The Discreet Bourgeois

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


Have You Tried Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy?

For most great directors there is a period of great creative fertility where a series of masterpiece appear in quick succession.  Think of Hitchcock with  Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Think of Ingmar Bergman with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring.  Think of Federico Fellini with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and  8½.

There is a similar run of masterpieces in the output of Yasujiro Ozu.  Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) are often referred to as the ‘Noriko trilogy’ since the lead actress of each of these films, Setsuko Hara, plays a young woman named Noriko.  The three Norikos are not related but one would have to think that there is a common thematic element that Ozu and his co-screenwriter Kogo Noda are drawing our attention to by so naming the heroines of all three films.


 One of the traps of writing about movies, is that it is easy to impose a construct on the films and directors that might not be there, no matter how good your argument might be. The classic take on these films is to say that Ozu and Noda were examining the life of young women in post World War II Japan.  I don’t believe that was their intention. I believe they were simply doing what they always did throughout their collaboration: depicting the tensions and, often, the disintegration of the post World War Japanese family.  The fact that all three films pivot on the central ‘Noriko’ figure does give this special focus, but I don’t believe that is the intention.
The three Norikos are very different characters. The most complicated is the Noriko of Late Spring. Here she is the grown daughter of a widowed father.  They live together in cozy harmony.  Noriko is happy with the arrangement and is not very interested in starting a home life of her own. Soon, external pressures come to bear and her father is convinced that he is being selfish by keeping her home with him, even though this is what they both want.  This play out to its logical conclusion, and in true Ozu fashion, the ending is quietly devastating.
The Noriko of Early Summer is another figure entirely.  She is the member of a somewhat chaotic and somewhat self-centered family. They are held together by familial bonds but also by economic necessity. They all need to live together given the harsh economic realities of post World War II Japan.  The family is constantly pressuring Noriko to make a marriage that will be advantageous to them all.  At first she resists the notion entirely, then rejects the suitors that are selected for her. In the end, in what in the West might be viewed as an example of Feminist strength, she chooses someone whose situation forces Noriko (and her salary) to leave the family home, ultimately leading to the dispersal of the family unit.
Much has been written of the Noriko of Tokyo Story.  Setsuko Hara’s performance here is astounding.  The quiet grace tinged with tragedy, the hints of great dissatisfaction with her past and present life are powerful. She is probably the most complex and fully integrated person among the three Norikos, especially contrasted with the somewhat neurotic chastity of Late Spring and the ambivalent sense of self in Early Summer.  
Please watch all three of these films.  They are each towering masterpieces.


Setsuko Hara 1920 – 2015

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.