• Ozu and Setsuko Hara

    By Donald Richie


    We were deeply saddened to learn today of the passing of the great Setsuko Hara, star and soul of so many of the masterpiece creations of Yasujiro Ozu—among her many other memorable roles during the golden age of Japanese cinema. To pay tribute, we present again a beautiful piece on the legendary Ozu-Hara collaboration, by another great—Donald Richie. It was originally posted here in April 2011 and appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 DVD release of Late Spring.

    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 (1924-2013) was the author of numerous books on Japanese cinema, including A Hundred Years of Japanese Film,The Films of Akira Kurosawa, and Ozu.


  • By thefilmmaven
    November 25, 2015
    02:30 PM

    Lovely writing, Thank you.
  • By petite_girl
    November 25, 2015
    07:12 PM

    One of my favourite legendary Japanese actresses. She was capable of showing so many emotions only with her eyes.
  • By Tim D.
    November 26, 2015
    02:40 AM

    Loved "Late Spring" and look forward to seeing the rest of her Ozu films. Not sure I want to see "The New Earth," though, although I suspect I will in the end.
  • By nicc
    November 26, 2015
    12:33 PM

    It was odd for me to be sadden by this news; she stopped acting far before I was born. However, I remember the first time I saw Late Spring, maybe it was Ozu's direction, but it was Hara's beauty in both performance and in looks that I believe made that movie what it was. There were some great actresses during that era in Japanese cinema, but Hara was a stand out. Maybe it's a shame that she stopped acting the year Ozu died,but I think it's evident that she had a huge impact on cinema as a whole, especially since she played a major role in Tokyo Story. Her role in my (tied for) favorite Ozu, Tokyo Twilight is still my favorite performance by an actress. I hope her legacy continues.
  • By Fred J.
    November 28, 2015
    03:07 PM

    Endo, novelist, says, “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?” Not Japanese but anyone, anyone, who sees her in her greatest films must feel that way. Isn't life disappointing? ... "Yes, it is." And she smiles because she loves and love is greater than life.
  • By MelanieDaniels
    November 30, 2015
    12:08 AM

    Setsuko Hara was a beautiful and luminous presence on screen. She lived a long life;but as I get older that offers little consolation. As Woody Allen said when Ingmar Bergman passed away,"it's a tragedy that it has to happen at all".
  • By Chas H.
    November 30, 2015
    08:04 PM

    A wonderful actress one of my all time favourites,sadly missed.
  • By Davey32
    November 30, 2015
    09:00 PM

    She was such a beautiful and incandescent actress. Film history was very lucky to have her, and as long as we have Cinema, she was always be an extremely important part of it.
  • By Aamir A.
    December 08, 2015
    09:08 PM

    "Late Spring" is one of my favorite movies. Setsuko Hara brought such grace to her performance.
  • By ingrasp
    January 17, 2016
    09:38 AM

    No better writer to comment on the great Setsuko Hara than the great Donald Richie...Ozu was my introduction to Japanese film but Setsuko Hara is the face of postwar Japanese cinematic creativity. She was and remains an idealized expression of Japanese sensibility and grace - an actress worth admiring for her generous spirit on film and fiercely independent self-awareness in life.
  • By Larry
    January 26, 2016
    12:32 PM

    Great article. The only mistake I will point out is that Hara did appear at Ozu's house after his death. She stayed at his home for a whole night, and was observed to cry uncontrollably upon her departure in the morning. There was rumor about a Hara-Ozu marriage which even Ozu mentioned in his diary. However Ozu's mother made it clear that her son was never to marry an actress. Hara was not only a great actress but also a formidable screen presence. Only Tanaka and Hidemine rival her during the golden age of Japanese cinema.
  • By Larry
    January 27, 2016
    03:03 PM

    I would like to add on another piece of rumor mill. Years ago a book on Ozu provided more detail on the relationship between Ozu and Hara. Both of them were introverts. After they wrapped up their last film together, Ozu finally was able to muster all courage to tell her the truth. He made a call to her, talked about lots of things, but in the end kind chickened out and only said that he would love to cast her in his future films. The book was strictly edited by Ozu relatives and they kept this piece intact. BTW, a few sources indicated that Hara also attended Ozu's funeral. That was one of the last instances that she ever showed up in public.