Legendary director Yasujiro Ozu is a filmcritic.com all-star. Do a search, and you'll find nothing but four and five-star reviews. That's quite a feat for a man remembered for crafting small-scale domestic dramas featuring understated performances and static camera work. What's his secret? You could write a dissertation about the Ozu magic (and many people have), but the short answer is that Ozu has a way at revealing huge truths about the human condition from the smallest of gestures.
Late Spring is classic Ozu. Set mainly in the small confines of the suburban Tokyo home of Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu) and his 27-year-old daughter Shukichi (Setsuko Hara, Ozu's favorite leading lady), the issue at hand is a deceptively simple one: When will Shukichi get married and leave home? Finally fully recovered from wartime illness, widower Somiya wonders if his daughter should be considering marriage, but she's enjoying a sort of domestic bliss, taking care of her father and showing no interest in dating or marrying. Somiya's pushy sister Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) buzzes around fretting about Shukichi's spinsterhood and looking for appropriate matches, but Somiya himself is sort of ambivalent.
Hopes of a match rise when Shukichi starts spending time with Somiya's handsome research assistant, but it turns out he's engaged. Aya meanwhile has lined up an arrangement with a local man who she says looks like Gary Cooper, but Somiya is totally uninterested. Next Aya hatches a plan to make Shukichi think that her father wants to remarry, and he reluctantly goes along with it, feigning interest in a woman, but the scheme has terrible results. Shukichi, who has made it clear that the idea of any man marrying a second wife is "filthy" and "disgusting" is beside herself, and eventually she crumbles and heads for the altar to marry a man she barely knows, but not before she tells Somiya that "Marriage wouldn't make me any happier. You can remarry, but I want to be at your side."
All this goes on behind a façade of smiles, polite laughter, and subtle insinuations. It's rare for an Ozu character to say what he or she really feels. Maybe that's a particularly Japanese characteristic, or maybe it's just plain human repression. The meddling aunt sends both Shukichi and her father down paths they don't really want to travel, but they go along willingly, thinking it's the "right thing to do." In the end, no one is happy except Auntie, and Somiya is now home alone pondering the huge lie he told to his daughter, a lie that brings him nothing but loneliness.
Much of the pleasure of Late Spring comes from appreciating Ozu's unique technique. Note the famous floor-level camera shots. Watch the body language. Marvel at how many crucial events actually happen off-screen. Count the transitional "pillow shots" of temples, trees, and other scenery. The intimacy is intense. When the film is over you'll be amazed at powerfully your emotions have been played with given the economy with which the story has been told. It's the work of a master.
The Criterion DVD includes Wim Wenders' tribute to Ozu, the feature-length Tokyo-Ga, commentary from an Ozu expert, and a book of essays about the film and Ozu.