Happy 112th Birthday, Mikio Naruse!

Director and screenwriter Mikio Naruse was born 112 years today in Tokyo, Japan. Naruse isn’t as well-known as some other directors of classic Japanese cinema, such as Yazujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi, but we are great admirers of his quiet, well-crafted family dramas and the compelling women who are so often at the center of them (not to mention the remarkable actresses who played them). 誕生日おめでとう、成瀬巳喜男、どこにおしています… (Happy birthday, Mikio Naruse, wherever you may be…)

Here are 10 things you should know about Mikio Naruse…

Happy 97th Birthday, Setsuko Hara!

We have in the past acknowledged our affinity for classic Japanese cinema, and as with Hollywood’s Golden Age, we certainly have our favorite actors from Japanese pictures of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. One of those was actress Setsuko Hara, who was born 97 years ago today.

We were frequently moved and inspired by her work (and we’ll admit to having a movie-star crush on her, too).

Hara worked in pictures for nearly 30 years, appearing in 101 films, but even so, her career somehow feels as if it was brief, for, like Greta Garbo before her, Hara made a stir by retiring at a young age (42) and retreating to an exceedingly private life in Kamakura, a seacoast town 30 miles southwest of Tokyo.

Setsuko Hara worked with some of the most acclaimed directors in Japanese cinema, including Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse, and the director with whom she was most closely associated, Yasujirō Ozu. Hara and Ozu made six pictures together.

Born Aida Masae in 1920 in Yokohama, Hara made her motion picture debut at the tender age of 15. Two years later, she appeared in Atarashiki Tsuchi (The New Earth), a German-Japanese co-production, in the role that would rocket her to stardom, a young wife who follows her husband to Manchuria and eventually tries (but fails) to kill herself in a volcano. Much of Hara’s early work finds her portraying similar tragic roles.

After World War II, though, Setsuko Hara began to widen her range, sometimes playing modern, “new” Japanese women. These roles tended to be mixed in, though, with more those of traditional, typical Japanese women, as she played daughters, wives and mothers.

Hara, who never married, was called “The Eternal Virgin” by fans in Japan, and much like Garbo, she’s an icon of a classic era in Japanese cinema. But after her retirement, she refused all interview and photograph requests and declined when offered (as she no doubt frequently was) opportunities to resume her career. When she said goodbye, she meant it.

Upon retiring in 1963, Hara stated that she’d never really enjoyed acting, that she’d only done it to provide financial security to her large family, but some have also speculated that she was romantically involved with Ozu, who died shortly before she quit the movies, or even that she was losing her eyesight.

Novelist Shūsaku Endō once wrote of Hara’s work: “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?”

(Happy birthday, Hara Setsuko, wherever you may be.)

Setsuko Hara

This post appeared in slightly different form on 11/25/2015.

Happy 96th Birthday, Toshiro Mifune!

Toshiro Mifune, born 96 years ago today to Japanese parents in Manchuria, just barely fits into our preferred timeframe here at Cladrite Radio, but he’s badass and that’s that.

To the international audience, at least, Mifune is probably the most iconic of Japanese actors, so it’s ironic to think that he didn’t set foot in Japan until he was 20 years old. As a Japanese citizen, he was drafted into the aviation division of the Japanese army and assigned to the Aerial Photography Unit for the duration of World War II.

The story goes that Mifune became an actor by accident. In 1947, he went to Toho Studios to interview for a photographer position, but unknowingly ended up in an audition room with director Kajiro Yamamoto and a few others. Mifune was asked to laugh, and he became indignant. Why must he demonstrate his manner of laughing in applying for a cameraman position? Then it was explained that he was, in fact, at an audition and he was asked to play drunk. He did as he was asked, assaying a very angry drunk, indeed.

Another version of the story has it that Toho was conducting a “new faces” competition, to find replacements for a number of actors who had left the studio to form another company. This version has some of Mifune’s friends submitting his photo for the contest, unbeknownst to him. According to this account, Mifune was selected, along with 48 others, out of thousands of submissions.

We have no idea which version of the story is true, but we can tell you that we prefer the first one. The great director Akira Kurosawa wrote of seeing Mifune audition, saying that he was “a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy…It was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.”

Kurosawa clearly saw something special in Toshiro Mifune that day—so special that he cast Mifune in leading roles in 16 of his next 17 directorial efforts over a 17-year period. The roster of pictures they created together is amazing, including such classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, High and Low and Yojimbo.

幸せな誕生日, 三船 敏郎, wherever you may be!

Toshirô Mifune