Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Setsuko Hara - The Enigma of the 'Eternal Virgin'

It's been a slow month thus far, so I decided to take up space with an old (2002) article I wrote for Senses of Cinema.

The actress known as Setsuko Hara was born Masae Aida, June 17 1920 in Yokohama, Japan. Her filmography begins in 1935 with Don't Hesitate, Young Folks (Tamarau nakare wakodo yo, Tetsu Taguchi) and ends abruptly in 1962 with Hiroshi Inagaki's rendition of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chushingura). In between are films that made her – and which she helped to make – unforgettable: No Regrets For Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, Akira Kurosawa, 1946), Late Spring (Banshun, Yasujiro Ozu, 1949), Repast (Meshi, Mikio Naruse, 1951), Early Summer (Bakushu, Ozu, 1951), Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, Ozu, 1953), The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, Naruse, 1954), and Late Autumn (Akibiyori, Ozu, 1960), to name but the most illustrious.

As it turned out, the name Setsuko Hara wasn't much different from any of the other names that Masae Aida answered to in her films, like Yukie or Noriko or Akiko – people who existed only within the context that Kurosawa or Ozu or Naruse gave them. Shocking everyone except her family and closest friends, who alone had intimations of her true self, Masae/Setsuko announced her sudden retirement in 1963. “And then there was what she said,” writes Donald Richie of the event, "the reasons she gave. She implied that she had never enjoyed making films, that she had only done so merely to make enough money to support her large family, that she hadn't thought well of anything she had done in the films, and now that the family was provided for she saw no reason to continue in something she didn't care for." Setsuko Hara was never seen again. Masae Aida, nearly 30 years older than her debut in films but still unmarried and childless, retreated into a genteel obscurity. Her private life had been pried into before, during her reign as Japanese cinema's Eternal Virgin, but nothing was found there to satisfy the tabloids, nothing to disturb the popular mythology surrounding her. And nothing more would be found out, in the nearly 40 intervening years in which Masae has lived her unassailably private life “in a small house in Kamakura,” adamantly refusing to appear or speak on behalf of her former self.

Masae has seen to it that we will never find out who she is. And even if we know quite a bit more about Setsuko, some of it is frustratingly inconsistent – in perfect keeping, perhaps, for the Woman Who Never Was. Her first appearance on film was at the age of 15 with Shochiku Studios, founded in the 1920s. And Shochiku became her contracted studio for the rest of her life. But it was a particularly troubled time in Japan, with the war in China raging and Japan's entry into World War II looming. Still, Setsuko quickly became a star.

Though considered, like her sensei Ozu, quintessentially Japanese, she was singled out by Arnold Fanck in 1936 as representative of a European-style young woman, probably due to her expressively large eyes. Fanck, famous in Europe for his Alpinist films – hyperventilated mountain melodramas, often starring the young Leni Riefenstahl – got her top billing in his German-Japanese production called The New Earth (Atarashiki tsuchi) in Japan and Die Tochter des Samurai in Germany.

Hara then appeared in a string of wartime propaganda films with such emblematic titles as War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai mare oki kaisen, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1942) and Watchtower Suicide Squad (Boro no kesshitai, Tadashi Imai, 1943) – films that were more illustrative of Japan's national peril than of its jingoism. Their poor quality did not prevent Setsuko from becoming a “pin-up girl” for wartime Japanese soldiers.

The war lost and Japan in ruins, a novice director named Akira Kurosawa, on loan to Shochiku from a newly formed studio that would later call itself “Toho,” cast Setsuko in the meaty role of the heroine of his beautiful but uncharacteristic “feminist” (and transparently socialist) No Regrets for Our Youth, which addressed the consequences that the generation that came of age during the War had had to face for their political activism. Setsuko was magnificent as a “woman of the people,” and it is one of the performances that have become the bedrock of her – by now – international reputation. Five years later at Shochiku, Kurosawa cast her in the impossible Nastasya Filippovna role in his fascinating adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), transforming her into a woman who fascinates virtually every male character in the cast with her striking beauty and erratic behavior. With her severely coiffed hair and accentuated eyelashes (like Marlene Dietrich, she is invariably lit from above), her performance was severely damaged, along with the film, by the studio's demands for draconian cuts, leaving it, laborious explanatory inter-titles and all, at less than one-third its intended length.

But it was Ozu who noticed certain qualities in Setsuko and cast her in the first of his late, great masterpieces, Late Spring. She was 29, but still 'virginal' in at least one sense, and totally convincing as Ozu's iconic devoted daughter Noriko. Like her, Ozu never married, choosing instead to devote his remaining years to erecting an indestructible monument to the fragile, disintegrating Japanese family. And Setsuko played an irreplaceable part, in five more Ozu films: Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957), Late Autumn, and The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961).

Meanwhile she would also make four films with Mikio Naruse, who was somewhat less reverential toward the Japanese family than Ozu, and much more interested in the constricted roles that women were required to play in Japanese society. For Naruse, Setsuko was allowed to approximate a more realistic, postwar young woman, in two films based on Fumiko Hayashi stories and two on Yasunari Kawabata – equally delicate but very different writers. Hayashi was one of the first postwar writers to devote herself exclusively to depicting the plight of women. In Repast, Setsuko played a wife trapped in a childless and loveless marriage in the lower middle class suburbs of Osaka. Setsuko, ever the refracting prism of the lives of Japanese women, was both totally convincing and deeply moving.

In The Sound of the Mountain (which, incidentally, was Yasunari Kawabata's own favorite of all his screen adaptations), Setsuko was again involved in an unhappy marriage, this time to a husband who has a child by a mistress. Setsuko's character has an abortion (quite an advanced detail for a 1954 film). The only comfort she receives is from her father-in-law, who quite obviously adores her and helps her to cope.

With so much sensitive and intelligent work in the service of a handful of some of the greatest films ever made, it is all the more puzzling that Setsuko/Masae could not only suspend it forever but even renounce it. It was one thing for Greta Garbo to confess to David Niven that she retired from films because she was bored with always playing “bad women.” (Niven) What Garbo perhaps lacked was an Ozu, a Naruse, or a Kurosawa. But even these stalwarts of Film Art were apparently not enough to keep Masae from her secret life in Kamakura as the Eternal Virgin, alone and, by society's standards, unfulfilled. It was as if Garbo had shorn her hair and entered a nunnery.

E. M. Forster once complained that he had to give up novel writing because he had grown tired of granting his characters the happy ending that he himself had been denied in life – heterosexual love and marriage. Although some sexual motivation often has the effect of humanizing an otherwise superhuman subject, I am not suggesting that Masae Aida was homosexual. Assigning sexual preference to people based on completely innocent statements, writings or other evidence has become one of the more tiresome commonplaces of revisionist criticism. I am perfectly satisfied to leave Masae's virginity intact – even now that she is 80, when such distinctions are subtle, at best.

But would it be going too far to suggest that Masae, having defined Japanese women in their various social roles, spurned those roles in her own life because she was unable to find fulfillment in them? In Japan, a woman unmarried past the age of 25 used to be called “Christmas cake” – stale and unappealing after the 25th. In a country that remains so male-dominated, perhaps Masae's decision to remain unmarried and childless was less a “failure” than a conscious decision? A protest? Donald Richie seemed to think so:

It now seems, particularly to young women, that this actress truly reconciled her life. Truly, in that though she played all social roles – daughter, wife, and mother – she only played them in her films. They were inventions, these roles. They did not eclipse that individual self, our Setsuko. And in this way she exposed them for the fictions that they are.

While seeming to codify the separate parts she played in the fictional world of her films, subsuming her own life – her own dreams – in theirs, Masae Aida proved herself to be far greater than the sum of these parts. Her choice of anonymity after such fame grew into the ultimate rebuke to the culture who sought to worship her, but only in the terms it defined.


Though some sources report that she made over 100 films, the Internet Movie Data Base ( lists only 44.

The tabloid press in Japan is at least as prying and libelous as anywhere else in the world. Kurosawa attacked it in his 1950 film Scandal, in which a bohemian painter gives a beautiful socialite an innocent lift on his motorcycle, only to find within days that the tabloids have embroiled them in a turgid affair. A more recent example of tabloid excesses occurred in December of 1997, when one publication, called Flash, drove the filmmaker Juzo Itami (Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) to commit suicide over a rumored extra-marital affair.

Works cited:

Niven, David, Bring on the Empty Horses, New York: Putnam, 1975
Richie, Donald, Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1988

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your article very much. It is very respectful and gentle in nature - much like the actress appeared to be in her films. I only recently discovered her, not more than 3 days ago to be exact, in that wonderful film 'Late Spring' and today in 'Tokyo Story'. I immediately wanted to know more about her as I was so moved by her acting in those 2 wonderful films, and so came upon your article. Enigmatic it certainly is and yet somehow quite 'perfect' in a sense, a perfect ending as in those 2 beautiful and sad films I just watched. How else could it end ? A beautiful life and then the renunciation at the end. Well not quite the end for it went on for more than 40 years. I hope and trust that they were happy ones. Not happy in the Western sense perhaps but in the Buddhist sense that is so enigmatic. Anyway thanks for the article. Loved it.