When Censorship Backfires: Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’

By  · Published on March 18th, 2013

When Censorship Backfires: Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they try to imagine how Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring might have been different if the Allied Forces hadn’t censored it. In 1949, even Japanese cinema was expected to champion American values. Fortunately, Ozu had the last laugh (and it continues to echo throughout time and culture).

In the #15 movie on the list, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) takes care of her widower father, Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu), but her aunt is determined to set her up with a husband. On her long road to the aisle (by bicycle), the concept of marriage, love and sex are explored thoroughly through the lenses of tradition and modernity.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Landon: So I watched Late Spring this week for the first time and I loved it. I thought it was lyrical, poetic cinema that deserved to be on the same list as his masterpiece, Tokyo Story. But because this is the 2nd Ozu film we’ve covered, I wonder if it might be helpful to talk about events around the film instead. What are some things that happened in relation to this film that might make us look at Late Spring differently?

Scott: First of all, Ozu has been the real discovery treasure of the S&S list for me, so we’re on the same page. On your second point, I wonder if it’s going to be difficult for us to really understand the Geta-on-the-ground reality facing post-WWII Japan (and its filmmakers).

Even though this is definitely a movie that has to be viewed from elements beyond its runtime.

Landon: That’s exactly right. I wanted to watch the film knowing as little about it at first, but I continually placed these Western categories on it. I kept asking myself, “Is Noriko a feminist?” when she refuses to involve herself in the institution of marriage. But what’s going on here is a pretty complex way of working through postwar conflicts between traditional Japanese and modern Western culture that’s not necessarily evident to the Western spectator who watches the film on its own.

Scott: Funny how a late 1940s occupying censorship board could actually turn the main character into a feminist. She didn’t even have to burn a bra.

But that’s the reality. In order to get this made, Ozu had to submit an outline to the censor board (aka the US and Allied forces) who then handheld along the way to make sure the final cut didn’t say anything against American values (or about the bomb at all).

Landon: Right, and certain distinct elements were changed. Most references to traditional Japanese culture were removed: Noriko’s decision to marry is her own, rather than a family decision or arranged marriage, and a scripted scene involving a visit to a cemetery was cut out because it suggested ancestor worship. Perhaps most disturbingly, most references that the Pacific War was at all tough on the Japanese were removed entirely. It’s surprising to see what information the US occupation saw threatening in a Japanese film made for Japanese audiences (Late Spring didn’t see a US release until 1972).

Scott: It’s also an interesting way that our culture asserted itself on a foreign artist. I’m just glad the censor board didn’t take a look at US films where someone goes to visit a loved one’s grave. They would have needed bigger scissors.

The question is whether or not the movie would be all that dramatically different if the earlier version had gotten made.

Landon: Exactly. To a degree, whether the changes are major or not, the “15th greatest film of all time” as it was made is not exactly what it was intended to be. But rather than focus on what Late Spring might have been, the film in many ways proves how good filmmakers still get their themes across despite censors.

Scott: Censorship sucks, but limitations can be freeing for the right creator.

Landon: The placement of the Coca-Cola sign, in plain English, prominently within the middle of the frame as Noriko and Suichi bike together seems like a fitting jab at the overbearing presence of Western culture/values in postwar Japan. It bears a nice contrast against all the beautiful, plot-free shots of nature elsewhere in the film.

Scott: And I’m pretty sure Noriko’s 40 minutes of manic smiling were sponsored by Colgate.

Landon: Ha, yes. So much smiling. All over this movie. I wondered if my discomfort with all the smiling was something lost in translation, or if it was simply an Ozu thing.

Dare I ask: do we think Late Spring might be a better, even more resonant movie because of censorship – or, more specifically, its work around and despite censorship?

Scott: Impossible to say, but going simply off of the scenes we know were left out, it seems clear that the original version could have been just as if not more resonant.

I have no idea how an American audience coming off of John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima would have dealt with Ancestor worship (she visits a grave!) or a family-chosen marriage (which still happens today in the US), but I say bring it on. Ozu would have ended up with a film celebrating tradition either way.

Landon: That was striking to me too. Censorship ended up creating a story about the conflict between the traditional Japanese family and modern individualism. The censors favored a message of individualism through and through, but the conflict itself still shows up in spades. Speaking of American films that would be subject to such draconian rules, it’s ironic that Make Way For Tomorrow, the film Ozu’s Tokyo Story was based on, is about how selfish individualism hurts the family unit.

Late Spring, like Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now, actually exercised its own themes through the history of its making.

Scott: Wow. Yes. I mean, I’d never want to advocate for censorship, but there’s a reasonable estimation here that showing the dichotomy in starker terms actually amplified the traditional message. In that case, the censor board shot itself in the foot. As censor boards so often do.

But beyond the Coca Cola sign, I found it fascinating how much of American culture the characters in the film knew intimately. Not just the joke about Noriko’s suitor looking like Gary Cooper. One of the opening sequences involves a student learning the difference between Friederich List the economist and Franz Liszt the pianist/composer.

Those elements seem like even better, subtle jabs of Japanese superiority. Of at least their worldliness and historical acumen.

Landon: Good point – it seems to say Western culture is interchangeable. It’s easily the best List/Lizst joke we’ve come across so far. Though I was dying to see this husband (and apparently their plumber) who looked like Gary Cooper.

Scott: How cool would it have been if Ozu had actually gotten Gary Cooper?

Landon: I think he did. That part was censored for no good reason.

Scott: He visits a shrine or something.

This may come from out of left field, but DeMille’s Samson and Delilah was the #1 movie of 1949 in the States. I’m wondering how it espoused American values….

Landon: Ha, wow. This makes me wonder which American films were exported to Japan. I’m guessing the menage a trois comedy Design for Living was not the film these characters know Gary Cooper from.

Scott: I’m hoping they sent I Was a Male War Bride where Cary Grant plays a French officer who ends up dressing like a woman because he gets married to an American Lieutenant.

Landon: So Late Spring is a beautiful film on its own, but its history makes it all the richer, and is perhaps needed more here than with Tokyo Story. I have trouble articulating this, but knowing that S&S is a British institution, it’s striking to me that some things in films simply don’t translate, which brings forth certain barriers in evaluating cinema cross the world and across time.

Scott: But S&S also has critics from around the world weighing in, and Ozu has been a force far beyond his borders. Which, I think, the Censor Board of the time would abjectly hate if they were alive to find that out.

Landon: And that makes it all the better. This is not only proof that great artists can work around and make great work despite censors, but an artist’s work is often enriched by certain limitations, be they rational or dumb.

Scott: Amen. That censorship can sometimes backfire.

Although it’s an interesting situation, I think we should end by saying that the movie itself (regardless of the culture beyond it) is a beautiful, biting, elegantly made bit of cinema.

Landon: And now I’m guessing there was so much smiling because the actors knew what Ozu was getting away with.

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