One of Japanese cinema’s most well-known faces died in September – and the world has only just found out.
Setsuko Hara, the actress from Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring and Tokyo Story, Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth and The Idiot, and Mikio Naruse’s Repast, died of pneumonia on September 25 in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo, but the media picked up the news only on November 25. Hara was 95.
She was born on June 17, 1920, and made her debut in 1935. Hara worked with several Japanese directors, but her work with Ozu stands out. Here she is in Late Spring (1949), the first of six Ozu films in which she appeared. The family drama stars another one of Ozu’s favourites, Chishu Ryu, who plays the widowed father to Hara’s Noriko. Should the widower remarry, or should he first get Noriko hitched?
In Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953), Hara plays a different Noriko, this time the kind-hearted daughter-in-law of an elderly couple (Ryu and Chieko Higashiyami).
Hara had previously appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s debut, No Regrets For Our Youth (1946), a political drama about student unrest in 1933. Hara plays the daughter of a professor who steals the two hearts of two of his students.
In Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951), his adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel, Hara is in crackling form as one of two women with whom Toshiro Mifune’s war-time hoodlum gets involved.
In an essay written for the Mumbai Film Festival’s survey of eight decades of Japanese cinema in 2010, film scholar Suresh Chabria memorably says about Hara, “Billed as the ‘eternal virgin’, Hara represents further aspects and depths of Japanese womanhood as it is portrayed in cinema.”
Chabria, a former director of the National Film Archive of India, pays special attention to Hara’s striking visage. “Another aspect of her screen persona was her mask-like face,” Chabria writes. “This mask hid a more complex person that refuses to reveal herself fully to others. The contradictory feelings that often flit across her face – sadness and gaiety, doubt and hope – are ultimately always held in check. A quiet radiance emanates from her in every situation, in every turn of an unpredictable life that is inevitably leading human beings to loneliness and silence.”
Hara retired from the screen in 1963, the year Ozu died, and retreated from public glare. She never married, rarely gave interviews, and lived with her sister’s family until her death. The Japanese media reported that Hara had been hospitalised in August, and had asked her family to refrain from announcing her death.