Donald Richie on Setsuko Hara
Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese

"Setsuko Hara"

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.

That 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 retire.

Here, 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 her.

This 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.

In 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.

This 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.

At 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.

The 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."

The daughter is surprised, then disturbed as she realizes the implications:

-- "But then... isn't life disappointing?"
And Setsuko smiles a warm, accepting smile:

-- "Yes, it is."

She 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.

Even 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.

And then this sudden retirement. And the way she did it. She simply announced it. This was no way for an Ozu character to behave.

Great 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.

And 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 for.

This 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.

For 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.

She was never forgiven. But press and public were allowed no further opportunity to display their disappointment, for she never again appeared.

Where 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.

Occasionally 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.

Over 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.

It 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 they are.

She 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 all relevant.

And 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.

Thus, 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' faces.

Even 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 no.

Donald Ritchie
(C) 1988 Kodansha International