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.