Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2020 June 10 • Wednesday

Yet another life goal achieved!

I’ve been wanting to read Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling, a book-length essay on the Ozu movie Late Spring, for years but wanted to watch the movie again first. And then I had the thought, why not watch Late Spring in late spring?

And so I did. And then I read the book and it was excellent, one of the best pieces of film criticism I’ve ever read and the most exciting work of film criticism since Pauline Kael, as far as I can remember.

(Adam Mars-Jones has for years been the only film critic in the world who does the job right, as far as I’m concerned.)

Noriko Smiling presents insight, wit and erudition, as well as aphorisms worthy of Oscar Wilde.

Some examples: “Hollywood cinema, like the World Series in baseball, lays claim to the planet without particularly noticing it”.

“It may seem self-evident that knowledge of censorship will alter the experience of watching a film, but it isn’t necessarily so. Art is built around absences anyway. Like consciousness, it is honeycombed with the things it doesn’t know.”

“If the blind spot in human eyesight was clearly labelled ‘blind spot’ then it wouldn’t be one. It’s the way the frayed patch of missing information seems to lead on, without a break, to the areas of functioning vision around it that makes it so treacherous.”

Mars-Jones states one of his aims early on, in a passage quoted on the back of the book: “Sometimes works of art need to be defended against their advocates, and great films rescued from their reputations”.

And so his book is not just about the film but also about other books about the film.

For instance, with an acknowledgement of Edward Said, Mars-Jones notes that Western film critics might be overwhelmed by what they perceive as inscrutable Eastern exoticism. He proceeds from there.

It seems more sensible to start from the notion that Ozu’s films are not pieces of Zen but pieces of cinema. They may have a particular relationship with film language but they still work, or we would have no prospect of enjoying them, however strongly their transcendental virtues were touted. Even if art has its roots in the sacred, there is no possibility of turning it back into a purely religious experience, any more than you can turn cider back into apples.

And then, noting an important visual clue in the films first scene, Mars-Jones can’t resist: “If you can bear to keep your eyes open and not to murmur ‘Gosh how Zen’ the whole time, you may notice that Noriko is shown from the beginning of the film as belonging to two worlds”.

Mars-Jones might have missed a trick or two. He acknowledges his own replacement of “violin concert” with “cello concert” and gives a fairly feeble reason why he continues to make the slip instead of correcting it. But his observations of the relationship between Noriko and Hattori, and the importance of the concert itself, are strengthened if you discover the fact, unmentioned here, that the performer in the concert, Mari Iwamoto, was a real person and a very big deal. This isn’t just any old violin concert, this is something special, which adds gravity both to Hattori’s offer of a ticket and Noriko’s refusal of same.

And despite Mars-Jones’s persuasive dismantling of both Zen and formalist readings of the movie, at one point he had me wondering, through his own analysis, whether the whole movie is actually about enryo, a cultural concept without a clear single English analog, variously described as a combination of reserve and restraint and tact and such. It doesn’t appear to have a religious connotation but Late Spring is arguably immersed in it.

For someone who has watched this film as many times as Mars-Jones has, analyzed it and researched it and gone through certain scenes frame by frame, sensitive and responsive to numerous possible subtexts, one of the more surprising omissions concerns the shots of the Hattori building, ostensibly used to establish Tokyo settings but discovered by Mars-Jones to have some compelling additional meanings. And yet he didn’t notice or didn’t mention (unless I simply missed it) that the building also shares its name with an extremely significant character, the Hattori with whom Noriko comes close to having something like dates with, drawing the line at that significant concert, an action that Mars-Jones rightly emphasizes as a loud and clear statement.

But this is one of the reasons Late Spring is such a compelling film. There will always be more to see in it.

The first line of Noriko Smiling is “Late Spring, directed and co-written by Yasujiro Ozu, was released in 1949, which makes it an old film, or a film that has been new for a long time”.