Setsuko Hara: A Fond Farewell

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 died of pneumonia on September 5th at the age of 95.

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

Setsuko Hara

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 Garbo before her, Hara made a stir by retiring at a young age (at 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.

Though Setsuko Hara died on September 5th, her passing was only announced today. She maintained her privacy even in death.

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?”

お誕生日おめでとう 原節子. あなたがいなくなると寂しくなります.
(Goodbye, Hara Setsuko. You will be missed.)

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A number of Hara’s films are available for streaming on Hulu (there are a couple on Amazon, too, for a small fee). If you’re not familiar with her work, we recommend you watch these movies. We’re especially fond of her films made under the direction of Mikio Naruse, but you can’t go wrong with the Ozu and Kurosawa pictures, either. And if a paid membership is required on Hulu (it may be, we’re not sure), spring for a one-month membership. For the chance to see 10 or 11 of Hara’s films, it’s a bargain.

Naruse in the Wee Hours

“MikioWe are devotees of classic Japanese cinema, from the 1920s into the ‘60s. There are many great directors of that era, a number of whom are familiar names here in the US: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. But our personal favorite (it’s a close race with Kurosawa) is Mikio Naruse, whose directing career spanned nearly 40 years, from the silent era into the late 1960s.

Naruse made quiet, leisurely paced movies, pictures about (mostly) middle- and lower-class families and especially the women who keep those families afloat in the face of challenges and obstacles.

In 2005, NYC’s Film Forum ran a month-long Naruse retrospective that included some 35+ films. We had never seen one of his movies before, but we were interested in learning about him, so we made it a point to see the first film in the retrospective, followed quickly by the second, the third and most of the rest. (Over the course of that month, we missed just one movie, a film that was shown just once, at a time when I had to be at work.)

And at the end of that month-long retrospective, we were commiserating with a Film Forum employee who’d seen most of the movies, too, and we wondered together: How often could one see more than thirty films by a single director over a span of just four weeks and be sorry to see the retrospective end? How many directors’ work could stand up to that sort of total immersion and leave one wanting more?

Not many, we figure. So it’s with no hesitation at all that we recommend to you the two Naruse films that Turner Classic Movies is airing late tonight. Ginza Cosmetics (1951), which airs at 2:45 am ET, is the story of a young mother who is struggling to raise her young son while working as a geisha, and Wife (1955), which follows at 4:15 am, is about a couple that is struggling after ten years of marriage. The wife feels her husband isn’t a good provider and the husband is tempted by the prospect of a fresh start with an ex-colleague, a widow with a small child.

Set those DVRs, friends.

Goodbye to Another Glorious Gal: Isuzu Yamada

We’re a little late in noting the passing of the great Japanese actress Isuzu Yamada, who died at the age of 95 on July 9th.

Ms. Yamada’s career was an impressive one, spanning more than seventy years over eight decades and including work in classical and contemporary theatre, motion pictures and television.

In the cinema, Ms. Yamada worked with the greatest directors Japanese cinema has produced, including Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Yamada’s work in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “There may never been a more chilling Lady Macbeth.”

Peter M. Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, told The Washington Post, “[Yamada] was always the tough girl in movies. If I had to compare her to an American actress, I’d say she was a combination of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—a very tough, self-aware, aggressive personality.”

For Cladrite readers who may not be familiar with Ms. Yamada’s work, Netflix offers seven of Ms. Yamada’s pictures, spanning a 48-year period.

For more on Ms. Yamada’s life and career, check out the obits at the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The curtain is drawn on a great director

In February 2008, NYC’s Film Forum held a tribute to director Sidney Lumet, who died today at the age of 86. The celebration of Lumet’s life and career took the form of a two-hour Q&A, interspersed with clips from some of his most memorable films. We were lucky enough to be on hand, and we are pleased to offer, as a tribute to a very talented movie maker, our account of the evening.

Lumet shared in the early part of the discussion that his father, Baruch, was an actor in the Yiddish theatre, and Sidney himself got his start there at a very early age.

Lumet went on to appear in a number of Broadway shows, among them a Max Reinhardt production, before slipping behind the camera as a television director in the 1950s.

So it was fitting that the evening opened with a clip from One Third of a Nation (1939), which boasts Lumet’s only film acting appearance. The then-14-year-old director-to-be starred as the nephew of Sylvia Sidney.

The next clip shown was from the first movie he directed, Twelve Angry Men (1957). Asked if he’d made a specific effort to make the film in a cinematic style, so as to prove to the industry bigwigs that he could direct as well for the large screen as for the small, Lumet admitted with a laugh, “I was too arrogant. It never occurred to me that I might need to convince anyone.”

Asked later about working with Henry Fonda, Lumet said Fonda was constitutionally unable to make a false or dishonest move as an actor. “I don’t think he could’ve done it if I’d asked him to,” Lumet said. “He could only play the truth.”

Lumet said that filming on Twelve Angry Men was completed in 19 days. He said he shot the film in a very particular way. There were three levels of lighting in the film—sunlight through the windows, cloudy skies, as a storm approached outside, and with the overhead lighting in the jury room illuminated once the storm is underway.

Lumet shot the film entirely out of sequence, rotating around the room, getting each shot he needed from each actor under that particular lighting. Once he’d shot all of his sunlit shots, Lumet had the set relit to suggest cloudy conditions and slowly worked his way around the room again, going from character to character, getting every shot he needed.

Finally, he had the set relit once last time, with overhead lighting lit, and made the rounds again.

Lumet said he never used storyboards, as Alfred Hitchcock was famous for doing. Instead, he preferred to rehearse his actors for two weeks, as if they were mounting a play, and when he had all the blocking down, then he considered where to place the camera in each scene.
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Five dazzling divas

Any movie buff in the tri-state area with even the slightest interest in classic Japanese cinema should plan on spending a good deal of time on Houston Street the the next three weeks.

Beginning Friday, April 1, Film Forum will be presenting a don’t-miss opportunity to immerse oneself in pictures made by the greatest Japanese film directors of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s and starring five of Japan’s most acclaimed actresses: Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Setsuko Hara, and Hideko Takamine.

image-Kinuyo Tanaka Image-Isusu Yamada Image-Machiko Kyo Image-Setsuko Hara Image-Hideko Takamine

This quintet of amazing actresses are being feted by Film Forum with a retrospective that features films by such giants as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Mikio Naruse.

The festival’s highlights are too numerous to cite, but we are especially fond of Takamine’s work, and she was best known for her work with the great Naruse, who, along with Kurosawa, ranks as our favorite Japanese director, but honestly, you could make your way to Film Forum on a daily basis throughout the retrospective and experience no regrets.

But if you can make only a few bills, we recommend the Naruse double-bill of Yearning (1964, Takamine) and Repast (1951, Hara) on Tuesday, April 5; Naruse’s Okaasan (Mother, 1952, Tanaka), the double bill on Saturday, April 9, of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950, Kyo) and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953, Tanaka); Ozu’s Tokyo Story on Sunday, April 10, and Monday, April 11 (1953, Hara); Naruse’s Flowing (1956, Yamada, Takamine, Tanaka) on Tuesday, April 12; and … well, honestly, it’s a pointless exercise to try to recommend particular highlights. The entire retrospective is worth experiencing.

Clear your schedule, buy a Film Forum membership (you’ll save on admission), and save us a seat on the aisle, please.