Hara Setsuko Forever

When Hara Setsuko (1920-2015) passed, the world mourned. Renowned for her collaborations with Ozu Yasujiro – most notably Tokyo Story (1953) – Hara started her career in Nikkatsu studios in 1935. She quickly garnered appreciation for her roles as tragic heroines, before becoming the legend of the golden era of post-war Japanese cinema in films with Yoshimura Kozaburo, Kurosawa Akira, Kinoshita Keisuke, Ozu Yasujiro, and Naruse Mikio.

Hara was that divine beauty who, much like Greta Garbo (to whom she is often compared), chose to become a recluse at the peak of her career, leaving cherished memories for audiences. Following the release of her last film Chushingura in 1962, and not long before Ozu’s passing, Hara completely disengaged herself from the film industry and resigned to living in seclusion in Kamakura, where Ozu’s graveyard would be located.

Her onscreen presence is almost inseparable from her character: gentle, reserved and composed, bearing an aura of mesmerising grandeur. Each director recognised different qualities in her, but there was one thing in common: her kindness and compassion that represented the very beauty of humanity. Through her and with her, Ozu created his ideal form of female; and he would continue to refine that form in their films together.

Hara’s career and most of her defining roles, often as ladies of class, can be best summed up as quiet resistances against the expectations of a greater world. As the ojosan of wealthy or Kazoku families, she resisted being the obedient daughter; as a wife, she resisted being submissive to an uncommitted husband; as a widow she resisted the expectation to remarry…the list goes on. But the character she played never complained or revolted openly, it is the quiet that is powerful: be it a gesture; an eyeline; a silent act of running away; or an inexplicable, almost stubborn dedication to the deceased. Hara’s quality is that subdued elegance that is impossible to shake; it fends off advances, instead inspiring appreciation from afar. Her disposition makes others feel too inadequate to impose, and thus content in the ecstasy of unconsummated affection.

What drove her dedication both on and off screen is an impenetrable mystery. Hara remains a beauty that is so close to us yet so far away, always approachable yet eternally unattainable, and of course, unforgettable.