This past Sunday, the New York Times reported the death of Japanese actress Setsuko Hara. She died back in September, but her family only just released the information.
It is hard to underestimate Setsuko Hara’s place in Japanese film and, in turn, in world cinema. To give an idea of the mystique and power of Hara’s presence on film, here is a quote from author Shusaku Endo. Upon seeing one of her films ‘…we would sigh or let out a great breath from the depths of our hearts, for what we felt was precisely this: Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”
Setsuko Hara’s position in Japanese film has interesting parallels with Greta Garbo’s position in Western cinema. Both had an extraordinary but unusual beauty. Both were actors of genius. Both were intensely private. Most relevant for the parallel, though, is that both quit filmmaking at the height of acclaim, Garbo aged 36, living another 49 years in seclusion, Setsuko Hara aged 46, also living for another 49 years out of the public eye. Reasons for these retirements were never conclusive. Perhaps they were just tired of making films. Perhaps they realized they could never exceed their own best work. We’ll never know.
What we do know is the body of work that both actresses left behind.
Hara was best known as the muse of director Yasujiro Ozu. Her most iconic roles were as three different characters named Noriko in three different Ozu films.
In Tokyo Story she plays the widowed daughter-in-law of the main couple, who is the only one of the next generation to show any love and tenderness to these aging parents. Her stoicism in the face of what must be a very difficult life gives her character memorable depth. In a scene towards the end of the film, her expression, a mixture of polite laughter and repressed tears, as she discusses with the youngest daughter of the family, the cruelty and indifference of children to their parents, is devastatingly understated and devastatingly powerful.
In Late Spring, another Noriko is living contentedly with her recently widowed father. Through a series of subtle misunderstandings, each come to believe that the other wants to marry and it is only his or her own selfishness that is standing in the way of this happening. This is not the case, but it does not prevent the characters from tragically doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Hara’s speech to her father, magnificently clad as a bride, just before she leaves to the wedding ceremony is achingly sad in its restraint.
In Early Summer, (known in Japanese as Barley Harvest), yet another Noriko gently, self-effacingly but forcefully outmaneuvers her family’s pick for a husband and makes her own choice. By the end of the film, we are not quite sure why she chooses the man she does, but it is done with such grace and such quiet urgency, that it seems inevitable.
Famous actors, actresses and directors die all the time. Setsuko Hara’s death had a more powerful effect on me than most. It is this: even though she had not appeared in a film since the Sixties, I knew that she was alive and living in a retirement home in Kamakura outside Tokyo. With her still alive, this world was still linked to a golden age that is no longer. Her presence, as tenuous as it was, anchored us to that time. With her passing, that golden age, slips more and more into history and ceases to be a living entity. Inevitable, I suppose, but quietly tragic nonetheless.