By Ed Garea
She was one of Japan’s most beloved actresses, known for her subtle portrayals of women torn between family and their own desires, a sort of Everywoman for a Japan rising from the old feudal age into the modern world.
Best known for her films with director Yasuhiro Ozu, it seems at times as if she worked for no one else, yet her filmography shows she made more than 100 films during her long career, a career that might have been even longer were it not for her abrupt retirement at the age of 46.
Setsuko Hara, known among filmgoers in Japan as “the Eternal Virgin” (due to the fact she never married) and “the Japanese Garbo,” died on September 5 in Kamakura, near Tokyo, from pneumonia at the age of 95.
The Kyodo News Agency announced her death on November 25, stating that family members had waited until then, as per her last wishes to make the news of her death public.
Born Masae Aida in Yokohama on June 17, 1920, Hara dropped out of high school at age 15 with the encouragement of her brother-in-law, director Hisatora Kumagai, who promised her that she could find meaningful work at Nikkatsu Studios.
She made her movie debut in 1935 in director Tetsu Taguchi’s Tamerau nakare wakodo yo (Do Not Hesitate, Young Folks) as Osetsu, but it was her role in Arnold Fanck’s (who first made Leni Riefenstahl a star) German-Japanese production of Atarashiki Tsuchi (The New Earth) that she achieved popularity, playing a pure-hearted Japanese maiden who, after being rejected by her fiancé, unsuccessfully attempts to throw herself into an active volcano.
Now established in the public as the epitome of the Japanese woman in crisis, she was cast in a number of wartime propaganda films as the pathetic victim. In films such as The Suicide Troops of the Watchtower (1942) and Wakai Sensei (1942), she perfected the role of the pathetic victim.
In 1946, she was cast in Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar film, No Regrets for Our Youth, as Yukie Yagihara, the privileged daughter of a leftist university professor. Two suitors, both students of her father, romantically pursue her. Things turn darker when she decides to marry Noge (Susumu Fujita), the more radical of the two. They are arrested in 1941 for treason (as part of the antiwar protest) and imprisoned. After her release, and Noge’s execution, Yukie exiles herself to the peasant village where Noge grew up. There she devotes herself to Noge’s elderly parents, helping them bring in the rice crop, and also aiding their neighbors, who has previously castigated the family for producing a traitor.
Two other immediate postwar films cast her in a new role, that of the “new “ Japanese woman. She is optimistic, looking forward to a brighter future, cultured, yet with an eye of cynicism towards the men in her life. In Kimisaburo Yoshimura’s A Ball at the Anjo House (1947), she plays the daughter of a cultured family that was ruined by the war and must give up its mansion and find a new way to live. In Keisuke Kinoshita’s Here’s to the Girls (1949), Hara is the daughter of a formerly rich aristocratic family who is being pawned off as the wife to an uncouth factory owner.
It was also in this year that Hara was cast in a film titled Late Spring. Its director was Yasujiro Ozu, a director who began his career in the ‘20s as an imitator of the Hollywood style (many of his films were simply uncredited remakes of Hollywood product). He refined his style and technique during the ‘30s, and although being conscripted into the Japanese army and fighting in China, managed to make his way into the Japanese film and propaganda unit, planning films he had no intention on finishing and assisting with the technical duties on a few of the other productions.
During the postwar period, he put his wartime plans into action, developing a limited style based partially on his vision and partially on the dearth of funds available to him. Chained by his studio to plots already owned and given a stock company of actors (including Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama and Haruko Sugimura) with which to work, Ozu nevertheless managed to turn out films that were not only highly praised at the time, but which also became enduring classics. Working for him could be a trial in itself. A perfectionist who had to get every scene just right, it was not unusual for the director to shoot 30 to 40 takes of a long, dialogue-heavy scene, which placed his stars under more than normal pressure. Added to this was his preference for shooting his films during Tokyo’s hot, humid summers made working for him an even more daunting task. Yet the method bore fruit, for Late Spring was one such film, and Ozu made a megastar out of Hara by developing a new character for her. She became the modern woman with a string filial devotion, a character she would play in many a later Ozu production.
In Late Spring, she plays Noriko, a modern woman conflicted between her own needs and that of caring for her widowed father (played by Chishu Ryu, with whom she would frequently work in later films). On one hand, Noriko has the pressures of society, which tells her to marry and start a family; in the other, there’s the need to care for her father, who has become a sort of security blanket for her. Noriko would prefer the security provided by caring for her father, but it is apparent to everyone, especially to her father, that she must leave the nest and marry.
In their next collaboration, Early Summer (1951), Hara is once again an adult single woman – also named Noriko – living with her family and pressured to choose a husband. This time, however, her choice brings consequences, as the income lost by her departure leaves the family unable to afford the rent on their house. Nonetheless, everyone on the family campaigns to arrange a marriage, knowing that remaining single is a social death knell. She surprises her family in the end when she rejects their choice to marry a widower with a child and move to a village in the far north.
It as during this time that Hara began to form her enduring screen presence as a modern young woman whose outward good manners conceal a strong inner strength that helps her along pathways often strewn with difficult outcomes, no matter what the choice. It was also during this period that she worked with director Mikio Naruse, who helped her further develop and refine this persona, as Naruse was known for his complex female leads.
For his part, Ozu fully appreciated Hara’s versatility and talent: “Every Japanese actor can play the role of a soldier, and every Japanese actress can play the role of a prostitute to some extent,” he said of her in an interview. “However, it is rare to find an actress who can play the role of a daughter from a good family.”
Both star and director peaked professionally in the 1953 drama Tokyo Story, which has become a highly-ranked regular on film critics’ lists of the greatest movies. As with Ozu films in general, the plot is superficially simple. However, as the film rolls on we find that what seems basic at first is only leading to a host of psychologically complex situations that lie just beneath the quiet surface.
Tokyo Story begins simply enough: an elderly couple is traveling to Tokyo to visit their children. But as the film progresses, we see that not only are the children too busy to receive them properly, but that they have also become a burden to their children. The only one in the family who shows them the tenderness and devotion to which they are entitled is Noriko (Hara), their daughter-in-law whose husband was killed in the war. Although Noriko was bullied by the eldest sister to take the elderly couple off her hands for a day, she nonetheless takes a day off from work to take them sightseeing and manages to scrounge up a good dinner at her modest flat, borrowing sake from her neighbor. She and the couple are the only sympathetic characters throughout the entire film.
There is a brilliantly moving scene at the end after the mother has passed away. Noriko is sitting at the family home with the youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who is sharply criticizing her siblings for their lack of devotion and respect. She turns to Noriko and asks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” To which Noriko tersely responds, “Yes. It is.”
Her work with director Naruse includes an extraordinary film titled Repast (1951) in which she is the wife of an Osaka stockbroker and discovers to her horror that he is sexually involved with his niece. She leaves him and returns to Tokyo, where she grew up, only to find it has become an alien and traumatized place. In 1954, she and Naruse made The Sound of the Mountain, based on Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s acclaimed novel.
By this time, Hara’s character seemed to be set in stone, although there were some exceptions, such as Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951). Here she went radically against type as the love interest of the title character and an aristocrat played by Toshiro Mifune. Although her performance was excellent, playing the part of a sexual temptress with a natural coolness, the film was not well received by both critics and the public, and Hara returned to the characters audiences expected her to play.
Yet there was room to maneuver. In Ozu’s 1957 drama, Tokyo Twilight (his last black-and-white film), she was a proud young woman who summons the courage to leave her abusive and alcoholic husband, an option unthinkable to the typical Japanese wife, although in the end she returns resolved to make the marriage work.
In her last two films with Ozu, Late Autumn (1960) and the End of Summer (1961), Hara inverted her character from Late Spring and Early Summer. In Late Autumn, she is now the widowed parent of a grown daughter who does not to leave her to get married and start a family. But, as the parent, she knows that her daughter has to live her own life, despite the situation, and summoning considerable self-sacrifice, insists on her daughter leaving the nest.
In The End of Summer (1961), Hara reverses her role in Tokyo Story as the widowed daughter-in-law. Although older, she contemplates remarriage, with her family attempting to decide to whom she will be betrothed. She, however, insists on the right to choose her own partner, and the battle between desires and devotions rages on.
Her last role was as Riku in Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 actioner, Chushingura (47 Samurai), a retelling of the classic story of the 47 ronin, 18th-century samurai bent on avenging their slain leader.
It’s said that Ozu’s death from cancer in 1963 was a major factor in Hara’s sudden retirement. She went on record as saying that she did not enjoy acting and only did so to support her large, extended family. She moved to a small house in Kamakura (ironically where Ozu lived and where so many of his films were set), and was never seen again in public.
Any and all attempts to lure back into the spotlight were coldly rebuffed. A relative would turn away any reporter who visited in hopes of an interview with a terse, “She’s here and in good health,” and “She doesn’t give any interviews.” In 1992, a reporter with Yomiuri Shimbun actually managed a brief telephone conversation with the reclusive star. She told him, “I was not the only star shining, back then, everyone was shining.”
When a documentary on Ozu was made, there was some thought she would show up at the premiere, but as happened at his funeral, she declined to attend.
When Setsuko Hara retired, to many Japanese fans, it was as if they had part of their souls ripped away. She meant that much. I feel the same way; she was an extraordinary actress and personality. But to paraphrase Bogart, “We’ll always have Tokyo Story.”