Spring Frolics


What a lovely film.  I refer to Spring Dreams, from 1960, written and directed by a highly regarded filmmaker whose films I hadn’t seen before, Keisuke Kinoshita.  Made and taking place in Japan, the movie’s a satiric comedy, the humor understated, tongue in cheek, but affectionate, soft and subtle.  And you sense, in watching, how thoroughly individual and unique is its take on people—their flaws, their quirks, their small perfections—all arising from the singular view of this singular artist-filmmaker-auteur.

The story concerns a rich pharmaceutical manufacturer, a widower with three grown, albeit helpless children and a formidable mother-in-law, whose family really owns the pharmaceutical company and who’s really in charge.  Serving the household are two scurrying maids, the magnate’s submissive, spinsterish secretary, and the mother-in-law’s prim, seemingly deferential companion.  They live in a grand house (described as a “castle” by those not in their socioeconomic class) of huge, high, empty rooms, a daunting staircase, and an entranceway large enough to camp an army.  You sense this house is for show only, not meant for intimate living.  No one living here actually seems comfortable.

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I remark on this house because it’s also a main character.  With its aggressive, Western-style architecture and décor, it’s not at all like the small homes with low rooms and sliding doors seen, for example, in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, which seem, at least in my eyes, so traditionally and typically Japanese.  Instead, right from the opening credits, a shot of tall, broad double doors that, paradoxically, seem to forbid entry as you approach, this gaudy, monstrous mansion thrusts its presence on us like a rude party guest with knobby elbows.  You’re always aware how big, imposing, and ugly the damn thing is.  Its vast emptiness stretches around and about the characters, dwarfing their very existence; they dash through its hallways like small rodents in search of a protective burrow.  Everyone’s in motion here, someone always entering a room as another exits and yet…no one seems to go anywhere.  It’s rare for a scene to take place outside this house, so dominant, and domineering, it is in the characters’ lives.


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Is it any wonder, then, that the family inside this bullying domain is dysfunctional?  The father is also a bully, a petty one (that tiny toothbrush mustache bristling from his upper lip says volumes…), as well as a bozo; Grandma controls everyone’s lives (“all these incompetent grandchildren,” she sotto voce remarks); the older daughter ‘entertains’ a series of much younger men (claiming to “mother” them, as if they were imagined children); the younger daughter, ordered by Grandma to marry a man capable of managing the pharmaceutical firm instead of the poor artist she loves, weeps like a summer monsoon (“I prefer greed to artistic talent,” says Grandma); and the son, who wanders the house in a ridiculous pair of shorty-shorts, moons about the Meaning of It All—“what is life,” he murmurs, “what is it to live?”  (That no one ever suggests the son should take over the pharmaceutical company also says volumes…)

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Into this maladjusted clan comes an elderly sweet-potato seller—frail, stoic, almost silent, paring out his scanty existence by the wares in his cart, and played with a delicate melancholy by the great Chishu Ryu.  The two servant girls ask him up to the house to buy some sweet potatoes; one asks his help moving furniture while she cleans.  The effort brings on a stroke and he collapses in the living room (“there are sweet potatoes everywhere!” exclaims one character).  And here the story reaches a narrative crux—with the old man literally not able to be moved from this engulfing house, what will happen next?  How will the inhabiting family react to this humble, unexpected presence in their, and its, midst?

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If this has been a 1930s American movie (perhaps made by Frank Capra), we’d have a pretty good idea what would happen.  A slow but seismic shift would start:  All the rich folk would come to recognize the old man’s patience and virtue and learn a lesson from it.  They’d become sweeter, kinder, gentler persons, seeing each other with new, enlightened eyes.  Everything would end in harmony and laughter and a tear or two.  Someone might even wave a flag.

Well…someone does wave a flag, only it’s the red flag of revolt, as the pharmaceutical factory workers declare a strike and march on the picket lines (workers “were obedient when my husband was in charge,” snarks Grandma).  Meanwhile, the mousy secretary, defying her boss (probably for the first time), demands the family take care of the elderly man (it won’t look good otherwise, she points out); the summoned doctor falls heedlessly in love with the secretary; a horde of the old man’s impoverished neighbors troop through the house, concerned not about his health but his money; a trio of yakuza also appear, as ‘protection’ from the strikers; the younger daughter rebels and plots to elope with her paramour; the primly proper companion blurts out an embarrassing 10-year-old secret; while the father bellows in helpless rage at it all (when a maid brings a red quilt to cover the patient, he shrieks, “I hate red!”).  Even the son is affected—discovering an affinity for the strikers, he rushes from the house to join them (waving a flag).

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The only character remaining calm amid the hysteria is Grandma, who dreams of white pigeons while recalling her one great love, whom she herself was forced to give up 50 years ago.  And she starts to wonder who that old man in the living room might be…

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The film’s story, of a poor stranger unsettling the lives of a well-to-do family, has been compared to Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, in which a tramp, rescued from suicide by a bourgeois householder, and invited to stay in his house, proceeds to upend the whole establishment with his riotously disruptive ways.  But is that the case with our potato seller?  Well…yes and no.  As with Renoir’s Boudu, the potato seller does upset living arrangements; with the living room taken up by the old man, the father howls because that ruins his birthday party plans.  Everyone’s forced to take note of the intruder, of the serious, if quiet drama of his illness, and, like Grandma, to wonder who he is.

But, unlike Boudu, the potato seller is not himself disruptive.  Whereas Boudu sows, like a whirlwind, chaos and anarchy in his wake—smashing plates, wiping his shoes on the sheets, drinking and eating to excess, seducing both the maid and the wife, and, in general, making an unholy mess—the potato seller is passive, uncomplaining, almost inert; never involved in family affairs.  He represents not a cataclysmic force descending upon a staid family in a rut, but an opposition of another kind—a magnet of peace, in whose presence others discover an inner tranquility.  Family members (if not his neighbors) begin to observe the potato seller in his makeshift cot as if contemplating an icon.  Indeed, as the frenzy mounts in and around that humongous house, the old man’s impromptu hospital bed becomes its one isle of calm, the serene eye in the midst of the hurricane.

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So what, then, is Ryu’s humble potato seller in this film?  The doctor compares him to the reincarnated Christ, maybe come to redeem the greedy and corrupt.  Though the redemption here is not in the moral sense; if anything, the potato seller doesn’t so much redeem as catalyze, acting as a spur to the turmoil already present.  His very presence, so alien to this pampered, sequestered clan, concentrates, like lighting through a crystal, the already turbulent life of this turbulent household, threatened by disorder both from out (the strikers) and in. The seismic shift happening is not a re-alignment of the landscape but the earth falling away in large, whirling chunks from under everyone’s feet.  But it’s through such convulsions and breakdowns that each family member is freedfrom the past, from social structures, from his or her own inhibiting self.  It’s no accident that the film ends with everyone, in one way or another, finally leaving that oppressive house.

And it’s all hilarious—like watching an Ozu film in screwball rhythm.  Kinoshita’s style here is also like Ozu’s, with few close-ups and little cutting.  Instead, his camera holds for long, meditative takes, his actors occupying separate spaces in the frame (shot in widescreen and screen depth), occupied in separate activities (the companion is frequently seen to one side, relentlessly knitting, like an upscale Madame DeFarge).  Among these still groups, though, Kinoshita contrasts rapid, individual motion, breaking up spatial lines and disordering static visuals:  As the three yakuza, for example, serenely take tea in the house’s gigantic foyer, other inhabitants trot round them like wound-up circus ponies.  Even the title, with its seasonal allusion, is Ozu-like, comparable to such as Late Spring, Early Summer, An Autumn Afternoon—implying, as in Ozu, an underlying change, a cyclical shift, a break in time itself, from frozen winter to the thawing warmth of spring. 

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Watching the film, I found myself rooting for all the characters to bring their lives together, to either let go or take control, whatever was needed.  There are no real villains here—only complicated, flawed, confused, often silly people.  Some are more likable than others, some instinctively do the right thing.  But Kinoshita takes the time to develop all of them for us, to give each character a unique life, to allow each a moment of liberation and resolve.  By film’s end I felt as exhilarated as the family, so attuned was I to their redeeming moments.  It was just…lovely.  What better thing for a film to do than that?

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You can watch Spring Dreams (in Japanese, subtitled) at the Internet Archive here.  Do yourself a spring favor and tune in.

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