The too-early tolling of the alarm clock. The morning rituals of washing, shaving, tooth-brushing and hair-combing. Donning the accepted and ubiquitous costume of commerce: the white shirt, the black slacks. Pissing and moaning about the boss, the lousy pay, your life consumed by the machinery that kills the dreams of your youth before you can do anything about it. The wife: ignored and disrespected by her tired and bored husband. The husband: cold and deadened by years at his desk, waiting for something (anything!) to crack the ice and let him feel, for just one goddamned minute, alive and kicking instead of the cog that he’s mutated into. This is the world of Early Spring, the 1956 film from Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. It is the world of the “salaryman,” those who cram into trains and march into offices and stare at the clock and hope they don’t get transferred to some hick town. The world of office gossip and backstabbing and scandalous romances that give the workers something juicy to talk about while slurping their noodles and guzzling their beer at the end of the day.
Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe) is a salaryman at a large Japanese company. His wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima), is dutiful and frugal, grumpy and stern. These two are drowning in the rituals and habits of marriage, the romance and warm electricity of their union now a rote carrying-out of their social roles. He goes to work. She takes out the trash. He plays mah-jongg all night. She waits up for him. He visits a dying friend. She visits her mother. They are always strapped for cash, always in need of something they don’t have.
Enter Goldfish (Keiko Kishi), a cute and flirtatious office tart with her sights set on the handsome and all-too-willing Shoji. Goldfish would seem to be everything that his wife is not. She doesn’t nag him or scold him or remind him of the son he and his wife lost some years earlier. He’s ripe for seduction. In one scene, Goldfish even taunts him, getting him to imagine what his “poor wife” is doing right this minute. “It’s no fun being a wife,” she giggles. The technique works, and Shoji beds this chipper chippy after a long romantic dinner.
If Shoji thought his life was miserable before Goldfish, he’s in for quite a treat as the chasm between his terminally morose wife and himself develops into a canyon of doubt and suspicion. The numb and reckless Shoji doesn’t even seem to care when the affair becomes a dangerous rumor, threatening his boring career and his loveless marriage.
A Japanese soap opera? A long, slow-moving character study of a man trapped by his dream of a “better life?” A dead-on indictment of the soul-killing monotony and drudgery of modern corporate life? Early Spring is all of these, as well as 30 minutes too long. It hardly matters, for the tale is a cautionary one, one that always bears repeating.
Showing on Monday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-3237.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.