It's been nearly two months since she died but it was only to-day announced that the legendary actress, the great Setsuko Hara, has died. At the age of 95, she died of pneumonia on September fifth. A central figure in what I considered to be the greatest era in filmmaking, the first twenty years in Japan following World War II, Hara had retired in 1963 and avoided interviews and photographs ever since, even turning down a role in the late Satoshi Kon's anime film Millennium Actress, a film which was entirely a tribute to her. It is perhaps part of her reclusiveness that her death was so long kept from the news.
She's best known in the west for her roles in Yasujiro Ozu's masterpieces Tokyo Story and Late Spring and many people consider her retirement to have been related to Ozu's death that same year. Ozu never married and neither did Hara who was known as the "Eternal Virgin" and was seen by many to embody a Japanese ideal of virginal innocence and sincere affection. She played several characters that reflected this impression, most notably Noriko in 1949's Late Spring where a delicately melancholy portrayal of a girl's marriage and leaving her father to live alone subtly and beautifully offers a look at the tragic consequences of adhering to tradition. It was one of the many ways in which Japanese filmmakers were led in the post-World War II era to confront everything they'd considered to be true before the country's defeat in the war. Here's a great scene from Late Spring featuring no dialogue that showcases Hara's talent, Ozu trusting her to convey everything necessary with her facial expressions (beginning at around 4:30 in the clip):
I would describe the greatness of Hara as a performer as her ability to show sincere and intense joy or hatred or fear or sadness just barely suppressed or sometimes overflowing. Sometimes I wondered, particularly in her last few films, if this was actually a sign of how much she claimed to hate the job when she retired. She often seemed to be gritting her teeth and her smiles seemed increasingly strained, though it was always appropriate for her roles.
Even when she was younger she didn't always play roles that reflected her "Eternal Virgin" image, in fact some of her greatest roles in the films of Mikio Naruse, which aren't well known in the west, were of married women, particularly 1951's Meshi where finds herself trapped with a husband she discovers she does not love, however much she wants to love him.
With several Japanese filmmakers in the first two post war decades making films with surprisingly strong feminist themes, Hara was particularly well suited for Mikio Naruse's great films featuring female protagonists who find themselves trapped by oppressive Japanese traditions turned to desperate exploitations by men in the sometimes cynical atmosphere of the years following the country's defeat, occupation, and imposed new constitution. There were many good new values brought by the U.S. and many wonderful values of Japan's past but there were also times where the worst of both, cut-throat capitalism and feudal oppression, merged to create a perfect storm and filmmakers like Naruse found Hara to be the perfect performer to portray women caught in the middle.
She also appeared in two films by Akira Kurosawa, neither of them considered to be among his best. The first, No Regrets for Our Youth, has real charm to it but is largely a propaganda effort under the imposed U.S. administration. The second, Kurosawa's 1951 adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, is one of the great lost films. A two hour cut of the originally four hour film survives but is hopelessly muddled as one might expect from a film so trimmed, its pacing and timing completely off and is almost meaningless to anyone who has not read the book. But it is well worth watching, particularly to see Hara brilliantly playing very much against type as the worldly kept woman, essentially a prostitute, Taeko Nasu, the film's version of Dostoevsky's Nastasya Philippovna. (If the embed doesn't work you can watch the clip here).
Earlier this year, I wrote a post featuring Setsuko Hara that was a meditation on death in which I compared Ozu's Tokyo Story with James Joyce's "The Dead":
Ostensibly Noriko in Tokyo Story has the opposite problem [of Gretta in "The Dead"]. Played by Setsuko Hara, I don't think I fully appreciated her the first time I watched the movie, I was more focused on Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama. Hara seemed to be gritting her teeth through her roles in the 1950s, and I think a lot about how she said she'd always hated acting when she retired in the early 60s. But in Tokyo Story, the slight bitterness, the odd fervour, in her pleasantness makes sense. There are no villains in the story, the natural needs of life just work out to make the elderly couple's grown children pass them from one house to another when they visit Tokyo, but Noriko seems to be their angel. Noriko, who's not even biologically their daughter but the widow of their son who died in World War II. They beg her to remarry because they're worried about her but they're quietly glad she's there. But we learn, in a really amazing scene from Hara, how much she struggles with the shame of going days without even thinking of her husband.
Setsuko Hara will be remembered and it's a tribute to her grace that she'll be remembered largely for a role in which she so effectively conveyed the horrible revelation of how distant from us and forgotten the dead become.