The plot concerns Noriko, who lives contentedly in an extended family household that includes her parents and her brother's family, but an uncle's visit prompts the family to find her a husband.
Noriko (Setsuko Hara), a secretary in Tokyo, lives in the extended Mamiya family at Kamakura, Kanagawa, which includes her parents Shūkichi and Shige (Ichirō Sugai and Chieko Higashiyama), her older brother Kōichi (Chishū Ryū), a physician, his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and their two young sons Minoru (Zen Murase) and Isamu (Isao Shirosawa).
An elderly uncle (Kokuten Kōdō) arrives from the provinces to visit Tokyo, and reminds everyone that Noriko, who is 28, is at an age when she should marry. At work, Noriko's boss Satake (Shūji Sano) recommends a match for her involving a forty-year-old friend, Mr Manabe, who is a businessman and an avid golfer. Her other friends are divided into two groups—the married and the unmarried—who tease one another endlessly, with Aya Tamura (Chikage Awashima) her close ally in the unmarried group.
The Mamiya family applies gentle pressure on Noriko to accept the match proposed by Satake, primarily through their acceptance of the cultural assumption that it is time for her to marry, and that the match proposed is a good one for a woman of her age.
Childhood friend Kenkichi Yabe (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi), a doctor, and widower, is father to a young daughter. Yabe arranges to have tea and cakes with Noriko and gives her a sheaf of wheat. The sheaf is a gift from a brother who was killed during World War II and who asked Yabe to deliver it to Noriko in case he did not return. Later, Yabe is posted to Akita, in northern Honshu. Akita is considered so rural that Noriko and Aya make fun of the accent of the area. But when Yabe's mother Tami (Haruko Sugimura) impulsively asks Noriko to marry Kenkichi and follow them in their northward resettlement, Noriko agrees. When Noriko reveals her decision to her family, the Mamiyas are quietly devastated. They hint to her that the match is a poor one. When Noriko persists the family is forced to live with their disappointment.
The family gradually accepts Noriko's choice with quiet resignation and before Noriko moves on, the family takes a photograph together. Noriko's parents console themselves that Noriko and Kenkichi will move back to Tokyo in a few years' time, and the family will be reunited. Meanwhile, the parents shall move to a rural region to stay with Noriko's elderly uncle. In the final scene of the film a bride passes down the country road in her traditional costume and Noriko's parents reflect on the impermanent nature of life. The final shot is of a barley field ripening, which signifies the season the film is set in, early summer. The Japanese name of the film in fact means, Barley Harvest Time.Setsuko Hara - Noriko
Chishū Ryū - Kōichi
Chikage Awashima - Aya Tamura
Kuniko Miyake - Fumiko
Ichirō Sugai - Shūkichi
Chieko Higashiyama - Shige Mamiya
Haruko Sugimura - Tami Yabe
Seiji Miyaguchi - Nishiwaki
Early Summer is highly regarded by today's critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports 100% approval among nine critics, with an average rating of 8.8/10. Aggregation site They Shoot Pictures, Don't They has found it to be one of the 1,000 most acclaimed films in history.
In 2004, the Criterion Collection released with a new high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound and new English subtitle translation. Also included were the original theatrical trailer, an audio commentary by Donald Richie, Ozu’s Films from Behind-the-Scenes, a conversation about Ozu and his working methods between child-actor and sound technician Kojirō Suematsu, assistant cameraman Takashi Kawamata, and Ozu producer Shizuo Yamanouchi, and essays by David Bordwell and Jim Jarmusch.
In 2010, the BFI released a Region 2 Dual Format Edition (Blu-ray + DVD). Included with this release is a standard definition presentation of What Did the Lady Forget?