The past couple of months have seen the appearance of two comparatively slender – and in some ways, strikingly similar – volumes of belle-lettrist writing about cinema. Each is written by a figure with a literary reputation and each tackles just a single film from the canon of high modernism. In Zona Geoff Dyer takes on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), while Adam Mars-Jones’ Noriko Smiling considers Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949). I’m going to leave the pleasures of Zona for another time, and muse today on Noriko Smiling, a book that I really wanted to like. I admire Ozu’s films (although I’m no expert), I invariably enjoy attempts to find new ways of writing about art cinema, and when I first picked up Noriko Smiling I delighted in its elegant design and satisfying binding (the publishers are Notting Hill Editions). Having now read the book, however, I think it is a bit pointless and a bit thoughtless, by the end a bit insightful but too often more than a bit irritating.
On of the things you notice first about Noriko Smiling is that there are none of those pesky attributes of scholarship that books about cinema seem to feel necessary. There are no footnotes, for example, and even though Adam Mars-Jones quotes, sometimes extensively, from other writers on Ozu, there are no bibliographical references. Come to that, there’s no bibliography. Nor the credits of the film, even in an abbreviated form (for which see Ozu-san.com). Nor an index. There are no chapters either – and no pictures.
There is also none of what some writers like to call ‘jargon’, the language of theory that came into film studies with Screen and other journals in the 1970s and which, for some, has blighted the subject ever since. Instead across most of the book’s 239 (admittedly modestly-sized) pages there’s a determinedly demotic tone with traces of the jokey and the blokey. Here is Mars-Jones writing about the scene in which the film’s complex heroine Noriko (Setsuko Hara) has a seaside conversation with a potential boyfriend Hattori. ‘Instead of any sort of intimacy,’ Mars-Jones writes, ‘we get a long and excruciating scene of banter about pickles – pickles and jealousy.’ After which (as he does throughout) he reproduces much of the dialogue, before commenting:
Stop it at once, young people. Not another word about pickles, Not another word about jealousy. Tear each other’s clothes off if you must (though the camera wouldn’t know where to look). Just give the cryptic kitchen banter a rest.
Too often the book reads as if it’s someone’s Twitter stream alongside Late Spring late-night on Film4.
For much of the time, Adam Mars-Jones contents himself with retelling the action of the film. So the book aspires to be a close description of Late Spring – but in this it falls short. What it does for the most part is describe (and often speculate about) the actions and reactions of the characters. But it fails to treat Late Spring as a film, as a precise and rigorously organised sequence of photographic images. The specific and particular qualities of cinema are drained from the discussion, as is any idea of film aesthetics. For much of the time we might be reading about the people on screen as if they were on stage or even in the room with us.
There are, of course, moments when Mars-Jones takes on the filmic qualities of Late Spring, when he mentions the duration of a particular shot or when he admires a moment of its cinematography. But it is page 156 before he writes, ‘This might be a good moment to give the name of the film’s director of photography, Yuharu Atsuta.’ And that’s just what he does: ‘give the name’. There’s no mention that Yuhara Atsuta worked with Ozu on at least fifteen films and that their partnership is regarded as on of the great collaborative relationships in modern cinema. Then again, I don’t think Mars-Jones mentions the editor of Late Spring nor the studio for which it was made.
All of which is the more frustrating because I applaud certain of the intentions with which Adam Mars-Jones begins the book. As he writes,
Sometimes works of art need to be defended against their advocates, and great films rescued from their reputation.
The critics from whom he especially wants to ‘rescue’ Late Spring are, on the one hand, Donald Richie, who according to Mars-Jones ‘turns Ozu into a religious artist’, and on the other, the ‘neo-formalists’ Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. Writer and director Paul Schrader also figures in this rogue’s gallery, although he is closely aligned with Richie’s ‘Zen transcendentals’. It’s certainly true that many of us see Ozu’s work with a strong awareness of the informed and enlightening words of each of these writers – and I am a particular fan of Bordwell and Thompson’s rigorous poetics.
Mars-Jones has little time for either approach, and wants instead to formulate a response that we might think of as social materialism (the term he prefers, following Erving Goffman, is ‘micro-sociology’). He is interested in the specifics of the characters and their lives when set against the realities of the post-war American occupation of Japan and of a country undergoing rapid social change. For example, he is informative on changes to the divorce laws which immediately preceded the production of Late Spring. So I respond to Mars-Jones’ attempt to find a way of writing about Late Spring that is both as original and as revealing as the work of those other writers, and yet also distinctive. It’s just disappointing that for much of the volume there are few signs that he is up to the job.
The final fifty pages of Noriko Smiling, however, spin off into something rather different. Here Adam Mars-Jones draws heavily on Lars-Martin Sorensen’s scholarship in his 2009 book Censorship of Japanese Films During the US Occupation of Japan. Mars-Jones still doesn’t offer any page references but he cites Sorensen more than two dozen times by name, even as he slights his book as offering ‘a couple of bursts of dazzling illumination, along with some damp squibs and several arguments that fizzle.’
The place at which Mars-Jones’ reading of Late Spring through the lens of Sorensen’s work finally arrives is that Ozu may have been suggesting, within a strict system of censorship, that ‘Noriko was raped or sexually abused in the course of her forced wartime labour, away from the protection of her father and her class status.’ Noriko’s sexual trauma, in this reading, becomes a component of the subject matter of the film. And this unquestionably shifts one’s reaction to the film, adding to and enriching it. I also found myself applauding Mars-Jones as he drew out the implications of the analysis.
The otherworldly calm of Japanese cinema in the post-war years is something we cling to as an idea, when the single most obvious thing about these films is that everyone involved in them was traumatised by war, privation and defeat. If we choose to take the Noriko smile at face value, it’s because we choose to think the Japanese didn’t actually mind being fire-bombed and irradiated, that they kept the old Zen charm going when they saw the Sumida river, weeks after an air raid on Tokyo, choked with charred and bloated corpses. We have a strong vested interest in their serenity.
Bravo – yet long before I reached this point, my irritation with the book had rather blunted the interest of this original reading. What most annoyed me throughout was the author’s celebration of his ignorance when faced with the complexities of Japanese culture. I know that part of his point is to describe as precisely as he can his personal reactions to the film, which are often ones of puzzlement. But is this in any way helpful to the reader? About a moment in the visit of Noriko and her father to a Noh play, he writes.
Towards the end of the shot the personage to the right of the group, sitting cross-legged in a black costume with a pointy hat, begins to shift around [54.53], but whether preparing to make an entrance or troubled by worms I really couldn’t say.
But, Adam, I want you to say, and to do so in an informed way – or to keep quiet. That is precisely why I handed over £12 for your book. If you detail again and again just how bemused you are it doesn’t make for a hugely satisfying experience for the reader (nor, I would suggest, value for money). Here’s another example:
Noriko is sitting on a cushion, apparently light-hearted and unconcerned. She divides her attention between the conversation and playing with a cloth object of some sort. It might be a folded hand towel, the same or another, even a recurrence of the hanky theme. Oh dear, I’m rather at a loss with Japanese haberdashery of the immediate post-war period. No doubt there’s a website.
Against a background of the richness and rewards of the past three decades of critical writing about film from academics and cineastes and practitioners, jokes like this – which recur throughout the text – look simply feeble.
Facilitated by DVD distribution (which Mars-Jones recognises as a key context for the book, just as it is for Zona) and by Internet distribution, critical engagement with cinemas of all kinds has never been more vital nor more varied nor more urgent nor more accessible. So if you want to find a way into Ozu and Late Spring, let me recommend that you save the £12 purchase price of Noriko Smiling and first buy the BFI’s dual-disc edition of a glorious print of the film (currently £8.99 on Amazon.co.uk). Then take a look at Jonathan Rosenbaum On Ozu and David Bordwell’s brief essays A modest extravagance: four looks at Ozu and Good and good for you. After which you’ll be ready for Bordwell’s slightly daunting but hugely rewarding Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema – it’s out of print but, wonderfully, a .pdf copy is available for free download here.