Hara Setsuko (1920-2015)

Ozu Yasujirô, Tokyo Story, 1953, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 136 minutes. Hirayama Noriko (Hara Setsuko).

ONE OF JAPAN’S BEST-LOVED FILMED ACTRESSES since her teenage years, Hara Setsuko left the film industry in 1963 at the age of forty-three—a few months after the death of Ozu Yasujiro, for whom she’d acted memorably in six features. She withdrew completely from public life, living outside Tokyo in Kamakura, refusing to be photographed and declining requests for interviews. This Garbo-like retreat inevitably fostered a powerful mystique, which endured until her death last September, itself kept secret by her relatives for two months after her funeral. The Togeki Theater in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ginza district happened to be presenting newly restored Ozu films in the week her passing became known, and a large, uncaptioned photo of her was posted front-of-house. The sixty-two-year-old image (from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, 1953) alone was enough to trigger grief and nostalgia.

Much Japanese cinema of the 1930s was lost in the Allied fire-bombing of Tokyo, but one of Hara’s earliest featured performances miraculously survives. She plays the market stall-holder Onami in Yamanaka Sadao’s excellent Kochiyama Soshun (1936), a young woman worried about the increasing delinquency of her brother. It’s clear that she was cast not only for her sweet-sixteen-ness (she seems credibly older), but also because she responded to Yamanaka’s demand for a naturalistic acting style, quite removed from the kabuki conventions that dominated period dramas of the time. A year later she was cast in a then-prestigious Japanese-German co-production as a young woman pushed away by her fiancé on his return from Nazi Germany, and she went on to appear in several wartime propaganda films, all designed to bolster the military government’s call for self-sacrifice and loyalty to the codes of bushido, “the way of the warrior.”

Her reluctance to give interviews even during her heyday leaves us unsure how Hara felt about the roles she was asked to play, but her radiance in postwar Ozu and Naruse pictures—almost always playing unmarried daughters, widows, or unhappy wives, internalizing unspoken emotional pain and disappointment—suggests a high degree of consonance between her off-screen life and feelings and her frequent on-screen roles. Like Ozu, Hara herself never married. She chose to live alone after her early retirement; her countless Japanese fans dubbed her “the eternal virgin,” partly because she had no reported romantic attachments, partly because she made such a mark as Noriko, the daughter who chooses to look after her widower father rather than get married and move out in Ozu’s Late Spring (1949).

Ozu Yasujirô , Late Spring, 1949, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 108 minutes. Somiya Noriko (Hara Setsuko). 

She was born Aida Masae, one of eight children in a Yokohama family, and used family connections to get an acting contract with the production company Nikkatsu in 1935, when she was just fifteen. (Her elder sister was married to the then-leftist director Kumagai Hisatora, a Nikkatsu employee.) We’ll never know what ambitions she had in her mid-teens, but she would certainly have seen Japanese movies in which women protagonists, played by the likes of Yamada Isuzu and Tanaka Kinuyo, protested loudly against the social, moral, and economic constraints on women’s lives. The distinguished Japanese critic Sato Tadao argues that Hara’s postwar status reflects her embodiment of the silent sufferings of Japanese people in general as they struggled to reconcile traditional values with the adjustment to “modernization” under the US occupation.

Ozu and Naruse, in their formalized melodramas, used Hara’s smiling-through-adversity persona as a subtle signifier of hidden social pressures. Their slightly younger contemporary Kurosawa Akira, more comfortable with full-blown melodrama, had her star in two movies that plunged into the strains and contradictions of postwar life much more explicitly. In No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) she plays Yukie, the complacently bourgeois daughter of a liberal professor who is punished for his anti-war views in the ’30s; she has a torrid affair with an anti-war activist who dies in police custody and enters peacetime as a proudly dishevelled farmer, working to support her late partner’s peasant parents. And in The Idiot (1951), in which Kurosawa transposes Dostoyevsky’s novel to post-war Hokkaido, she plays Taeko (Dostoyevsky’s Nastasya), a kept woman since her mid-teens, who refuses to be ashamed of her past and mocks the various suitors who think they can buy her as a wife. These assertive, proto-feminist roles are the flip-side of Hara’s usual reticence; they hint at what lies behind her “eternal virgin” image. They also help us understand why Hara Setsuko was so revered in Japan, and around the world.

Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.

*Japanese names are given in their traditional form: surname first.