Setsuko Hara Centennial

17 Jun

The great Japanese actress, Setsuko Hara, would have turned 100 today, June 17, 2020. She died five years ago at the age of 95. She’s most famous for her films for director Yasujiro Ozu, including LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, LATE AUTUMN and THE END OF SUMMER. She starred in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar film, and again for Kurosawa in THE IDIOT. She made four films for Mikio Naruse, including REPAST, SUDDEN RAIN, THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN and DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER. Her last film was Toho’s all-star saga of the 47 Ronin, CHUSHINGURA (1962), and she played the wife of the protagonist, Oishi, a chamberlain secretly plotting over the course of a year to rally the ronin and avenge the death of their disgraced lord.

Hara then went into seclusion and was partly the inspiration for the title character in Satoshi Kon’s animated drama, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001).

I place Setsuko Hara among the four great actresses of Japanese cinema, the others being Kinuyo Tanaka, Machiko Kyo and Hideko Takamine. (Hara and Takamine play sisters-in-law in Naruse’s DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER, 1960).) In the 14 or so films of hers I’ve seen, Hara usually played a daughter, wife or mother—and sometimes all three in the same movie! She often had to make some kind of self-sacrifice to fulfill family or social obligations, but sometimes got to do things for herself, even in an occasional film by Ozu, the director for whom her characters had to make the most sacrifices and for whom she worked the most.

Some highlights:

In Kurosawa’s NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), she plays a pampered daughter of a prominent scholar and winds up marrying the most radical of her father’s students, rather than a much safer alternative. When the war begins and her husband is jailed for treason, she joins his ostracized parents on their remote farm and works the land single-handed despite harassment by the surrounding community. None of it is faked. It’s quite a grueling performance and the location shoot must have been extremely difficult. Being Kurosawa’s first film after the war, it marked a 180-degree turn from Kurosawa’s war propaganda film from three years earlier, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL.  As such, it attracted rare praise from the American censors then working for the Allied Occupation Forces. (It’s also a 180-degree turn from Ms. Hara’s own war propaganda films, but more on that below.)

THE BALL AT ANJO HOUSE (1947), directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura, offers one of her most proactive roles as Atsuko, the youngest daughter of the once-powerful Lord Anjo and the only one in the family who welcomes the impending loss of status and a new, meaningful life ahead. Despite all the drama set in motion by her embittered siblings and humiliated father, Atsuko’s optimism and good sense shine through and it all ends on a hopeful note. She smiles a lot more in it than she does in her films for Ozu.

In Ozu’s LATE SPRING (1949), Hara plays the daughter of a college professor (Chishu Ryu) and works full-time as his assistant, a job she is perfectly content to do. When a meddling aunt—the widow of her father’s brother—starts pressuring the professor into marrying Hara off, he knows his daughter will refuse unless he can make it look like he’s about to start a new relationship himself. So he takes up with a recently widowed family friend and then the aunt sets about matchmaking for an unhappy Hara.

In Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, she plays the widowed daughter-in-law of an aged couple and the only one who looks after them after their own children have virtually abandoned them.

In Naruse’s SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN (1954), based on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Hara plays the wife of a cheating husband, whose parents live with them. The father dotes on Hara and tries to compensate for his son’s behavior and the two become quite close. Eventually, they both realize that she can never be happy in the marriage and that the presence of the parents in the household has complicated matters. A far cry from Ozu.

In Naruse’s SUDDEN RAIN (1956), Hara plays an unhappy housewife who then laughs, along with her husband, at the tearful complaints proffered by a young newlywed relative (Kyoko Kagawa) about her husband. Eventually Hara’s character accepts her lot and the end finds her and her husband playfully bouncing a ball between them in their yard.

Naruse’s DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER (1960) finds Hara as a widow living with her widowed mother and several siblings and in-laws in the family house that her father had built. When the financial machinations of her sleazy brother and uncle force the family to sell the house, Hara makes a decision that she thinks will insure her mother being cared for, but she makes it entirely on her own without consulting anyone. No one pressured her to do so, but she makes the one man who truly loves her very unhappy. And the mother, after all, turns out to have plans of her own. Ozu-like decision, but with a Naruse pay-off. This is her only film with Tatsuya Nakadai and one of very few she made with Hideko Takamine. She also gets to smile in this one.

Ozu’s LATE AUTUMN (1960) is a loose remake of LATE SPRING (1949), with significant variations. Here Hara plays the parent, a widow, whose daughter (Yoko Tsukasa) is full-grown and lives with her and the two experience extraordinary pressure from family friends for them both to get married. The resolution is not what I predicted and marks quite a change from the earlier film in which no one quite got to do what they wanted.

THE END OF SUMMER (1961), the last film Hara made with Ozu, finds her as the widowed daughter of an aging brewery owner (Ganjiro Nakamura) who is facing hard times and planning for his death. He wants to get his two unmarried daughters, Akiko (Hara) and Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa), married off before he dies, but Akiko (Hara), who has a child and runs a successful art gallery, is none too eager to change her situation and Noriko wants to marry for love and not out of filial duty.

Hara’s career began in the 1930s when she was a teen. I saw two of her early films at Japan Society in 2015 when they did a series called The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara. (Yamaguchi had died a few months before the series and Hara would die a year or so later. Yamaguchi’s centennial was earlier this year on February 12.) THE NEW EARTH (1937) was a co-production with Germany and co-starred Sessue Hayakawa, then in between the two Hollywood phases of his career. The other, TOWARD THE DECISIVE BATTLE IN THE SKY (1943), was a blatant effort to support Japan’s war effort and was made at the height of Hara’s wartime fame. Here are the program notes for each film from the Japan Society page for this series:


Setsuko Hara caught the eye of visiting Nazi film director Arnold Fanck the year after her 1936 debut, while she was performing for Mansaku Itami’s Kochiyama Soshun. The two directors cast her for the lead in their German-Japanese co-production of The New Earth. The new earth in question is Manchuria, which Japan had seized in 1931 and was aggressively colonizing at the time of production. For the Nazis’ part, the film was designed to uplift the image of the non-white Japanese on the eve of the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact that made the two countries allies (one of the German diplomats working on the agreement traveled undercover with the film crew). A Japanese man returns from Europe and filled with admiration for European culture…and women, as he rejects marriage with Setsuko Hara. Her father, played by Sessue Hayakawa, brings him around to a re-appreciation of both Hara and Japanese culture. The two marry and move to Manchuria as settlers. Itami and Fanck did not see eye to eye, releasing their own individual edits of the film; Fanck’s was released under the title Die Tochter des Samurai and Hara attended the German premiere with an admiring Adolph Hitler. Japan Society is showing the Itami version. This film catapulted Hara to instant movie stardom and she became a mainstay of the Japanese war film.


Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky describes the challenging training of young boys in the Yokaren, a program feeding new pilots into the Army and Navy. By the time of the filming, the pressure of the war had led the government to shorten the training and expand the age range of the recruits. Yokaren was highly selective, and thus an object of great fascination and desire for boys and young men. In this Navy–sponsored film, Setsuko Hara plays the daughter of a family that often entertains recruits on their days off—a surrogate sister to many trainees. Her fragile younger brother aspires to join the program, but is rejected. With perseverance and much support from Hara and their mother, he surmounts his weaknesses and becomes a flier.

Setsuko Hara and Shirley Yamaguchi had interesting parallel careers, but with entirely different outcomes. And their stances on the war were quite a contrast. Markus Nornes, the series curator, addresses these issues in a Curator’s Note:

Despite living in our own time of war, it is difficult to appreciate the central role cinema and its star system played in forming public opinion and seducing people to sacrifice everything from creature comforts to human life. And considerations of war cinema regrettably focus on male stars locked in mortal combat. This is why I have chosen to look back at WWII through a comparison of two major actresses, examining both their wartime roles and postwar lives.

Of the two actors, Yamaguchi led the more complicated—even spectacular—life. She was born to an expatriate family of settlers in the Japanese colony of Manchuria. Thanks to these unusual circumstances, she was fluent in both Japanese and Chinese. This linguistic talent, along with her formal training in opera, made her a valuable asset to the newly formed Manchurian Motion Picture Association. Although Japanese, Yamaguchi passed for a pert Chinese woman with a stunning voice and an astounding command of the Japanese language. Not long after her 1938 debut, she was one of the first transnational stars of East Asia.

In contrast, Setsuko Hara was a domestic star before her discovery by the international art cinema crowd, and then for only her postwar performances. She debuted in 1936 as a cinematic paragon of youthful womanhood. During the war, this meant playing a pure and innocent daughter supporting the young men deploying to the meat grinder of modern warfare, a persona tweaked into the “eternal virgin” after 1945. These Japanese films treated gender quite differently than the Yamaguchi vehicles over on the mainland.

The differences between these two stars also include their respective relationships to history and the high profile roles they played in it. For her part, Hara never addressed her contributions to the militarization of Japanese cinema and the seduction of young people into the war effort. She retired from film and public view in 1963, leaving the virginal persona of her Ozu films overshadowing her efforts on behalf of Japanese fascism.

Yamaguchi took a more interesting and, frankly speaking, admirable route. She escaped a Chinese death sentence for treason by producing a Japanese passport and fleeing the continent. However, rather than running away from history, she participated in it. After pursuing a career in Hong Kong, Hollywood and on Broadway, she became a thoroughly political person. Her support for the Palestinian cause scored the first television interview with Red Army leader Fusako Shigenobu in Lebanon. She served 18 years in the Diet, where she was one of the first politicians to renounce Japanese imperialism. And she acknowledged and renounced war crimes such as the military’s sexual slavery of Korean women, and publicly apologized for the wartime episode of her complicated life story.

In any event, I still have a few Hara films to see for the first time, including Kurosawa’s THE IDIOT (1951), Naruse’s REPAST (1951), and the all-star Toho epic about Japan’s creation myth, Hiroshi Inagaki’s THREE TREASURES (aka THE BIRTH OF JAPAN, 1959). Plus I want to re-watch all the others, especially LATE SPRING, TOKYO STORY, LATE AUTUMN and END OF SUMMER.


For the centennial, I watched the only film Hara had done for Naruse that I hadn’t seen before, REPAST (1951), based on an unfinished novel by Fumiko Hayashi. It contains what I consider to be Hara’s finest performance, revealing an inner life and emotions she usually kept bottled up in so many films. She plays Michiyo, a housewife who has been married for five years, the last two spent in Osaka after she and her husband (Ken Uehara) have relocated from Tokyo following a business transfer. She spends her days washing, cooking, and cleaning, while he comes home every night, muttering “I’m starving” and sits and smokes and reads the newspaper during dinner. When his coquettish niece (Yukiko Shimazaki) shows up out of the blue to stay with them and starts taking up his attention, Michiyo starts to rethink her marriage. When he comes back drunk after a night out with business colleagues, it’s the last straw and she soon embarks on a trip back home to Tokyo, taking the niece with her. In Tokyo, she gets feedback from various parties, including her mother, sister, brother-in-law, cousin and the niece who started all the trouble, and she takes the time to think it out for herself. With subtle inflections, her face tells us so much about her dissatisfaction throughout the film that the occasional pieces of voice-over narration she provides seem superfluous. Naruse wisely gives us lots of close-ups:

One Response to “Setsuko Hara Centennial”

  1. alvaschoen January 2, 2021 at 12:07 AM #

    Agreed that Meshi has a very nuanced performance by Hara; I’m still more drawn to Sound of the Mountain because she inhabits the loneliness of that character so convincingly. That final scene in the park with her (now-ex) father in law is just astounding.

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