Often remembered in her country as “The Eternal Virgin” (as well as “The Goddess of Militarism” and “The Goddess of Democracy,” depending on which section of her career one wishes to focus on), Setsuko Hara first appeared on cinema screens as a teenager when she was cast in 1935’s Don’t Hesitate, Young Folks, produced by Nikkatsu. Two years and ten films later, she rose to immense popularity with The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai, a Japan-Nazi Germany co-production whose success sent her on an international voyage and—it was hoped—a career in the west. For German filmmaker Arnold Fanck, the young actress (who he claimed to have discovered on the set of Sadao Yamanaka’s 1936 The Priest of Darkness), evoked a pure “Japaneseness” ideal for his picture’s heroine*; for the domestic co-producers, however, she embodied an opportunity to inaugurate a more prominent stream of Japanese film exports and establish the most globally recognized Asian actress since Anna May Wong.

To a certain extent, the producers’ hope was realized. Regular exports of Japanese film did not become a thing for a while and Hara never enjoyed a career in Hollywood, but they’d found a star and gradually got her recognized abroad. In 1937, the press scrambled to cover Hara’s visit to Germany, for which she attended the Berlin premiere of The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai, stayed at the luxurious Eden Hotel, and shook hands with several of Germany’s top film stars as well as the Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels. And even though the film was not shown theatrically in the U.S., she ended up traversing to America to meet Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy, even celebrating her seventeenth birthday aboard the Queen Mary. In 1939, she was chosen to embody “the face of Japan” at the New York World Fair.

Hara remained in the Japanese public eye throughout the remainder of the ‘30s, soon seguing into films championing militaristic politics (as international tensions were escalating into what became World War II). Since Japanese screen performers were not persecuted by the western occupying forces who took over Japan after the 1945 surrender, she was allowed to continue working into the postwar years, now appearing in films favoring democratic ideals pushed by the Americans; and when Japan’s first post-surrender print poster (a colossal color ad for Shiseido Cosmetics) appeared in the fall of 1946, it was Hara’s face that was used to represent “the emergence of the postwar modern nation of Japan, including the Japanese new woman.” (In all of this, we can see why the actress obtained the two “Goddess” monikers listed above.)

But, of course, it was mainly through the exposure of her work in the 1950s that Hara attained true international prominence. Though much of it reached foreign audiences after her sudden retirement in the 1960s**, these later films were the ones that came closest to realizing the sort of recognition the producers of The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai had hoped their starlet would receive in 1937. To this day, Setsuko Hara has been the subject of considerable attention in numerous film events, including the 56th Berlin International Film Festival in 2011; and back in 2000, fifteen years before her death at the age of 95, she was chosen by Kinema Jumpo magazine as the greatest Japanese film actress of the 20th century—her six films with Yasujiro Ozu no doubt having been first and foremost in the voters’ minds.

It is because of this default association of Hara and Ozu that I have chosen to exclude their collaborations from this list. Despite my immense admiration for Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Late Autumn (1960), and The End of Summer (1961), none of them will make an appearance going forward. Hara made a number of very noteworthy pictures with other directors in the course of her too-brief career (which lasted less than three decades), and it is a handful of those less-talked-about films which shall be saluted here.

 

Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky

#10. TOWARD THE DECISIVE BATTLE IN THE SKY

The first movie to appear on this list is something of a nonconformist choice, as it is not a picture I would recommend to anyone on the basis of quality or entertainment. Like many of the “spiritist” propaganda films spat up by Japan during the second world war, Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943) is perfectly sufficient from a technical standpoint (well shot and put together) and boasts an array of very fine performances; unfortunately, it is also like many of its brethren in that it is cloyingly simplistic and so superficial in its “characterizations” that it ultimately proves to be ridiculous and, more often than not, simply boring.

The story revolves around a family, the Marumatsus, who regularly receive visits from local military trainees. The cadets come by ostensibly to rest, but their primary purpose in stopping by is to share cheery stories from their training sessions—stories their hosts are all too eager to hear. The family is excited and proud to be in the presence of young men who’re not only prepping for war but who are actually excited to die in battle (as voiced in a song the characters themselves write***; none of these boys expect to come back alive). And in the picture’s absurdly jovial denouement, the Marumatsus beam with elation as the cadets depart for certain death in the Pacific—their pride further enhanced by the fact that the young son of the family has started prepping for military training himself.

I chose to begin this list with a national policy film mainly to exemplify an important chapter in Setsuko Hara’s life and career. As touched on earlier, Hara was, due to her star status, a regular presence in nationalistic/jingoistic propaganda films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and she even had familial ties to people with aggressive wartime politics****. (Another curious detail: unlike other movie stars of her time, such as frequent co-star Susumu Fujita, she never, in any document I’ve come across, expressed regret for her involvement in military recruitment pictures or movies championing the Japanese invasion of the Far East.) Her character in Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky is a textbook example of the Japanese “spiritist” woman: a movie stereotype of the time encompassing mothers, sisters, etc. who openly support the men in their lives (lovers, children, etc.) going to war—without expressing, even in private, the slightest ounce of sadness*****. These women are honored to see those close to them perish for the honor of the nation; when mothers cry upon learning of the deaths of their loved ones, they shed tears of pride, not sorrow.

In the case of this film, Hara plays the oldest daughter in the Marumatsu family, whose unapologetic admiration for the army inspires a new generation of nationalistic fighters in the form of her little brother, himself transforming from a weakling into a proud soldier-in-training. Hara had played an imperial soldier’s sibling the year before, in Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), but in that picture, she was confined mostly to standing in the background and had no influence over the narrative or anyone around her; here, she is up front and center—ostensibly the star—giving a vivacious performance, and plays an active role in persuading her bedridden sibling to man up and enter the services. Viewed with a certain historical context, the character—and the film—has an air of fascination to it; and on that level, I’d argue it’s one of Hara’s most important movies and, therefore, worth seeing.

 

#9. HERE’S TO THE YOUNG LADY

After the surrender of 1945, Setsuko Hara’s reign as “The Goddess of Militarism” came to an end. For the next seven years, every film she made would be subject to an entirely different set of political agendas. More details can be found in my article on Kurosawa’s Those Who Make Tomorrow (1945), but in short: when the Allied Powers (namely, the United States) took over the Land of the Rising Sun from 1945-1952, it was with the intent of “democratizing” and “westernizing” the country and its people. This in turn led to some major restructuring of Japanese society and the complete and total supervision of Japanese media. Until the end of the occupation, everything from literature to the motion picture industry would be scrutinized in great detail prior to being released to the public.

During this time, “feudalistic” traditions such as arranged marriages and miai (the practice of setting up meetings between prospective marriage partners) were frowned upon by the Americans (who wanted to push the idea of young people deciding on their own who they will marry—i.e., marrying for love as opposed to tradition), though there were some instances where films tackling these subjects could still receive a general release. The romantic comedy Here’s to the Young Lady (1949) begins with a successful automotive entrepreneur (played by Shuji Sano) being reluctantly talked into attending a miai. He’s 34 years old and needs to find a wife as soon as possible—or so says a business associate who hounds him into agreeing to meet the girl in question. Sano has no interest in marriage and shows up at the miai determined to make a disaster of it, insisting on an unromantic locale (a bar) and showing up in his work clothes. But when he sees the woman (Setsuko Hara) and is dumbstruck by her beauty, he rashly agrees to marry her and is surprised when she accepts his proposal.

However, as it turns out, there’s more to this arrangement than meets the eye. The woman’s family, a once-wealthy aristocratic group, has since fallen into poverty and is looking to wed off their daughter in hopes of gaining an in-law who can provide a secure future for everyone. (Sano was chosen because of his success as a businessman.) Furthermore, the girl had a fiancé who died some time ago and, as she admits, she used up all her love on him and finds it difficult to express affection for anyone now. After many trials and tribulations regarding class and lifestyle differences, Sano, despite his love for Hara, calls off the wedding (but gives the family a check to save themselves) and departs for a visit to his hometown—only to have Hara chase after him, as she’s fallen in love with him as well. It might’ve been this portrayal of an arranged marriage being initiated by people interested solely in capital gain and the ultimate depiction of two people deciding to be together out of love that convinced the censors to let it get through. That the girl’s imprisoned father encourages her to ignore the family’s plans and find someone who makes her happy might’ve also played in the film’s favor. (Also possible is this unflattering portrayal came about per the censors’ suggestions, since the record shows they initially objected to some of the film’s subject matter******.)

Here’s to the Young Lady marked the first and only time Hara worked with the versatile director Keisuke Kinoshita, and it is not one of her finest hours. While her unrivaled good looks certainly fit the physical demands of the part, Hara overplays (underplays?) the “ill-at-ease” aspect of her character to the point of not being very interesting. Instead, the strength of the film is evoked through the people surrounding her. Sano, in particular, is delightful, as is Keiji Sada as the brother with romantic woes of his own. The women who work at the bar where the miai takes place—which itself becomes a recurring setting throughout the film—are also quite likable. The movie ultimately fares as an enjoyable romantic comedy which just so happens to co-star Setsuko Hara—as opposed to an all-out great film exhibiting the actress at her peak.

 

#8. THE BLUE MOUNTAINS

Like a good many of the major Japanese film artists of her generation, Setsuko Hara had no childhood aspirations to work in the movies. Rather, her dream job in youth was to one day become a teacher; but, due to her family’s poor financial status at the time, she was never able to attain the education necessary for such a profession. It is strangely fitting, therefore, that fourteen years into her career, she would play a teacher in one of her most fascinating roles. Though one can only wonder: had her teaching career come to fruition, would she have become even half as progressive and challenging to the social norm as the educator she played in Tadashi Imai’s two-part drama The Blue Mountains (1949)?

Based on Yojiro Ishizaka’s novel of the same name, the film stars Hara as a free-minded English teacher at an all-girls school. She works in a small town in which the residents are still reluctant to adopt the democratic views of the postwar era; this is a place where if two teenagers of the opposite sex are seen walking side by side in public, they become objects of scorn and mockery among their peers. When such circumstances befall one of her own pupils, Hara decides to take a stand, denouncing what she perceives to be the closed-minded views of the past; and this attitude, in turn, filters out to make the entire town question its own ethics and beliefs.

The Blue Mountains was precisely the sort of film which would’ve appealed to the occupation censors: a liberal drama defiant of outmoded feudal values and loaded with unambiguous dialogue. Consider some of the lines used when Hara challenges the bullies in her classroom: “Walking with a boy or knowing boys is not some immoral act, and to think so is very old-fashioned. I would like you to stop thinking that way. Dating boys and being honest about your feelings is perfectly natural.” As the scene continues, she calls into question whether the tormentors went after their pupil for the honor of the school or if they used that antiquated notion as an excuse to bully. “To fetter individuals in the name of ‘the family’ or of ‘the nation’ [has] been the greatest wrong in Japan.”

In another crucial scene, Hara is walking home with the town doctor (Ichiro Ryuzaki, who bears a certain resemblance to Toshiro Mifune) when he essentially speaks for the town with his conservative and nigh-misogynistic views. “I know there is a new constitution and new laws, but […] all the girls leave school and get married. Then they get bullied by their female in-laws. And their husbands will often hit them. They put up with this life, and just when they think they’ve got enough money to have it a bit easier, their husbands start drinking and chasing other women.” To which Hara responds, “It’s as if you’re saying you want to keep this town like that.” In scenes following their conversation, the doctor becomes an ally to Hara and fights alongside her in the struggle for acceptance and change within their town.

Much like the wartime propaganda films of the early to mid-1940s, The Blue Mountains is a fascinating if not especially subtle time capsule reflecting political diatribes occurring within Japan at the time; but it’s vastly entertaining compared to many of those earlier films. The picture is full of lively characters, well-realized by the cast—which includes Michiyo Kogure and Setsuko Wakayama, who would later play the heroine of Godzilla Raids Again (1955)—and a vivacious performance by an adolescent Ryo Ikebe (far more impressionable here than in any of his science fiction endeavors). But most of all, there’s Setsuko Hara. Here, the actress is at the top of her form, taking what could’ve been a preachy, obnoxious character and rendering her into a truly fascinating individual. And in this we can see a fine example of her reign as “The Goddess of Democracy.”

 

#7. THE BALL AT THE ANJO HOUSE

In her first role after becoming an independent actress in 1947, Hara teamed up with the director Kozaburo Yoshimura for a story about an aristocratic family whose “days of glory” are coming to an end. With their wealth depleted by the postwar tax hikes and agrarian reforms, the Anjo family stages a final ball at the mansion that will soon no longer be theirs. For the father, Mr. Anjo (Osamu Takizawa), the ball is an opportunity to make some last-minute negotiations with a wartime associate in hopes it would allow him to keep his house and his way of life. His son Masahiko (a marvelous performance from the always dependable Masayuki Mori) seeks to humiliate his former fiancée (the daughter of that same man) upon discovering her father has no interest in Mr. Anjo now that his days of power are gone; mixed in with this is a subplot involving his affair with one of the family’s maids (Akemi Sora). The family’s oldest daughter (Yumeko Aizome) wishes the ball to serve as a final, lasting memory of her family’s noble past—but does not wish to see the presence of their former chauffeur, who’s continued to love her even after leaving servitude, and who is now a potential buyer for the mansion. A plethora of other stories intertwine within the narrative. And running through the entire film like a quiet stream of reason is the younger daughter, Atsuko (Hara).

The Ball at the Anjo House (1947) is one of the most immaculately written films Setsuko Hara ever starred in and features one of her most well-rounded characters. From the beginning, Atsuko battles calmly and intelligently against the raging winds of arrogance, pride, and misguidedness within her home. The film opens with her adamantly opposing the titular ball and suggesting everyone simply accept the inevitable—in other words: try to make the most of their new life—while also being smart enough to recognize it might be tough, given most of them have never worked a day in their lives. She refuses to cling to the ways of yesteryear (brilliantly conveyed when a guest knocks over a suit of samurai armor—a symbol of Japan’s feudal past—and she tells a servant to leave it where it is) while taking serious the future. She acts against the wishes of her kin by trying to arrange their former chauffeur to purchase the mansion (knowing the father’s old associate has no interest in helping). And as the ball progresses and the various subplots erupt to climax, Atsuko regularly appears, constantly trying to keep things under control.

The film’s final sequence is nothing short of perfect. After the ball has ended and the rooms have gone dark, Atsuko searches the home for her father and manages to stop him from taking his own life. After saving him, she pleads for him not to despair what’s been lost but to embrace the future. She turns on the gramophone and invites her father to one final dance. The picture ends with the father and daughter dancing as the morning sun comes up; and appropriately, the final shot is one of Hara venturing up close to the camera, her hauntingly perfect smile agleam, a glowing representative of Japan in a new age.

The screenplay for The Ball at the Anjo House was written by Kaneto Shindo, but director Yoshimura claimed the idea came from his own personal experiences. As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson recounted in their book The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, “The original idea was conceived when Yoshimura was invited to a dance party held at a peer’s mansion the night before it was sold, and many of the occurrences shown in the film actually happened that night. Yoshimura was so taken with what was happening that he stayed up until morning writing down ideas.” If the character of Atsuko was, indeed, based on a real person, one can only wonder how wondrous and inspiring her real-life counterpart must have been and if the girl was even half as charming and inspirational as Hara is in this picture.

 

#6. TEMPTATION

A year after The Ball at the Anjo House, Hara reunited with director Kozaburo Yoshimura for what this writer sincerely believes to be one of the most beautiful and touching movies ever made about a May-September romance. In my review for Takashi Minamoto’s Tokyo Tower (2005), I concluded with a recommendation: that readers skip over that picture and instead seek out Yoshimura’s Temptation (1948) for a superior story about love between people of different generations; and I stand by that suggestion to this day.

From the beginning of Temptation, when a middle-aged father of two (Shin Saburi) runs into Hara, here playing the daughter of a colleague who died in the war, the relationship between the two is immediately fascinating. At first, Saburi holds no particular affection for Hara; he has sympathy for her becoming orphaned and feels obligated to look after her. As the story progresses, they spend more time together, their relationship naturally evolving from platonically mutual respect to special friendship to pure bliss—which comes through in one of the most romantic dance scenes ever put on film.

In contrast to some of the pictures discussed thus far, Temptation is not overtly political. It contains some food for thought (a few observations regarding postwar Japanese society—such as poverty among the lower classes), but at its core, it’s a simple love story about two people who care for one another and who just happen to be separated by a few decades of age; it doesn’t sling mud at its subject or utilize it for a series of crass jokes; it just tells its story sweetly and sincerely; and it ranks with pictures such as Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959) as one of the most touching movies about such romances I’ve come across to date. The sooner a western disc/streaming label adds this lovely gem to its itinerary, the better.

 

#5. NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH

I’ve written extensively about Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) over the last couple of years—including in an in-depth article back in January—so I’ll keep my thoughts here relatively brief. Although Setsuko Hara admitted to having had no particular interest in starring in this film (and likely only took the part due to being under contract to Toho at the time), whatever apathy she felt toward the project goes completely undetected in her simply remarkable performance. The actress’s versatility and Kurosawa’s interest in personal growth and self-discovery combine to form one of the most transfixing female characters in postwar Japanese cinema: an initially care-free bourgeois girl who comes to recognize the vapidity of her own existence and begins a quest to uncover a way to lead her life with meaning during one of the most intense chapters in Japan’s sociopolitical history.

No Regrets for Our Youth is not one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, but it is—I sincerely believe—his first truly special motion picture, and Hara’s performance stands firm as one of its most hauntingly perfect qualities.

 

#4. SUDDEN RAIN

In one of the best scenes from Mikio Naruse’s Sudden Rain (1956), Setsuko Hara, playing a lower middle-class woman trapped in a passionless marriage, arrives on a Tokyo rooftop, where she has agreed to meet her husband. When she reaches the roof, another couple starts advancing in her direction. The wife, she notices, is clad in elegant attire: quite the opposite of her own drab clothing which reveals her poverty-stricken lifestyle. Humiliated, Hara bows her head, clutches the lapels of her coat, and deliberately tries to avoid eye contact with the better-off woman as they pass one another (even after the other woman temporarily meets her gaze and gives her a long, somewhat contemptuous stare afterward). Poverty and loveless marriages were among the most recurrent subjects in Naruse’s oeuvre, and that’s true also of this extremely powerful film.

Hara’s husband is played by Shuji Sano (of Here’s to the Young Lady) and this time both of them are at the top of their form as an impoverished couple who exhibit no love whatsoever for one another. The movie opens with them going through the almost comic monotony of their existence: he yawns, she yawns; he asks for his stomach medicine, she unenthusiastically supplies it for him; he complains about her cutting out recipes in the paper (leaving big gaping holes in the newsprint on the other side), she asks him to drop a letter at the post office only to find he abandoned it at the doorstep. When her niece (Kyoko Kagawa) comes by to visit and complain about the (very funny) nature of her not-so-happy marriage, the advice Hara and Sano offer results in them turning on one another, offering harsh critiques of their individual shortcomings. And then there’s the ending of the movie, in which the couple—having openly contemplated separation—engage in a juvenile game of toss, yelling and cursing as they swat a paper balloon back and forth (to the utter bewilderment of the children who accidentally knocked the toy into their yard).

The neighborhood in which the couple resides is loaded with gossip and distrust; just about everyone spends their day griping about everyone else. Hara herself is hardly an angel and is rather prone to being critical of other people: about her husband, about her neighbors, about the proprietors in the town who only treat their highest-paying customers with any kind of special politeness. This recurring theme comes to a “climax” in the form of a town meeting, in which everyone congregates at the local school building, the adults squatting on the undersized chairs before engaging in another all-out complaint brawl.

As all of the above description above would indicate, Sudden Rain is something of a comedy of manners, but more than anything it is an extremely bleak, pessimistic, and at times downright depressing film from the director who knew how to evoke such emotions like few others. The scenes depicting Hara’s loneliness and struggles with poverty are among the most gripping in the film. When her husband fails to return home one night—after she gives up waiting for him at the train station—she winds up sharing her dinner with a local stray dog. And whenever she ventures into the local marketplace, the entire world seems content in reminding her of her own poverty. The street vendors push her to buy expensive appliances she cannot afford, and while watching a salesman in action, she becomes the victim of a pickpocket.

 

#3. SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN

Continuing on a thematic note from the last entry: Setsuko Hara’s five-movie association with Mikio Naruse showcases the actress tackling a broad variety of roles and, even when working with scenarios that appear to be similar on a surface level, being able to evoke completely different characterizations each time out. As far as her work with Naruse is concerned: in the lost propaganda film Until Victory Day (1945), Hara was merely an entertainment act, someone who—literally—came popping out of an exploding “Entertainment Bomb” along with a plethora of other Japanese celebrities to amuse troops on a South Seas island. (For more information regarding this perplexingly bizarre project, see my article on The Lost Films of Mikio Naruse.) In the director and actress’s final collaboration, the 1960 color melodrama Daughters, Wives, and a Mother, Hara played a recently widowed woman juggling between love with a younger man and a more “compatible” marriage.

And in between these two end points, Hara starred in a “miserable housewife” trilogy, if you will, for Naruse, in which she three times played an unhappily married woman whose drama often stemmed from a strained relationship with her husband (Sudden Rain was the third and final “chapter” in this series). However, despite some basic similarities between the three films, Hara didn’t replicate the same performance each time; no two roles or performances mirror one another in minute detail; each woman had her own assortment of personalities, agendas, and—most importantly—interactions with those surrounding her. For example, the protagonists of Sudden Rain and Naruse’s earlier Sound of the Mountain (1954) are diametric opposites of one another in many respects. To begin with the simplest of distinctions, the former resides in an impoverished, two-person household whereas the latter has married into a well-off upper middle class family; both are burdened by the duties expected of a Japanese housewife (in Sound of the Mountain, it’s because the family’s recently lost their maid), but that’s about it as far as similarities go.

Now, consider the characterizations. In Sudden Rain, Hara played a blunt and at times censorious woman; the character she plays in Sound of the Mountain, by contrast, is meek, shy, and extremely vulnerable: too passive to make a stand or speak out against anything, even her own unhappiness. Both women have to deal with an apathetic husband, but they respond in entirely different ways. Rather than complain about her situation or argue her way into a possible separation, the non-confrontational housewife in Sound of the Mountain suffers silently as her husband repeatedly comes home drunk and later impregnates both her and a mistress—until finally she decides to abort her unborn child and untie her marital bonds. Because she’s not as outspoken as her counterpart in Sudden Rain, Hara evokes an entirely different breed of acting, relying not so much on dialogue and shifting emphasis instead to physical nuances—facial expressions and movement—to demonstrate what her character is feeling, even when she’s trying to “mask” her emotions (as Naruse cleverly indicates in a scene where a character observes a Noh mask and realizes the face of the mask can appear ecstatically happy when viewed from one angle and depressingly sad when viewed from another).

The most fascinating relationship in the film exists between the housewife and her caring father-in-law (So Yamamura). As Catherine Russell notes in her book The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, the further Hara’s husband pushes her away, the closer Hara and Yamamura become. And at the end of the movie, the father-in-law exhibits a very progressive attitude in encouraging her to free herself completely and find what little happiness she can still achieve. They have grown close and are sad not to see each other anymore but realize this is the only way she can go on. Naruse considered Sound of the Mountain one of his favorites from his oeuvre and had personally pitched the idea of adapting Yasunari Kawabata’s source novel to Toho, and the end results are simply mesmerizing.

 

#2. THE IDIOT

In 1951, Akira Kurosawa assembled what is unquestionably the single most impressive cast in his entire filmography. In adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot for the big screen, he recruited the talents of several people he’d worked with before (Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Yoshiko Kuga, Bokuzen Hidari, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Noriko Sengoku, etc.) as well as adding some impressive faces new to his cinematic canon (Chieko Higashiyama, for one). The entire cast is excellent and brings a tremendous amount of energy to this unusual and intoxicatingly watchable film (as this intro might suggest, this is a picture I hold with considerably higher regard than most Kurosawa aficionados), but it is Mori, in the eponymous role of a prisoner of war mentally scarred by his experiences, and Hara as a sinister yet sympathetic “kept woman” who really stand out.

Despite her sinister appearance (perpetually dressed in dark clothing with her hair slicked back—an appearance reputedly modeled after María Casares in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus), Hara doesn’t play her character as a cold-blooded villainess, instead depicting a lonely person who has spent her life believing the world to be an unfriendly place completely against her and whose cynicism and at times unpleasant demeanor is a byproduct of said conditions. But at the same time, she is presented as still in touch with her own humanity and carrying a willingness to respond to someone capable of—or at least willing to try—understanding her and accepting of the truth that she did not ask for the miserable existence she’s stuck with. This becomes especially prevalent in the film’s marvelous “birthday” sequence: a twenty-seven-minute masterwork of cinematic storytelling in which the mentally damaged Mori converses with Hara and accomplishes what no “sane” person has managed.

She invites him to her birthday party, having previously been touched by his innocence, and stands defiant of those scorning him. Over the course of the evening, Mori tells Hara about his experiences during the war and compares her to a fellow POW whose execution he witnessed; she reminds him of that twenty-year-old boy who seemed all alone and whose eyes, like hers, seemed to beg the question: “Why have I suffered like this?” In doing so, he sees straight into her heart and professes his belief that she is a good person who has simply endured a horrible life. “You see,” she tells him, “I’ve been waiting for somebody like you. Ever since I began this awful life as a kept woman, I’ve been waiting. I hoped and prayed, imagining someone like you. Hoping that a good, honest, kind man would appear [and say] ‘Taeko, it’s not your fault. I still respect you.’ How I longed to hear those words!” So moved is she that she ultimately decides not to let him take care of her. Even after all that has transpired, she still views herself as a damaged woman and doesn’t want to taint the life of someone so pure. Instead, she leaves with a man who has offered to pay a million yen for her “hand,” but not after taking the money and throwing it in a fireplace, burning it before the man who was to receive it.

As with the movie itself, Hara’s performance in The Idiot is simultaneously unusual and electrifying: the actress consciously goes for an over-the-top acting style with exaggerated expressions and sweeping gestures while still maintaining control of her character. Although she had been cast against type before—such as in Hideo Oba’s crime picture The Woman in the Midst of the Typhoon (1948)—under Kurosawa’s direction, she completely sells the role, giving a much better portrayal of a promiscuous woman with shades of sympathy than she had in the dreary aforementioned Oba thriller.

 

#1. REPAST

Released in the same year as The Idiot was Hara’s second movie with Mikio Naruse and the first entry in the earlier mentioned “miserable housewife” trilogy. Based on an unfinished novel by Naruse’s favorite author, Fumiko Hayashi, Repast is one of the two or three finest Naruse films I’ve come across yet and is unquestionably the greatest film of Hara’s I’ve seen outside of the best of her collaborations with Ozu: a compelling character study revolving around a lower middle class woman so disheartened by the passionless repetition of her day-to-day existence that she ultimately tries to escape from it.

Once again, on a surface level, all three films in this “trilogy”—Repast, Sound of the Mountain, and Sudden Rain—sound quite similar, but examined in greater context, we see three entirely different stories and three entirely different women. Whereas Sound of the Mountain presented the struggles of Hara’s character mainly through the observations of her kindly father-in-law (the actual protagonist of that film), the story of Repast is told predominately from the perspective of the housewife herself, sometimes in the first person. In the film’s beginning, she describes to us through voiceover her unhappiness as we witness the monotony of her daily life: relentlessly cleaning her cramped Osaka suburb home and tending to her husband (who mostly just lets her know when he wants something to eat). Every day is nonstop work for her, her life confined almost exclusively to the kitchen and family room 365 days a year. “I had hopes and dreams before,” Hara asks through narration. “Where have they gone?” (In one revealing moment, she takes advantage of an opportunity to get out of the house and meet with some old friends. One of them asks what she talks about with her husband all day, to which she replies, “I have a cat.”)

The idiosyncratic details of the marriage in this film further distinguishes Repast from the other two Naruse pictures discussed thus far. For example, the husband in Repast is nothing at all like his counterpart in Sound of the Mountain. Both men are played by the same actor (Ken Uehara), but the characterizations are starkly different. Uehara in Sound of the Mountain was completely negligible, caring not at all about his wife’s feelings as he stumbled home drunk every night and regularly betrayed her trust in the arms of another woman. By contrast, the husband in Repast is, at his core, a decent and kindhearted person.  His central flaw is naïvete toward his wife’s feelings and his taking for granted the “duties” expected of a Japanese housewife. But he works hard and by the end of the movie becomes conscious of and more sympathetic to her unhappiness. And he no doubt becomes more appreciative of her hard work—which he initially took for granted—after she leaves home and he proves incapable of handling most of the household chores.

In the third act, the estranged couple bump into one another in Tokyo. Uehara informs his spouse he’s been offered a better-paying job but won’t accept it without discussing it with her first—an acknowledgement of respect, that he cares what she thinks, an implication of willingness to treat her better going forward. (Meantime, Hara herself has gone through a journey of her own, being awakened to her own shortcomings—her brother calls her out for taking advantage of their mother’s hospitability—and witnessing first-hand the difficulties of surviving on one’s own in postwar Japan.) Before they leave for home, Uehara rubs his stomach and remarks “I’m hungry,” before suddenly looking up at his wife and apologizing, and they share a laugh.

In this we can see another quality distinguishing Repast from, say, Sudden Rain, whose protagonists simply tolerated one another and nothing more. Despite the bumps in their matrimony, the protagonists of Repast still love one another (the key word being still: in Hara’s opening monologue, she confesses she married her husband against the wishes her family, out of personal desire). They just need to work out their differences—i.e., the husband needs to be more aware of his wife’s plights. Hara agrees to go home with him not only because she’s run out of options, but also because she hopes they can still find happiness together, if they work at it.

The emotional climax of Repast is one of the most uplifting and beautifully filmed sequences in the annals of cinema. On the train ride home, Hara sits by the window as her husband lounges sleepily in the chair next to her. She reaches into her purse and withdraws a letter—presumably one asking for divorce—before glancing over at her husband and then tearing the letter to pieces, smiling as she does. Hara’s wordless performance here is nothing short of immaculate; she acts with everything from her eyes to her hands—every gesture, every glance timed exactly right—complemented by Naruse’s simple yet mesmerizing camerawork and Fumio Hayasaka’s hauntingly romantic score. As the picture comes to a close, Hara’s monologue returns, this time voicing optimism. “My husband sits beside me. I see the profile of an ordinary man, with his eyes closed. He is floating in the current of life, exhausted from swimming. Still, he will continue swimming and struggle through the current. I stand beside him as we share our lives together in search of happiness. Perhaps that is what true happiness means for me. Happiness for women is perhaps to live life in just such a way.”

The ending of Repast is quite unexpected for Naruse, who almost always ended his pictures on a pessimistic “life goes on” note—and this upbeat denouement likely resulted from the fact that Fumiko Hayashi’s source novel had never been finished, thereby allowing someone at the studio to create the ending for her******. The film does champion a “life goes on” message but with much more optimism than is expected from this director. And yet this ending still ends up working. For Repast is not about a neglected woman who has no choice but to escape from her circumstances or die miserable (as in Sound of the Mountain) but rather about a woman who mutually agrees with her life partner to try and make a better future by working together, caring for one another, not simply accepting the status quo. And throughout the film, Setsuko Hara never strikes a false note, validating once again her status as one of the most important and gifted film actresses of the 20th century.

 


 

* Fanck’s original intention was to cast Kinuyo Tanaka in The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai. Tanaka was already an established star in her home country and her work had been seen, to an extent, in Germany, but this casting prospect was never realized due to contractual issues.

 

** Not long after making her final screen appearance—in Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 film version of Chushingura—Setsuko Hara withdrew from the motion picture industry, claiming she had never enjoyed being an actress and only took on her career to assist with her family’s financial difficulties, which were now resolved. Over the years, people have speculated there might’ve been other factors in her decision, but regardless, she never returned to the silver screen and spent the rest of her life in Kamakura, shunning publicity and living under her birth name, Masae Aida.

 

*** Young Eagle’s Song, the song used prominently this film, was a popular martial tune during the Pacific War, reportedly selling more than 230,000 records. It has since been used in movies looking back on Japan’s wartime involvement, including Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day (1967).

 

**** Setsuko Hara entered the film industry through the assistance of her brother-in-law, the director Hisatora Kumagai. Kumagai acted ostensibly as her manager while she was overseas promoting The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai and later cast Hara in his 1939 production Naval Brigade at Shanghai. In that picture, Hara played a Chinese woman who initially hates the Japanese soldiers occupying Shanghai but later comes to admire them for their “true” intentions in invading the Far East.

It has been suggested—though not proven—through some accounts that Hara’s personal politics might’ve been influenced by her brother-in-law, who was an outspoken nationalist and a purveyor of Jewish conspiracy in Japan during the war. Tadashi Imai, who also directed Hara in the 1943 film Suicide Troops of the Watchtower, recalled: “One night, Setsuko Hara visited me with a letter from her brother-in-law, Hisatora Kumagai. The letter went something as follows: ‘Just when Japan must pour all its energies into securing its strategic position among the southern countries, the Jews start an intrigue to divert our eyes to the north. Suicide Troops of the Watchtower is clearly part of this Jewish plot designed to throw us into confusion. The film must be halted immediately.’” On a side note, it is worth noting that anti-Semitism had been somewhat prevalent in Japan during the war years; one survey reported at least thirty-eight Japanese books were published about “the Jewish attack on Japan” in 1938 alone.

 

***** Wartime Japanese films which depicted parents saddened or concerned about their children going to war were often attacked by the government. Keisuke Kinoshita’s Army (1944), for example, pleased the nationalist authorities with its depiction of two parents shaping their son into a soldier but angered them with its final scene, in which the mother worriedly chased her son through the streets as he went off to war.

 

****** It is also possible the film was allowed to get by due to the occupation censors being more lenient with subjects such as arranged marriages. While they strictly enforced policies of banning nationalistic and militaristic material, they had a record of being less strict with movies tackling arranged marriage. For example, the script for Ozu’s Late Spring initially ran into trouble because of its subject of a young woman being married off to someone she’s never met and a line of dialogue reporting that the prospective husband comes from a well-off family (making him a good match on grounds unrelated to emotion). The censors instructed this line be written out but for reasons unknown allowed it to be reinstated in the final draft and kept in the finished film.

 

******* Screenwriters Toshiro Ide and Sumie Tanaka intended the film to end with the couple divorcing, but the front office at Toho vetoed the idea, resulting in Tanaka walking away from the project.

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