Donald Richie is perhaps the foremost authority on Yasujiro Ozu, so when he says that Ozu's admirers hold him to almost mythic proportions and forget about the ribald Ozu (with his fart jokes), you take him seriously. And you think about the fart jokes. It shows that Ozu was not always as austere or subtle as his reputation (and some of his films) suggests.
‘Early Summer' is a postwar (1951) Japanese family drama, not as serious as ‘Tokyo Story' nor as incisive as either of the ‘Floating Weeds' films. There's a sense of (dare it be said?) fun in this film, even with its serious treatment of ritual and conformity in the Japanese middle class. This material could have been played as broad comedy (or lead to disaster), but Ozu takes a third path that goes deeper into the ties that bind the family and friends, making you care about how those bindings are tested or severed. You don't find yourself expecting wrinkles in the story, you float over the occurrences, good and bad.
Donald Richie's commentary is even more interesting than his work on the 'Floating Weeds' films (which was exhaustive), since he peppers his narrative with facts about Ozu's personal life (he lived with his mother- who knew?). The personal side of Ozu is also explored in the documentary ‘Ozu's Films from Behind The Scenes' featuring a group of Ozu collaborators discussing the master's work habits (talented, but fussy, and liked to drink a lot of Sake). Unfortunately, the doc disappoints- he flat presentation of a few guys sitting around answering clearly scripted questions is below Criterion standards for such undertakings, and it's hard not to be bored.
The liner notes, however, make up for any deficiencies in the documentary. Ozu scholar David Bordwell explores ‘Early Summer's standing among other multi-character dramas (citing 'Nashville' , 'Traffic' and even 'Meet Me In St. Louis' along the way). But Jim Jarmusch's account of a visit to Kamakura to see Ozu's inspirations is brief, simple, eloquent, and indispensable for the fans. Ozu would have been proud
The package also includes a great transfer (with some streaks in the opening), and a trailer. Documentary issues notwithstanding, only Criterion would devote so much time to Ozu's works, so for his followers, the package is a must-have. Highly recommended.
Other Ozu titles released by Criterion include 'Good Morning,' 'Early Summer,' 'Late Spring,' 'Floating Weeds,' and 'Tokyo Story.'
© 2004 Michael John Derbecker