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?”

お誕生日おめでとう、ハラ節子。
(Happy birthday, Hara Setsuko, wherever you may be.)

Setsuko Hara

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

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.)

Setsuko HaraSetsuko HaraSetsuko HaraSetsuko HaraSetsuko HaraSetsuko HaraSetsuko HaraSetsuko Hara

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.

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.

Goodbye to another glorious gal

The lovely and talented Hideko Takamine passed away last week at the age of 86. She worked with such well-regarded directors as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, but she is best remembered for the work she did with another of our favorite directors, Mikio Naruse.

We were saddened to learn of her passing. We had always intended to send her a fan letter (though a response would not likely have been forthcomng), and we regret not having done so.

If you’re not familiar with her work, some of it is available on DVD. Criterion has two of her pictures in their catalog — When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (directed by the aforementioned Naruse) and Twenty-Four Eyes, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita.

Some years ago, NYC’s Film Forum held a four-week retrospective featuring 31 of Naruse’s pictures. We approached the festival’s first film with low expectations, simply because we knew nothing of Naruse’s work, though we have an affinity and affection for classic Japanese cinema.

We were immediately won over, however, and ended up attending all but one of the 31 screenings. We found Naruse’s elegant tales of average people struggling to get by both moving and heartening. Naruse was a man who saw the sadness in the world and wasn’t afraid to depict it, but there’s a resolve in his work and in his characters that is also hopeful.

In immersing ourselves in Naruse’s oeuvre, we gained an appreciation for many of the actors who made repeat appearances in his pictures, and it was Ms. Takamine, along with Setsuko Hara and Kinuyo Tanaka, who most impressed us. Takemine appeared in at least twelve of Naruse’s films over the years, generally portraying, as Ron Holloway once wrote, “one from the underprivileged classes and usually a tragic figure who endures despite the whims of fate.”

Takamine’s first screen appearance came in 1929 at age 5, and she continued working until 1979, certainly a impressive and admirable run for any actor. She was a beloved figure in Japan, leading some to compare her status there to that of Mary Pickford in the United States, but others have suggested that Katherine Hepburn is a better comparison, given that Ms. Takamine proved to be just as self-sufficient and independent in her handling of her career and personal life as the plucky and iconic Hepburn. She first defied convention by eschewing a studio contract and going independent in 1950 and then, after she married screenwriter Zenzo Matsuyama in 1955, she followed her own path by, as Dave Kehr wrote in his New York Times obit of the actress, “continuing to work as an actress rather than withdraw into domestic life.”

Shirley Temple might also be a worthy comparison, given Ms. Takamine’s popularity as a child star in Japan.

Ms. Takemine, who also authored a number of published essays and books, led a more private life upon retiring. She and Matsuyama divided their time between Tokyo, where she no doubt was recognized everywhere she went, and Hawai’i, where she enjoyed a bit more anonymity.

A marvelous actress, gone but not forgotten.

お誕生日おめでとう(happy birthday), Aida-san!

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):