An Actress Like No Other

Setsuko Hara as Noriko Somiya in Yasujirō Ozu's Late Spring, 1949
Shôchiku Eiga/New Yorker Films
Setsuko Hara as Noriko Somiya in Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, 1949

We’re always hearing about the ends of eras, but the recent death of the great actress Setsuko Hara really is the end of an era—the era of the classic Japanese film, of the directors Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, Kurosawa, and Kinoshita (to name only the best-known here in America), and of the period’s dominant actresses—Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyō, and Hara herself. Her death at the age of ninety-five, more than fifty years after her voluntary retirement from the screen—and from all public life—still comes as a shock. There’s now no one left of this astounding constellation of talent; and that she was by far the most emblematic figure of the era makes her disappearance reverberate even more strongly.

In the West, most of us first encountered her in 1972 when Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story, was released here. I had never heard of Ozu, although I had seen and admired international award-winning Japanese films like Rashomon, Gate of Hell, and Ugetsu. Ozu had obviously been considered “too Japanese” for Western consumption, and it was greatly due to Dan Talbot, who ran the Upper-West-Side movie house the New Yorker Theater, as well as an important film-distribution company, that he finally emerged here. Beginning with the moment when Tokyo Story first reached us, Ozu’s fame and influence have grown and grown to their current towering stature.

I remember reading the Times’s ecstatic review of it and dragging myself and my wife, Maria, to upper Broadway on the hunch that we would love it. In the Seventies the New Yorker was the place to go for the city’s trendiest film-lovers, of whom I was not one. My passions were books and dance; I had no background in cinema history or aesthetics. I watched movies the way I read novels, for story and character, and a vision of life. Almost from the first moment, Tokyo Story seemed to me different from any movie I had ever seen—as true to life and as moving as Chekhov. By the time the movie was halfway over, I realized that the sophisticated audience was in tears—as I still am when I see it, and I’ve seen it more than a dozen times.

An old couple leave their distant seaport town in the south to visit their grown children in Tokyo, and return home a short time later, disappointed but not embittered. Their doctor son is preoccupied with his middling career and his family; their daughter, who runs a beauty parlor, is grasping and callous. Only their daughter-in-law—whose husband, their middle son, died in the war—welcomes them with a full heart. She lives alone in a respectable but shabby room and supports herself with an ordinary office job, casually taken advantage of by her late husband’s family.

Her name is Noriko, and she is played by Setsuko Hara—a classic grave beauty with huge eyes and an exceptionally wide smile, and an actress of extraordinary restraint, across whose mobile face flicker emotions that reveal a woman of deep feeling and extraordinary generosity. Noriko’s nobility of character, together with her unbreachable modesty and tact, make her final revelation of loneliness and unhappiness—and her unvarnished perception of humanity—all the more anguishing. She embodies Ozu’s vision: people die, families dissolve, life disappoints. Accept it and endure.

Noriko is the quintessential Hara character, and in her other Ozu roles she suggests the same spiritual yet down-to-earth qualities. She worked for other directors as well, of course (including, atypically, for Kurosawa in his unsatisfactory version of The Idiot), yet always in a narrow range of roles. She is inescapably refined, sensitive, well-born, and almost always modern—she’s the archetype of the post-war young woman. Yet she also embodies the virtues of the traditional Japanese woman: loyalty, self-sacrifice, suffering in silence; she’s the perfect daughter, wife, mother. She was utterly real, yet she represented an ideal…the ideal. It was the revered novelist Shusaku Endo who said of her, “Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”

Setsuko Hara as Noriko Hirayama and Chishû Ryû as Shukichi Hirayama in Ozu's Tokyo Story, 1953
Shôchiku Eiga/New Yorker Films
Setsuko Hara as Noriko Hirayama and Chishû Ryû as Shukichi Hirayama in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, 1953

Hara was born in Yokohama in 1920, and it was an uncle, a director, who eased her way into the movies when she was fifteen. Two years later she was playing central roles, her fresh beauty and charm irresistible. But it wasn’t long before her inner depth and strength had manifested themselves. There would be no hiccups or longueurs in her thirty-year career.

She was famously and completely private about her life, never marrying, never linked with anyone romantically, although many people believe that she and Ozu had an affair: he, too, never married, living with his mother until she died only two years before his own death on his sixtieth birthday in 1963. He was buried in the seaside resort town of Kamakura, just outside Tokyo, and it was to Kamakura that Hara, in her early forties, retired shortly after his death, living out her long life in her family house, making no public appearances, shunning interviewers and photographers, mostly seeing family and her old classmates from school. The one thing she did reveal to her countless admirers, in her final press conference, was that she had never enjoyed making movies, and had only done it to help her family financially. Then, fifty-odd years of silence. To avoid fuss, she had arranged that her death, which occurred on September 5, not be made public until more than two months had gone by.

Setsuko Hara has frequently been called the Garbo of Japan not only because of her unique beauty and mysterious spiritual quality but because of her early withdrawal from public life. Garbo, however, flirted with the idea of a comeback, and her retirement to the Upper East Side of Manhattan was hardly equivalent to Hara’s ruthless self-imposed isolation. Hara really did want to be left alone. (If she resembles any Western star it is Lillian Gish, whose radiant beauty also masked indomitable strength, whose ambiguous relationship to D.W. Griffith echoes Hara’s to Ozu, who never married and was hardly ever the subject of gossip and speculation—a foreshadowing of Hara’s renown as Japan’s “eternal virgin.”) And yet she retains her powerful grip on those of us who have been under her spell from the start. I remember Dick Cavett telling me that on a trip to Japan he had found out where she lived, made a pilgrimage to Kamakura, left a bouquet of flowers on her doorstep, rung the doorbell, and then scurried away, chagrined at the idea that he had trespassed on her privacy.

And to Susan Sontag she was a sacred icon—whenever a Hara film was being shown at Japan Society (on East 47th Street), Susan was there in the front row. I had arranged for a private screening at MoMA of one of her greatest films, The Ball at the Anjo House—a postwar version of The Cherry Orchard that was the Japanese critics’ choice as the finest movie of 1947—and Susan, of course, was on my list, and overjoyed to be seeing it. Unfortunately, she had to leave halfway through: it was opening night at the Met and she was due there. But we had found out that the following week Anjo was going to be shown, once only, at a film festival in Boston, and Susan made her own pilgrimage. How not?

On a more personal note: in the fifty-odd years that I’ve been seeing movies, plays, operas, and ballets with Maria, the screening at MoMA was the only time she ever broke into audible sobs. As for Tokyo Story, in 2012 it was the number-one choice of the world’s leading directors as the greatest film ever made. It has my vote too.


Part of a continuing NYR Daily series on life-changing films.