Film director Yasujiro Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring opens with a Japanese tea ceremony. Women in beautiful kimonos kneel in a circle together, bowing deeply as each new participant arrives. The hostess starts the ceremony with elaborate formality, each movement choreographed to perfection. The women in the circle watch in reverent silence. The camera cuts to scenes in the outside zen garden, the birds sing, orchestral strings play a lovely, slow tune. It’s a sacred moment and I feel a similar spirit when I attend the LDS temple. (The reverence and cleanliness of LDS temple worship fits well into the Japanese culture. I’ve heard that of all the temples in the world, the Tokyo temple is by far the cleanest, with overzealous temple workers polishing every surface to a gleam, even those hidden far from view.)
Late Spring goes on to tell a beautiful tale about a young woman who leaves her family to get married. It’s a universal story, some might say mundane, certainly not Hollywood-worthy. But the magic of Yasujiro Ozu is his ability to take a very average story and make it sacred. Life IS sacred though films rarely portray it as such. What humans beings feel in their everyday lives, repeated billions of times across the world, is a strange and beautiful thing when seen for what it truly is. Ozu’s intense love for these moments, coupled with the traditional Japanese lifestyle of “living as art,” makes for cinema at its highest level of spirituality. You see the world through an empathetic and compassionate eye, as God Himself might see it: each character encircled in a halo of dignity, each scene rendered more poignant by the accompanying celestial sounds, the humming of angels watching over their beloved children.
My passion for Ozu is entirely lost on my family. I forced them to sit through my favorite Ozu film, Early Summer, and they were bored to tears, not to mention infuriated by its mid-century misogynist culture. I surprise even myself at my obsession for Ozu. Somehow my love for other gratuitously violent films hasn’t dulled my sensitivities to Ozu’s hymns of reverence and subtlety. And as a human being, I think you owe it to yourself to experience at least one Ozu film. Start with Late Spring, Early Summer, or Tokyo Story. These films feature the iconic actress Setsuko Hara in portrayals of a woman named Noriko who represents Ozu’s ideal Japanese woman: the epitome of saintly selflessness, smiling through sorrow. You will be amazed to find yourself cheering for her infectious goodness in-spite of your feminist abhorrence to her cultural submissiveness!
In this scene from Late Spring, Noriko, anxious about her upcoming arranged marriage, submits to her father’s gentle wisdom that happiness only comes through effort. It’s a message that would not be out-of-place in Mormonism, as we combat our culture’s overly idealistic expectations of romantic love and instant gratification.
Early Summer features a more progressive message which might appeal more to feminists. Noriko goes against the wishes of her family by marrying a widowed man who has a child. In this famous scene, she discusses the conflict with her sister-in-law, who finally realizes that the family has been petty and selfish in their desires for Noriko. This realization suddenly and beautifully transforms their relationship.
In this scene from Tokyo Story, Noriko offers a depressing yet honest acknowledgment of human weakness, including her own. “Life is disappointing, isn’t it?” Yes, life can be disappointing, but when it is lived with as much integrity as Noriko and others bring to it, it is still beautiful.