The actress Setsuko Hara is now so coupled with her roles in the films of Yasujiro Ozu that she is often seen as the archetypal Ozu female, and her other parts are forgotten. Yet her career was as varied as that of any actress.
Born in 1920, Hara was introduced to the Nikkatsu film studios by her brother-in-law, the director Hisatora Kumagai, in 1935, but she became popular only after having been chosen by Arnold Fanck to star in the German-Japanese coproduction The New Earth (1937). In it, she plays a pure-hearted Japanese maiden who attempts (unsuccessfully) to immolate herself in an active volcano.
Having become a model of Japanese femininity in crisis, she went on to appear as a pathetic victim in a number of wartime films. It was not until she was cast in Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar picture, No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), that she was encouraged to show the independence and individuality that would mark many of her later appearances.
In such films as Kimisaburo Yoshimura’s A Ball at the Anjo House (1947) and Keisuke Kinoshita’s Here’s to the Girls (1949), she portrays the “new” Japanese woman, who optimistically looks forward to a brighter future. Just as often, however, her role was that of the typical long-suffering Japanese woman, supporting the man in her life, be he father, husband, or son. She made many such “women’s films,” the most superior roles being those in the movies of Mikio Naruse, the most risible one being that of the motherly and compassionate sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami in Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Birth of Japan (1959).
Hara’s work with Ozu began in 1949 and continued until 1961—twelve years of creative partnership. Given the uses the director found for her, it is possible that this division in Hara’s career—between characters allowed to express individuality and traditional-family personifications—in part inspired the people she would play in his pictures.
Certainly her role in the first of these, Late Spring (1949), is an illustration of this dramatic dichotomy. Noriko, a conflicted daughter, is fearful of venturing into marriage and adulthood, wanting rather to remain with the security of her father. The demands of society, on one hand, and the needs of her own emotions, on the other, are fully dramatized in a character rendered complicated, and hence interesting, by her very typical dilemma.
In Early Summer (1951), we see that Noriko (Ozu and Kogo Noda, his fellow scriptwriter, gave the Hara character this name in so many of these films that a connection among the roles became apparent), now older and more experienced, wants to get married and finds the courage to do so without the family’s approval.
In the 1949 film, Noriko finds herself in a more conservative position than in the 1951 picture, where she is concerned with her own independence—but a conflict is a conflict, and this is what interested Ozu. And it was just these conflicting emotions that Hara had learned to display faultlessly. So much so that Ozu’s films might well have been somewhat different without her. He himself said that he could no more write a script without knowing who was going to play a part than an artist could paint a picture without knowing what color to use. The subtle shades and radiant hues of Setsuko Hara not only fit but in a way contrived the characters that Ozu created.
In Hara’s next Ozu film, Tokyo Story (1953), Noriko has married, is now widowed, and thus is completely severed from familial connections—yet she is the only one of the children to observe the respect traditionally paid to parents. Once again, the dichotomy between society’s claims and the individual’s inclinations is touchingly portrayed.
In Twilight in Tokyo (1957), the heroine is once more separated from her social position, having left her husband. In the end, she resolves to return and try to make the marriage work. In Late Autumn (1960), Hara is the mother of a daughter who does not want to leave her, get married, and have a family of her own. The situation is that of Late Spring, with Noriko, now mature, as the parent. She knows that her child has her own life to live, and with considerable self-sacrifice, she is willing to insist upon it.
In The End of Summer (1961), Hara’s last film with Ozu, her role is again, as in Tokyo Story, that of the widowed daughter-in-law. Now, however, though older, she contemplates remarriage and still insists upon her right to choose the partner she wants. The conflict between expectations and inclinations continues.
Of course, to reduce the delicate balance of an Ozu film to such a primitive paradigm as social obligation/personal inclination (the old giri/ninjo formulation at the heart of kabuki and most of the early chanbara chop-’em-up sword-fight films) is ludicrous. At the same time, however, such a construct can suggest the shape both of Hara’s career and of those Ozu films that, it can be said, reflected it.
In any event, The End of Summer marked the end of their collaboration. Within two years, Ozu was dead and Hara had abandoned her career. She was only forty-three years old, and there seemed no reason for her sudden announcement. Whatever, her abrupt manner in doing so was held against her. This was no way for an Ozu character to behave.
Her studio, to which she represented a considerable investment, tried every blandishment, critics howled their disappointment, and there was even talk of her being onnarashikunai—“unwomanly”—a grave insult. She had her reasons, however. She was not Setsuko Hara—she was Masaé Aida. Her screen name all those years had been a studio-built pseudonym. And now, she said, she wanted to be herself again.
This very Setsuko-like reason was given in the Setsuko style, with some hesitation, then sudden smiles breaking through the doubt, but it was the one Hara performance that was not appreciated. For the first time since her 1935 debut, she was severely criticized, not so much for wanting to retire as for the manner in which the desire was presented. There was no polite fiction about bad health or a spiritual imperative or a burning desire to take up charitable work. She simply retired, moved to a small house in Kamakura (where so many of her films with Ozu were set), and was never seen again. The Setsuko Hara we have known and loved, Japan’s own idolized Eternal Virgin, now exists only on the silver screen; that old maid down in Kamakura is largely forgotten, the object of some idle curiosity, but not much.
In retrospect, the reason for her decision seems evident. Our Noriko, for so many years troubled by the demands of society on one hand and the needs of the self on the other, finally decided. She would do what she wanted. And she did. All attempts to lure her out over the years have been rebuffed. When a documentary was made on Ozu, she refused to appear, just as, when he died, she did not attend his funeral. Setsuko Hara was her own person at last.
Donald Richie is the author of numerous books on Japanese cinema, including A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, and Ozu. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 DVD release of Late Spring.