Setsuko Hara, the luminous Japanese movie star of the 1940s and ’50s, has died. Best known today for the films she made with director Yasujirô Ozu, the prolific and popular Hara starred in more than 100 movies before unexpectedly retiring from acting and public life in the early ’60s. Refusing to grant interviews or make public appearances, she lived the rest of her life in de facto seclusion. Hara died of pneumonia on September 5, the news of her death only being made public today. She was 95.
Born Masae Aida in Yokohama, Hara entered the film world with the help of her brother-in-law, a contract director at the Nikkatsu studio. She made her screen debut at age 15, in 1935’s Don’t Hesistate, Young Folks. Her first big starring role came in the notorious German-Japanese co-production The Daughter Of The Samurai (1937), co-directed by Arnold Fanck, the mountaineering-obsessed geologist-turned-filmmaker who first made Leni Riefenstahl a star. The film—a melodrama about agriculture, swastika imagery, racial purity, and the cosmological importance of occupying Manchuria—remains one of the most bizarre propaganda efforts to come out of the Axis powers.
It was a movie nobody seemed all that eager to make: Fanck had severely fallen out of favor with the Nazis and needed a way back into the German industry, while Hara’s co-star, the Japanese-American silent film idol Sessue Hayakawa, had been desperate for work since the introduction of the Production Code had ended his career as a Hollywood romantic lead. (Hayakawa would soon after relocate to France to work with Max Ophüls, and ended up joining the French Resistance.) However, the movie made Hara into a household name, and led to a brief wartime career in propaganda films.
Audiences were drawn to Hara’s offbeat features and bright smile, but it was only after World War II, during the rebuilding of the Japanese film industry, that she started to truly come into her own as an actor, beginning with her role in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets For Our Youth (1946), the only one of the director’s films to feature a female protagonist. Her next role would be as one of the leads in Kōzaburō Yoshimura’s A Ball At The Anjô House (1947), a masterpiece little known in the West, about a once-wealthy family whose mansion is facing foreclosure amidst the hard times of the American occupation.
Hara’s role as the pragmatic Atsuko Anjô prefigured her collaboration with Ozu, which began with 1949’s Late Spring and lasted until his penultimate film, The End Of Summer (1961). Ozu had first attracted attention as an imitator of all things Hollywood (many of his early films were uncredited remakes of American movies), gradually developing a personal style over the course of Japan’s long silent era, which lasted well into the mid-’30s. He’d been conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army and fought in China, but spent most of World War II wasting the time and money of the Japanese film propaganda unit, working on movies he never intended to finish and repeatedly screening captured American films like Citizen Kane.
His iconic late period—which found him working in an eccentric, intentionally limited style with a stock company of actors and plots—began with Late Spring, and Hara would go on to appear in much of the director’s best-known work, including Tokyo Story, frequently playing daughter or daughter-in-law to Ozu regular Chishū Ryū. A sublime screen presence, Hara radiated grace and subtlety, her face quietly registering the complex interchange of emotions that run through Ozu’s minimalist dramas of aging and family life. Every one of her collaborations with the director is, in its own way, remarkable. During this period, Hara also worked with Ozu’s contemporary and equal, Mikio Naruse, known for his psychologically complex female leads.
Hara abruptly quit the film industry in 1963, around the same time Ozu died from cancer. Still in her early 40s and a popular star, she never gave a complete explanation for her retirement. In the decades that followed, there were rumors that she had been going blind, or that she had been emotionally devastated by Ozu’s death. Hara reportedly spent the rest of her life in Kamakura, the same small city where Ozu had lived in his last years and where he is buried, and never married. Her complete withdrawal from the public eye gave her an iconic mystique, and inspired Satoshi Kon’s animated film Millennium Actress.