Richie on Setsuko Hara
Different People: Pictures of Some
She must be in her sixties, Japan's "eternal
virgin"--so billed, even now, in the continuing
references to her in magazines, newspapers; even
now, more than twenty years after her disappearance.
1963 disappearance was a scandal. She had been the
most beloved of film stars, her handsome face, accepting
smile, known to all. And then, suddenly, rudely,
without a word of apology, she was going to disappear--to
where the stars hang on, voluntary retirement is
unknown, particularly for one the caliber of Setsuko
Hara. She had become an ideal: men wanted to marry
someone like her; women wanted to be someone like
was because on the screen she reconciled her life
as real people cannot. Whatever her role in films--daughter,
wife, or mother--she played a woman who at the same
time, somehow, was herself. Her social roles did
not eclipse that individual self, our Setsuko.
Ozu's Late Spring she wanted to remain a daughter,
did not want to become a wife. Staying on with her
father was enough. But eventually she married and
through it all she showed her real self. In Late
Autumn, a 1960 version of the 1949 film, she played
the parent rather than the daughter. She was now
a mother, a widow, who realizes that it is best
that her daughter get married, though it means that
she herself will be lonely. And through it all she
showed her real self.
she did by transcending limitations imposed on her.
She won her freedom by realizing that it is only
within limitations that the concept of freedom is
relevant. She accepted.
the conclusion of Tokyo Story she is talking with
the younger daughter, who has been upset by her
elder sister's behavior at the funeral. She would
never want to be like that, she says: That would
be just too cruel.
daughter-in-law, Setsuko Hara, agrees, then says:
It is, but children get that way... gradually.
-- "Then... you too?" says the daughter.
-- "I may become like that. In spite of myself."
daughter is surprised, then disturbed as she realizes
"But then... isn't life disappointing?"
And Setsuko smiles a warm, accepting smile:
"Yes, it is."
welcomed life, accepted its terms. In the same way
she welcomed her role, absorbed it into herself,
left the precious social fabric intact. No matter
that her words were written and her actions directed
by Yasujiro Ozu. This screen persona became hers
and, in any event, Ozu would not have created his
character this way had it not been Setsuko Hara
for whom he was writing.
Thus, on the screen, she did not disturb harmony,
she created it. And in this harmony she found herself.
It was for this that she was so loved.
her being an "eternal virgin" (never marrying,
never having children in a country where wedlock
is almost mandatory) was never held against her.
She was not, after all, an old maid. No, she was
that positive thing, an eternal virgin.
then this sudden retirement. And the way she did
it. She simply announced it. This was no way for
an Ozu character to behave.
was the outcry. Her studio, for which she was the
major box-office attraction, tried every blandishment.
She stood firm against them all. The critics, who
had formerly adored her, were hurt, and insulted--there
was talk of her being onna rashikunai, un-womanlike.
Them she ignored.
then there was what she said, 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
was conveyed in the Setsuko Hara style, to be sure,
with some show of hesitation, sudden smiles shining
through the doubt, but this was one Hara performance,
the only one, that was not appreciated.
the first time since her 1935 debut she was severely
criticized, not so much for wanting to retire as
for the manner in which this desire was presented.
There was no polite fiction about the cares of age
- she was only forty-three - or about bad health
or about a burning desire to take up charitable
work, or a spiritual imperative that she enter a
nunnery. Nothing of the sort - only a statement
that sounded like the blunt truth.
was never forgiven. But press and public were allowed
no further opportunity to display their disappointment,
for she never again appeared.
had she gone? It was as though she had walked from
that final press conference straight into oblivion.
But of course there is no such thing as oblivion
in Japan. She was shortly discovered living by herself,
under her own name - not the stage one chosen by
studio officials - in a small house in Kamakura,
where many of her films had been set. And there
she remains, remote but still the most publicized
of recluses, with readers of the daily or weekly
press knowing what she buys when she shops, how
often her laundry is visible each week, and which
of her old school friends she sees.
a photo is attempted, but her past experience has
made her quick to sense intruders, and the picture
is always taken from so far away and the high speed
film is so grainy that it could be one of any elderly
woman airing the bedding or hanging out the wash.
the years since her retirement, public anger, pique,
and disappointment have all faded. Only a hard-core
curiosity has remained. This, and a new admiration.
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
did not allow them to define her; rather, she defined
herself. And she did this by setting up her own
limitations, not those of her fictitious roles.
Her real limitations are the self-determined ones
of the little Kamakura house, the daily round, the
visits with her women friends. Only within such
chosen limits is the concept of any real self at
so Setsuko Hara/Masae Aida continues as a legend
- to those of her own time and to the young women
who came later. And a legend exerts a compulsive
attraction for others, whether it wants to or not.
many times photos have been sought, many times have
parts on screen or tube been offered, and only too
often has the little house in Kamakura been approached.
The answer is always the same - the door of the
little house has been slammed in the intruders'
when a group of former friends and co-workers appeared.
A ..ary was being made about the life and films
of Yasujiro Ozu, Hara's mentor and the director
who perhaps best captured, or created, this persona.
Wouldn't she please appear in it? For the sake of
her dead sensei? No door was slammed this time.
It was politely closed. But the answer was still
(C) 1988 Kodansha International