Setsuko Hara: The diva who left Japan wanting a lot more

Setsuko Hara. ()
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Simon Abrams

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When actress Setsuko Hara retired in 1963, she disappointed her fans and further deepened her allure as “The Eternal Virgin,” a nickname she was lovingly given when her acting career was at its peak. Hara is best remembered for her starring roles in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and Late Spring (1949), both of which are playing at Film Forum’s tribute to “5 Japanese Divas,” which also highlights the work of former child star Hideko Takamine and international starlet Machiko Kyo.

Now 90 years old, Hara has lived a life of total seclusion for almost 50 years. She exists for the public today only through grainy, distant and out-of-focus paparazzi photographs.

Hara was a mega-star during and after World War II. She was Shochiku Studios’ biggest star and her abrupt announcement of retirement at the age of 43 came was a major shock. She confessed during her final press conference that she never really enjoyed acting and was only using it as a means to earn money for her family. And with that quiet confession, she removed herself from the limelight. The finality of that gesture, combined with the fact that she, like Ozu, never married, created a mystery that’s engendered much resentment and speculation. Some say Hara’s ailing eye sight is the cause, others that she simply wanted, as she suggested, to spend more time with her family. Her disappearance even inspired visionary anime director to create the lead protagonist in Millennium Actress (2001*), a fantasy about an iconic actress who retired at a young age and only agreed to be interviewed during her dotage.

Her first breakout role came in 1937, when she starred in Arnold Fanck's The New Earth (1937), but Hara’s performance in Ozu's Late Spring would define her during her brief post-war career. In Late Spring, Hara plays Noriko, a devoted daughter who is urged by her family members to marry before she becomes too old and regrets waiting for as long as she has. Noriko's decision is a selfless one: She prefers to stay at home and take care of her father than to find love for herself. The only other explanation that she provides is that she is sure that marriage won’t make her happy.

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Smiling her famously radiant smile, Hara is the picture of care-free devotion in Late Spring. It was a major sign of Hara’s charisma and Ozu's skill at melodrama that Japanese moviegoers were so willing to embrace Noriko. Normally, the idea of a perfectly eligible starlet refusing to marry would have been seen as a radical act. But when Hara did it, murmuring to her father, “I want us to stay who we are,” after she finds out that he plans on remarrying, audiences embraced it. Her broad, generous grin demonstrated that she had nothing to hide and only wanted what she thought was best for herself and her family.

Though Hara is best remembered for other starring roles in Ozu’s films—he would later write scripts with Hara in mind—one of her most most devastating performances was in Mikio Naruse’s Repast (1953). Repast provided Hara with an extraordinary role that, like her role in Late Spring, did violence to confirmed ideas at the time about family values. Michiyo (Hara) watches as her husband Hatsu (Ken Uehara) flirtatiously escorts his coquettish niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) around Osaka. The rift that Satoko’s presence creates is confirmed in the cagey responses he gives her whenever questioned about Satoko. His silence says more about their failed marriage than any words could, though Michiyo comes close when she laments, “I’m just tired of it all.”

Being a stalwart survivor, Michiyo politely kicks Satoko out of her house and returns to her mother’s home in Tokyo. That much-needed retreat inspires one of her most poignant onscreen speeches. Upon first surveying her mother’s neighborhood, she remarks: “Makeshift houses, built after the bombing raids, reflect the evening light ... All I want is to throw myself into my mother’s arms and sleep like a child.”

Michiyo’s visit reminds her that the family unit is still a thing to be admired, even if it forces her into a role that is totally confining. Things could always be worse for Michiyo, a sobering revelation that hits her after she spends time with her sister, who has been on welfare ever since her husband went missing in the war. That welfare is about to run out. To make herself feel better, she gets rid of the radio, further cutting herself off from the outside world. This doesn’t make Michiyo’s sister an object of pity: She perseveres in her own way, perfecting her cooking for her mother and brother. She provides Michiyo with the perspective she needs to realize the inevitable drawbacks to being a wife.

Hara's performance in Ozu's Tokyo Story, undoubtedly her most famous role, is the one that cemented her as a symbol of uneasy domesticity. She doesn't play a single or a married woman in Tokyo Story but rather a widow. Noriko's (Hara) devotion to her dead husband, killed in the war eight years before the film's events, prompts her in-laws to worry. They tell her that she should move on and remarry if the opportunity presents itself. She humors them and insists that she will, but only after confessing demurely, "I'm not that young anymore." Hara's character is happy in her station, but it's a bittersweet kind of acceptance. When her sister-in-law asks her, "But then...isn't life disappointing," Hara smiles and answers truthfully: "Yes, it is."

Hara's fans expect too much from their idol in real life. They want her to live out her career according to Noriko's grin-and-bear-it philosophy. But she won't because, like her characters, she is determined to be faithful to herself, on her terms. All we can do is marvel at the performances she gave us and respect the spirit of individualism that they so gracefully embody.

*year corrected from the original version