Today I would like to acknowledge the 90th birthday of one of my all-time favorite actresses, Setsuko Hara. Born Masae Aida in 1920, she became one of Japan’s most popular movie performers in the 1940s and 1950s. She’s probably best remembered for the several films she made with director Yasujiro Ozu, including Tokyo Story, which routinely shows up on lists of the greatest films ever made. Here is a nice appreciation from The Guardian by Peter Bradshaw on her work in that film. While she is wonderful there, she actually has more prominent roles in the other two films in Ozu’s “Noriko” trilogy, Late Spring and Early Summer (Hara plays three quite different characters, all named Noriko, in the three films). I have also loved her in Mikio Naruse’s Repast and Sound of the Mountain, available on DVD from Great Britain as part of the invaluable Masters of Cinema series. Her quite different work in Akira Kurosawa’s early No Regrets for Our Youth, and the imperfect, heavily edited, but still moving The Idiot, give some indication of her range (both can now be found in the Criterion Eclipse set Postwar Kurosawa). Sadly, a large percentage of the films she made are not readily available in the U.S. YouTube has a number of clips of Hara’s work (many without English subtitles, however), including as a quite charming seventeen year old in The New Earth. She retired from films in 1963, shortly after completing the big budget epic Chushingura (and not long after Ozu’s death that same year), and has lived as a recluse ever since.
What is so entrancing about Hara and her acting? She has a unique ability, much remarked upon, to convey conflicting emotions, often with just a look or a change in tone in her voice. Her smile is a thing of great mystery, again able to convey a broad range of feeling. Her characters, especially in her films with Ozu, radiate both calm and strength of will in the midst of what is often great emotional, familial stress. This is, of course, quite aside from her sheer beauty, and the “star power” that seems to make her the center of attention in any scene in which she appears. Dan Harper has more, including further biographical details, at the Senses of Cinema website.
The British Film Institute (BFI) is slated to release all three of the Noriko films on Blu-Ray in July. It’s perhaps a little ironic that I might finally be moved to upgrade to Blu-Ray, which I’ve been putting off doing for some time now, by the availability in high-definition of three black-and-white films of the 1950s. But my fascination with Hara and admiration of her work (and that of Yasujiro Ozu) might just do the trick.