serious moment shows Shoji and Masako sitting in the dark in separate rooms (and shots) in their house, both of them contemplating the state of their marriage. Such moments and many others throughout the film serve as poignant reminders of Ozu’s great talent for giving universal stories and messages the ideal cinematic treatment.