Today marks the 90th birthday of one of the best actresses you may never have heard of — unless, that is, you’re a fan of classic Japanese cinema.
Setsuko Hara was a huge star in Japan, working frequently with such acclaimed and admired directors as Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. It is Ozu with whom Hara is most closely associated, professionally. They made six films together.
It was Ozu who perhaps defined the kind of role with which Hara, born Masae Aida in Yokohama, would come to be most closely identified. She was known in Japan as the “Eternal Virgin” The popular mythology that arose regarding her stemmed from her movie work, roles that saw her portraying loyal, decent, even pure women who sacrifice their own needs to those of their families.
In 1949, Hara played just such a devoted daughter in her first picture with Ozu, Banshun (Late Spring), and she would go on to play similar roles in five more Ozu films.
So it was a huge surprise to all but those few who knew Hara well when she abruptly retired from acting in 1963. Donald Richie, an authority on Japanese cinema, wrote of Hara’s announcement, “She implied that she had never enjoyed making films, that she had only done so merely to make enough money to support her large family, that she hadn’t thought well of anything she had done in the films, and now that the family was provided for she saw no reason to continue in something she didn’t care for.”
Imagine someone like Meryl Streep not only making a public announcement that she was giving up acting and retiring to a small town where she would adopt a nearly reclusive lifestyle, but in doing so, renouncing all that she had achieved and accomplished as an actress and admitting that she had done it only for the money.
And now, nearly fifty years later, no more is known about the true Masae Aida than was known then. She never married, never had children, and has remained entirely out of the public eye in that time, refusing all interviews and appearances.
Brother, that’s what we call a disappearing act.
We hope the Japanese press hasn’t been too persistent over the years in pursuing Ms. Aida. We like to think her life has been peaceful and contented, and that maybe, just maybe, she has come to appreciate what she accomplished during her years as an actress. She was a remarkable performer — understated, gentle, engaging. We love watching her work, and so sincerely hope she harbors, to echo the title of one of the movies she made with Kurosawa, “no regrets for her youth.” She certainly has no reason to.
There are a number of Hara’s pictures available on DVD in the U.S. (though, sadly, none of her four collaborations with the great Mikio Naruse are available) — be sure you’re buying one that will play on your DVD player (Region 1’s the way to go) — and Netflix has eight available for rental.
Here’s a clip from one of the classics on which Hara and Ozu collaborated, 1951’s Bakeshu (Early Summer):