Longing for Setsuko Hara

2 October 2011

I just wrote yesterday about her appearance in Late Autumn, but let’s take another slow look at how beloved she was in Japan during the 1950s and 60s. Called “The Eternal Virgin” because of her embodiment in many films of an idealized Japanese woman, she has remained celebrated for that sweetness. Could she have been any more lovely?

Hara’s contemporary, the novelist Shūsaku Endō wrote of her, “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?”

She ceased making movies in the early 60s, when she was 43, and has lived quietly in Kamakura, Japan ever since (she is now 91). Does this refusal to conduct interviews and allow photographs only enhance the romance of her mid-century perfection, that last glimpse of the perpetually kind and gentle beauty?

Just look at the glamour photographs that fans still post of her, the magazine covers and calendar photographs that show her alternately tucking her chin in to emphasize modesty, or holding it up to emphasize strength, even nobility. In between, she seemed eager to please and perfectly graceful.

Nature graced Hara with a face that could convey many emotions, but all within a range that made her appear admirable. Never prideful, stubborn, or slatternly, she was always quick to smile. When she expresses sorrow, one wants to weep that such a woman would be made to feel such distress.

In some ways she puts me in mind of Irene Dunne during her I Remember Mama parts, but I’m not sure that even Dunne ever mastered the female perfection of Hara.

Those eyes that twinkle with kindness and merriment, never wickedness. That long face that conveyed womanliness and elegance without drawing down into a depressive Joan Crawford posture.

Sure, not many of us want to be the kind of woman she portrayed onscreen. In fact, if you think about it, those characters are hopelessly stuck in a past that only the most retrograde conservatives want to revive. The feminists among us (and I’m at the front of that line) reject the self-sacrificing goodness she embodied. Even during the 1950s women throughout the world were beginning to believe that self-sacrificing women let go of their own desires at a cost that wasn’t worth it.

Yet if her face can still achieve that effect on a viewer in 2011, one far from the 1950s Japanese society in which it first cast its spell, then it’s not hard to predict that it’ll have that effect on viewers far into the future.

Setsuko Hara is timeless — if, perhaps, a woman best realized onscreen and in that fantasy world of poster images and magazine covers. Ahhhhh.

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I find it fascinating and bizarre that one of the most frequently-viewed posts I’ve ever written is from over a year ago on the portrayal of rape in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and  Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Don’t get me wrong: I’d still like someone to answer for me the question of why showing a rape onscreen seemed so groundbreaking, so useful as a metaphor for deep cultural shifts at that moment, such that those two 1960 films swept up awards and prizes — I’m just confused why so many readers keep going back to a comparatively gloomy question. Now that I’ve seen Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Autumn (Akibiyori), I can see a bit more how significant those shifts were in 1960 — this time without the gratuitousness of a rape scene. Despite making women the central point of conversation throughout, Late Autumn refuses to feature them as complex characters — and instead looks at them through the eyes of three middle-aged men.

They’re sometimes mistaken for sisters, but Akiko (Yôko Tsukasa, right above) is actually the daughter of the widowed, mid-40s Ayako (Setsuko Hara, left). Both are beautiful, but to the three male friends of Ayako’s long-dead husband, the womanly Ayako is preferable. They all remember flirting with her when she was a beautiful shopgirl way back when, before she married their friend. They marvel at one another that she becomes more beautiful as time passes — and they mutter the old saying that “men with beautiful wives die young” with their teeth gritted, as they don’t see their own wives as nearly so lovely.

Ozu casts a wry perspective on these comical meddlers, but he also uses them to measure the disconnect between generations. For these men, Akiko’s loveliness and her age — she’s 24 — make her an obvious target for their matchmaking energies. They still believe that marriages are made by outsiders, adults who can ascertain which young men have good jobs and families, and which young women are appropriately demure and intelligent and attractive. So when Akiko announces she doesn’t want to get married and refuses to meet with the young man they propose, she spurs a ricocheting set of responses. Ozu doesn’t delve into Akiko’s own motivations — does she want to stay with her mother out of a sense of obligation? or is the younger generation simply uninterested in having its marriages arranged? — but stays focused on the reactions of the older generation, for even Akiko’s mother is perplexed by this decision.

It doesn’t take much to see why Ayako is so bewitching for those men. As played by Hara (an actor so beloved in Japan for her portrayals of dutiful daughters and admirable women that she’s called The Eternal Virgin), she embodies elegance, beauty, and acquiescence to men. She never offers a contrary opinion or a disruptive comment, but smiles as she’s doing in the image above — with consummate sweetness and willingness to bury every one of her own desires behind her eagerness to please others. The director never criticizes her, never implies that her obedience to the rules of male dominance and female submissiveness might be exaggerated or a strain on her, but one cannot help noticing the difference between mother and daughter. Whereas Ayako acquiesces, Akiko goes her own way. She refuses to meet the man proposed by the adults as a marriage prospect — but then when her own friends tell her how much they like him, she agrees to go on a date with him.

For a brief moment, then, you think perhaps the bullheaded matchmakers’ desires will actually match up with Akiko’s and make everyone happy — except it’s not good enough for the three men. They decide bullheadedly to force Akiko into marriage by getting her mother to remarry. They agree that the lucky husband shall be the one widower amongst them. Like good bumblers, they fail to inform Ayako herself of this news until a comical series of misunderstandings has complicated the plot.

Let’s not overlook Ozu’s gift with setting and gesture. There’s a heaviness to the older generation’s movements — the men are constantly eating and drinking, while Ayako dresses in the kimonos of the past. All of them get filmed in interiors that emphasize the heaviness of frames and muted, autumnal colors, and sterile offices. Ayako is almost always filmed kneeling on the tatami, with Ozu’s camera quintessentially at mat level. Yet throughout the film we get glimpses of the youth’s alternate world — the young women’s glamorous modern dresses, their retreats to rooftops, their hiking in natural areas. The young haven’t yet broken from their elders’ grip, but they’re getting closer.

It’s really only the young we see face the camera directly in a challenging gaze: as below, as Akiko tries to battle it out with one of her matchmakers over her life; and later in the film, when her best friend tells Ayako exactly what to do to help her daughter’s situation:

Ozu plays all of this for its comic elements; Late Autumn is ultimately a subtle comedy of manners — but he maintains a terrific gravity throughout the film, in part because he never clarifies the women’s true feelings. In other words, he knows just as much as Bergman and De Sica that 1960s marked a generational shift and that sex and gender matters were at the heart of those changes, but he traces that shift in the most complicated way by avoiding the extremes of filmmaking: showing rapes onscreen.

A review for the Guardian put it most nicely of all: “When the women drop their smiles at the movie’s climax, that simple facial change is as startling as a gunshot.” We’re left with a melancholic sense of regret and inevitability. It’s a beautiful, exquisite film. Once again, can someone (a grad student perhaps?) write a thoroughgoing account with the title, 1960: The Year Our Films Broke — to explain the explosion of film alongside cultural change?