The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

Setsuko Hara 1920 – 2015

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setsuko hara

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.

noriko as bride

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.

3 thoughts on “Setsuko Hara 1920 – 2015

  1. Aw, man. Sad. Well-done appreciation. I’ve only seen her in Tokyo Story, but you’re right: you can’t really overstate how good her performance is, particularly in the scene you describe.

    A thing that might be worth considering — if you’re looking for stuff to consider — is the way a particular artist’s body of work (actor, director, whatever) is affected by her or his decision to hang up the spurs. How do our assessments of it change when they’re still around, but the work is (so far as we know) complete? Obviously something similar happens when somebody dies young (James Dean, Jean Seberg, John Cazale, many many more), and that’s also worth thinking about, but it’s different when somebody just stops.

    Hmm.

    • Interesting about those who die young. If they are sensations like James Dean, then often the value of the work they leave behind gets really inflated. James Dean was really a terrible actor, I think, but he was gorgeous and he tapped into that youth thing that was happening in the 50s so his death lionized him. Would the same have happened to Deniro if he died after Mean Streets or Godfather II?

      But when the choice is conscious, like in the case of Garbo, it does become interesting.

      You and Kathleen really need to see more of Setsuko Hara. I know it will be a comedown after Peewee, but I need to show you some more of her Uzo stuff, especially the gorgeous Late Spring – a film that rivals Tokyo Story in its perfection. I am also very fond of the movies that she made with Naruse. You’ve only seen When A Woman Ascends the Stairs – he is terrific!

  2. Pingback: The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen | The Discreet Bourgeois

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