If there is a key to Ozu’s mastery it is balance. Early Spring is one of Ozu’s most devastatingly depressing films and yet it is not an entirely unhappy affair. Ozu understands that life is a mixture of emotions and he deftly fluctuates between a wide array of feelings and commentary.
Returning to a form of film knick-named ‘salaryman’, Ozu reconsiders the hard-working Japanese business ethic. Ozu had gotten his start making ‘salaryman’ films; often humorous films specifically targeted at the white collar working class. Now, Ozu takes a more mature approach, something contemplative and cautionary. Contrasting work life with family life, Ozu tells the story of Shoji, a recently graduated salaryman trapped in both his job and his marriage. His only release comes from flirting with a young typist he calls ‘Goldfish’. Shoji and Goldfish’s youthful romance shakes up the monotony of Shoji’s daily routine, but it also cracks the foundation upon which all of Shoji’s life rests. Ozu attempts to show that business relationships are not what matters most. It is family that should come first.
In Early Spring, Ozu’s pace is more restrained than normal as he attempts to mimic the banal word-a-day exist that has ground down his protagonist. The white-collar work day is reduced to morning commutes, long hours at the office, and the fleeting excitement of after-work drinks before finally retiring to home. Reunions with old army friends rekindle a fondness for war-filled, but youthful days. It is during this nostalgic drinking parties that Ozu lets humor seep into a sorrowful tale, but it is not for long. Shoji uses his wartime buddies as a cover, allowing him to spend the night with Goldfish. Still, no cover is enough to hide the distance that Shoji draws between himself and his wife. The tryst with Goldfish leads to a separation and a sudden transfer that relocates Shoji to a far-off rural post.
Much like the sudden appearance of a television crate in Ozu’s Ohayo brings about a fit of joy, the single image of a suitcase near the end of Early Spring collapses my heart. As always, it is a well composed image with the suitcase sitting low in the frame, neatly placed. Still, it is just an inanimate object, but through Ozu’s careful construction this one image sparks a revolutionary moment in the film. Just as it feels as if Shoji has worked himself into a corner, the suitcase appears. It is not a false moment, but something extraordinary, something promising and real. Shoji’s wife has come to stay with him. Somehow, she has forgiven him. It is not due to any form of weakness that she travels to this barren location. No, it is something else, something very human, something that speaks to the amazing power of the human heart. Their reunion is not one of exuberant joy, but one stumbling to find a reason to proceed. Each party cautiously feels their way around the other. Each wonder what the future holds for them. However, with that single image of the suitcase there is a sensation of hope.