Left: Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds, 1955, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Kengo Tomioka and Yukiko Koda (Masayuki Mori and Hideko Takamine). Right: Mikio Naruse, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine [left]).

OF ALL THE WOMEN to suffer on-screen in classic Japanese cinema, few matched actress Hideko Takamine for her startling mixture of resentment, resignation, and resolve. Takamine, who died last December at the age of eighty-six, had a career that lasted five decades: Discovered on a sightseeing trip to Shochiku studios at the age of five, she appeared in her first film (Haha) in 1929. She was a beloved child star in prewar Japan, often sharing a bill with Shirley Temple. Known affectionately as “Deko-chan,” she later played the spirited teenager in movies such as Composition Class (1938) and Horse (1941).

In the 1950s, Takamine made the transition to leading lady. Her comic talents are evident in Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home (1951), in which she plays a big-city stripper returning to her rural village. But her greatest films are the elegant black-and-white shomin-geki, or dramas of ordinary people, made for director Mikio Naruse, including Lightning (1952), Flowing (1956), and Yearning (1964). In Floating Clouds (1955), her Yukiko is a destitute woman in ruined postwar Tokyo, obsessed with a faithless lover played by Masayuki Mori. In Takamine’s modulated performance, romantic masochism isn’t noble or saintly.

She’s equally sublime in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), where she plays a thirty-something Ginza bar hostess trapped by circumstance and surveying her limited options: Marry for money? Secure a patron and open her own bar? Pursue the married banker (Mori again) whom she truly loves? This is pure women’s picture, transposed to a different key than Mildred Pierce (1945) or All That Heaven Allows (1955) by Takamine’s understated playing. She maintains a mask of placidity for her customers, but her eyes and posture convey an inner turbulence. Hideko Takamine never played the victim.

Tom Beer

Six films starring Hideko Takamine will screen as part of the series “Five Japanese Divas,” which runs April 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.