Has there been another Japanese actress such as Setsuko Hara? Born in 1920, Hara appeared in six of Yausjiro Ozu’s films, including his masterpiece Tokyo Story. According to the historian Donald Richie, Hara is “now so coupled with her roles” in Ozu’s films that “she is seen as the archetypal Ozu female,” the rest of her brief career overshadowed by this 12-year burst of creative energy.
The first of these roles came in 1949 when she appeared in Late Spring as Noriko, the 27-year-old who everyone is afraid will become an old maid lest she find a husband quick. A victim of conscripted work during World War II, Noriko is attached to her father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), a widower. But her fealty isn’t the only reason Noriko fears marriage. She suffers from a case of arrested development, afraid to venture out into the adult world and away from the safety nest of the family home. Unfortunately, her aunt and best friend feel differently and conspire separately with the unwitting Shukichi to find her a man. If this theme sounds familiar it’s because it is one that Ozu returns to again in later films such as Early Summer and Late Autumn, each featuring Hara. In Late Spring, she masterfully embodies the conflicting emotions tearing at her character, her beaming smile betraying the conflict in her heart.
Keep in mind, Late Spring was made and released in the years just after World War II devastated Japan. Hara’s Noriko stands at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. She and her father still sit on the floor when eating, wear kimonos and jinbeis and sleep on futons. But take a look at her best friend. She lives in a thoroughly Western house, works as a stenographer and cooks strawberry shortcake. It is the dawning of feminism in Japan, an era where women are becoming independent but at the same time still cling to the need of a husband for definition.
The signs of Westernization are everywhere in Late Spring, not only in Noriko’s friend’s apartment. When Noriko takes a bike trip to the beach, Ozu trains his lens on a Coca-Cola sign. Even more deceptive is a bridge she crosses where signs boast limits in both miles-per-hour and tonnage. Noriko’s young cousin oils a baseball glove and waits for the paint on his bat to dry before he can go out and play with his friends. Under Late Spring’s deceptively placid surface, Ozu is bemoaning the impending loss of a traditional lifestyle. Why else would he put an extended Noh sequence in the middle of his film?
But it’s not that simple. Ozu may mourn the loss of traditional mores, but he’s willing to progress with the times. He doesn’t ever show us Noriko’s husband-to-be, only alerts us that he looks something like Gary Cooper. We see Noriko dressed up asa bride, but we never glimpse the wedding. We are left to draw our own conclusions, decide whether or not Noriko (and, by proxy, Japan as a nation) is making the right choice to leave the bosom of the family and venture out into the world.
But back to Setsuko Hara: after a handful of films, she abruptly retired from acting in 1963, the same year that Ozu died, and retreated into isolation to Kamakura, a small temple city near Tokyo. She never appeared again in a film and refused any sort of interview or photo opportunity that has come along since. Hara has been dubbed the “Eternal Virgin” in Japan, her image always associated with the notion of purity. Entreaties to appear in documentaries, even ones about Ozu, have been rebuffed. In 2001, an animated film by Satoshi Kon called Millennium Actress was based on her life. Just like Noriko in Late Spring, Hara vanished when Japanese film tipped towards the modern. As writes the novelist Endo Shusaku after seeing the actress in a film, “We would sigh or let out a great breath from the depths of our hearts, for what we felt was precisely this: Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”