When ragged, elderly sweet potato peddler Shinichirô Atsumi (Chishû Ryû) gets the opportunity to enter the Okudaira family’s lavish mansion, he can’t hide his awe. “It’s like a western castle in a movie,” he says. It’s an apt remark, considering how Keisuke Kinoshita’s offbeat 1960 film Spring Dreams evokes such American comedies as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Merrily We Live (1938) in its focus on a household full of wealthy eccentrics and their dealings with an ostensibly impoverished outsider. Although Spring Dreams has a decidedly strange atmosphere all its own — most apparent, perhaps, in its harpsichord score and its oddly colored lighting scheme — it shares major themes with those American predecessors: class, love and, above all, money.
As a rule, someone like Atsumi would never be allowed in the Okudairas’ house, but because the various members of the family happen to be out, one of the maids, Kimiko (Meiko Nakamura), tells him that it’s all right to bring potatoes to fellow maid Umeko (Yukiyo Toake) in the living room. No one would ever be the wiser — except that Atsumi suffers a stroke there. The family’s blustering, tyrannical patriarch, Shôbei (Eitarô Ozawa), who returns home around this point, is appalled. He demands that the stranger be taken away, but his secretary, Miss Yasugi (Yoshiko Kuga), forbids him from moving the ill man too soon, her own father having died under similar circumstances. At last, Shôbei relents: Atsumi can stay for three days. No longer — otherwise, he might interfere with Shôbei’s birthday festivities.
Surprisingly, Atsumi’s presence doesn’t have quite as great an impact on the family as one might expect. Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising: This is a highly self-absorbed group of people. To be fair, some of them do have significant problems (if not necessarily of life-or-death significance). Shôbei, for instance, is worried about an imminent strike at the family’s pharmaceutical factory, which he inherited from his late wife’s father. Daughter Chizuko (Mariko Okada), meanwhile, has just discovered that her grandmother (Chieko Higashiyama) tried to pay off Chizuko’s artist boyfriend, Mr. Ema (Miki Mori), to leave the girl alone; as far as the grandmother is concerned, Chizuko must marry a man who can run the company someday, and Ema isn’t up to snuff. (“I prefer greed to artistic talent,” she says.) The grandmother herself dreads her impending death and laments the love she gave up half a century earlier. Chizuko’s brother, Mamoru (Yûsuke Kawazu), dubbed “the lost soul of this house,” comes across as either depressed or pretentious, perpetually (and campily) spouting cliched existential questions and observations. Only Tamiko (Yatsuko Tan’ami), the family’s other daughter, seems truly happy, blithely amassing dozens of college-aged lovers, a good deal younger than she is. (She views herself as a maternal figure to these boys, a philanthropist, but everyone around her knows that her love for them isn’t exactly platonic.)
Even when the members of the household take notice of Atsumi, they rarely, if ever, stop focusing on themselves. Mamoru uses the old man’s misfortune as a springboard for more of his usual philosophical musings; Chizuko, upon learning about his tragic personal history — he’s all alone because his sons were killed in World War II and their families died in the bombing raids on Tokyo — can only sigh, “I wish I was alone.” The grandmother goes so far as to accuse him of being the god of misfortune, blaming him for the strike and a subsequent fire that obviously have nothing to do with him — that may be said to be the Okudairas’ fault, in one way or another. It’s not just the family members who act like this either. Kimiko envies the long rest that Atsumi will get, tired as she is of housework; Miss Yae (Michiko Araki), a kind of lady’s maid, caretaker or companion to the grandmother, uses a visit from Atsumi’s neighbors to assert her own power, ordering them to enter the living room through the garden instead of the back door so that they don’t have to walk through the rest of the house at all.
If the examples of Kimiko and Miss Yae aren’t sufficient, Atsumi’s lower-class neighbors make it abundantly clear that the problem isn’t a simple dichotomy between rich and poor, with the former representing evil and corruption and the latter representing goodness and purity. Two neighbors (with a little boy and a baby in tow) arrive shortly after Atsumi falls ill, and later a huge swarm of them shows up, supposedly out of concern for his well-being. In reality, they want to convince him that they care so that he’ll leave them the money they’re certain he’s saved up over the years, as he has no living heirs by blood; worse yet, they only pin their hopes on that ruse after the two initial visitors fail to locate and steal his wallet. (They settle for taking his potato cart.)
In spite of this rampant greed and self-centeredness, at least a few of the characters in Spring Dreams exhibit kindness and consideration for others. Miss Yasugi is one, watching over Atsumi and constantly insisting that he receive the best possible treatment, even though it means butting heads with her hot-tempered boss and putting her job at risk; Dr. Hanamura (Shûji Sano), who comes to examine him, is another. A third is Eiichi (Shinji Tanaka), a young man who lives next door to Atsumi. Unlike the other neighbors, his concern for the elderly man is genuine. Because he’s alone in the world as well — his father became ill when he was young and his mother ran off with another man shortly thereafter, taking Eiichi’s sister with her but leaving him behind — he considers Atsumi a grandfather figure, and he even suggests that they live together once Atsumi can be moved. However, the potato peddler seems reluctant to agree to this plan, and Eiichi believes he knows why. “He thinks I’m like the others. He thinks I’m after his money,” he tearfully tells Miss Yasugi.
Money (or the lack thereof) is a major problem for the film’s characters, a threat to relationships of all sorts: romantic, familial, professional. The grandmother was forced to give up the man she loved and marry for money, and now she wants to make Chizuko do the same thing; Miss Yasugi had to go to work when her father died, giving up her own marriage plans; Haruko (Mie Fuji), Eiichi’s girlfriend, is afraid that her parents will sell her off. Along with these individual issues, there’s also class conflict in the way some of the members of the Okudaira household look down on Atsumi and his neighbors, not to mention the strike at the factory.
While discussing Atsumi with Miss Yasugi, Dr. Hanamura offers a rather startling interpretation of his presence in the house: “Maybe he’s the reincarnation of Christ, come to redeem the greedy and corrupted souls on Earth.” Later, he says that Atsumi may be “an angel, or Cupid who brings love” (though, as the grandmother suggests, he’s probably thinking about his own newfound romance with Miss Yasugi). The idea of Atsumi as a redeemer is interesting, but it doesn’t really bear fruit until the end of the film, and not in the manner that the doctor might have foreseen. In a not-the-least-bit-surprising twist — if it even qualifies as a twist, heavily telegraphed as it is — the grandmother discovers that Atsumi is the very man she wanted to marry fifty years ago. Overwhelmed by this revelation, she finally softens and extends kindness and sympathy to all three of her grandchildren; for once, money is less important to her than love. As it happens, Atsumi himself has a similar change of heart regarding Eiichi’s plan for them to get a new apartment together. “I always felt lonely,” he explains, crying. “I don’t need money anymore. All I want is for someone to care about me.”
And so Atsumi does bring redemption — to a degree. Even if their current problems have been solved, which certainly isn’t true in every case, there’s no indication that most of the characters have undergone any serious growth. (Dr. Hanamura teases Shôbei that Atsumi is leaving “because he realized your soul was beyond redemption.” Shôbei is not amused.) Their troubles, so often connected with money, are deeply rooted in society and in human nature, much like the struggle between management and labor represented by the ongoing strike. Notably, the grandmother undergoes her change of heart with the striking workers singing and chanting outside, looking toward a better future where human decency will outweigh the desire for mere monetary gain. No sweet potato peddler — or anybody, for that matter — is going to alter things radically overnight, but even an act of love on the smallest scale is a positive step forward.