by Kelly Vance
A few quick notes on the late Hara Setsuko, but first a little context:
The actresses of Japanese cinema’s golden age were quite a company of heartbreakers. Three of Japan’s most internationally renowned filmmakers got the lions’ share of the talent: Kurosawa Akira, Mizoguchi Kenji, and Ozu Yasujirô.
Who could ever forget Yamada Isuzu as the chillingly impassive Lady Macbeth character, Lady Asaji Washizu, in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, or her compromised, doll-like beauty in the role of a geisha in Mizoguchi’s 1936 Sisters of the Gion? As an opportunistic actress and a conniving brothel inmate, Wakao Ayako projected worldly glamour for both Ozu and Mizoguchi, respectively, in Floating Weeds and Street of Shame. Dancer-turned-actress Kyô Machiko burst onto the scene as an imperiled traveler in Kurosawa’s huge worldwide hit Rashomon, but also made indelible impressions for Mizoguchi, as a ghostly noblewoman in Ugetsu and as the rock ‘n’ roll-crazy prostitute in Street of Shame.
For two-hanky onscreen suffering, few performers could match Tanaka Kinuyo. Mizoguchi, always the devoted chronicler of female misfortunes, created a canon for her in such films as Utamaro and His Five Women; Women of the Night; Miss Oyu; Sansho the Bailiff (as the world’s saddest mother of the world’s most pathetic offspring); and Tanaka’s monumental role as the title character in Life of Oharu – seduced, cruelly tossed aside, and ultimately degraded.
And then there’s Hara Setsuko. No whorehouse anguish or medieval wickedness for her – in concert with director Ozu, Ms. Hara fashioned an unparalleled portfolio of female protagonists whose lives revolved around home, family, and duty. Through the hours and the seasons – Late Spring, Early Summer, Twilight in Tokyo, Late Autumn, The End of Summer – Hara and her designated mythmaker Ozu perfected a character celebrated by her Japanese fans as the “Eternal Virgin,” a selfless, innocent, patient soul, full of humility and compassion.
Kurosawa fans can also point to their own private Hara. In 1946, with the destruction and disillusionment of World War II still ringing in their ears, the actress and director teamed up for a topical drama, No Regrets for Our Youth, one of Kurosawa’s most poignant “modern” stories. Hara portrays a liberated young woman, daughter of a university professor, whose husband is tried and executed for wartime espionage. The heretofore headstrong Yukie’s (Hara) response is to retreat from society, taking up residence in the country in order to help her spouse’s bereaved parents in their senior years. This theme of the cloistered do-gooder ended up resonating not only in Hara’s future work for Ozu but in her personal life.
The epitome of Hara’s persona as directed by Ozu is probably her Noriko, the widowed daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story (1953), who cares for her late husband’s elderly mother and father with a devoted cheerfulness the couple’s “real” children seem to have mislaid. It could be argued that actresses no longer know how to play such a saintly figure because no one can actually remember knowing one, outside of a religious framework. Nevertheless, the film never fails to move an audience. So many emotions cross the face of Noriko-chan, in various shades of tender, calm, and wistful. She can, and does, stir our deepest longings with the merest of gestures.
It has been remarked by literal-minded critics that the classic Hara heroine is patently too good to be real. That may be so, but we can see a sort of heavenly sensuality in the infinite care she lavishes on her loved ones in the best films of her Ozu period. If we can worship a sex goddess or admire the attention to craft of a gifted character actress, then why not lose our hearts to a mothering figure – the essence of Kannon/Kwan Yin the Lady Buddha, or perhaps a Zen idealization of the Virgin Mary, take your pick — whose every impulse is to comfort and reassure the afflicted? As we journey through the Ozu films, a peacefulness envelops us even as we try to resist it. Pray for us, Setsuko, we who sit in the dark with our popcorn.
The 43-year-old Hara quit the movie business decisively in 1963, the same year Ozu died. Her fans reportedly never forgave her for abandoning them. Unmarried and childless, she retired to a house in Kamakura where she endeavored to lead the personal life her career had denied her. Hara Setsuko (real name: Aida Masae) passed away at age 95 on September 5, 2015 but her death was not announced until last week. We’ll miss her tremendously. As a flickering image of our innermost hopes, she is completely irreplaceable.
Scenes from Kurosawa’s No Regrets for our Youth with Hara Setsuko
Behind the scenes of Kurosawa’s No Regrets For Our Youth with Hara SetsukoMany of Setsuko’s movies are available from the Criterion Collection where trailers and more information can be found.
For members of Fandor nine of her films are available to stream.
Hulu is also offering a selection.
Read Donald Richie’s essay on Ozu and Hara Setsuko.
New York Times Obituary.
Kelly Vance fell in love with flickers the day he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth at El Rancho Theater in Culver, Indiana, and he’s been trying to catch up with the world’s cinematic output ever since. When he’s not at a screening or a film festival he writes for the East Bay Express (where he is the chief film reviewer) and the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.