Setsuko Hara: Japan’s Garbo

Today is the 94th birthday of one of Japan’s greatest stars, Setsuko Hara. Of all the actresses I am familiar with in Japanese cinema, she is definitely my favorite. Although she retired from both films and public life in general half a century ago, she continues to captivate movie audiences with the extraordinary depths of emotionality in her acting. To celebrate this day, let’s take a look at three of Hara’s most famous films.

No Regrets for Youth (1946) – Hara had one of her most complex roles in this early drama by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, his first postwar effort. Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) probably get all the credit for being Kurosawa’s most important films prior to international breakthrough Rashomon (1950), but Regrets is key in Kurosawa’s career for having a female protagonist. Unlike Setsuko Hara’s later work with Yasujiro Ozu, a series of selfless, pure characters that earned her the nickname “the Eternal Virgin” (though the fact that Hara has never married contributes to the moniker), Kurosawa gives Hara the chance to play a bit of a free spirit – almost a bad girl type – at the beginning of the film. Her transformation from a carefree, piano-playing flirt to a socially conscious farmer reveals as much about Hara’s acting range as it does about the direction and screenwriting.

Late Spring (1949) – In Hara’s first collaboration with writer-director Yasujirô Ozu (which was also the first film of hers that I saw), she gives a fantastic performance as a dutiful daughter struggling with whether to get married or to stay at home with her widower father. It is a tender, poignant story, a showcase for beautiful performances. Because of how bright and sunny Hara’s smile is, when you see her face fall in a portrayal of inner pain, you feel her anguish even more acutely because of the tremendous disparity between those displays of her feelings. It is a testament to her abilities as an actress that she can pull off those reactions so seamlessly.

Tokyo Story (1953) – Inspired by the American film Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Ozu’s heartbreaking masterpiece was declared the greatest film ever by Sight & Sound in 2012. Hara plays the kind daughter-in-law of her late husband’s elderly parents, a couple largely neglected and/or mistreated by their own children. It is not until near the end of the film that sweet Setsuko Hara’s façade breaks and she tearfully expresses some long-suppressed sentiments. Like Late Spring, Tokyo Story is necessary viewing for any film fan. Japan’s culture may be far removed from your own, but the dynamics and difficulties of family life would probably resonate with nearly every viewer. All three of these films should be seen not only because they are well-made but because their lead actress was and continues to be a vital part of film history. Setsuko Hara retreated from our world fifty years ago, but the images of her on celluloid are still with us.

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