Setsuko Hara dies at 95; ‘Tokyo Story’ star worked with Ozu, Kurosawa

Setsuko Hara, a Japanese actress who achieved international stardom and critical acclaim after World War II through her collaborations with directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, only to vanish, Garbo-like, from public life more than half a century ago, died Sept. 5 in Kanagawa Prefecture. She was 95.

She had pneumonia, according to Japanese media. The months-long delay in reporting her death reflected the anonymity that the actress had obsessively cultivated after starring in more than 75 movies, including such esteemed works as Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953). Film critic Roger Ebert called that bittersweet drama of generational conflict “one of the greatest films of all time.”

Hara was widely admired for her ability to convey the interior life of seemingly ordinary characters who exemplified archetypes of Japanese womanhood. Many of them struggled with tensions between the desire for an independent life and traditional societal boundaries and family demands.


She undertook so many demure or long-suffering roles that she was dubbed “the eternal virgin.”

Blending allure and minimalist restraint, she possessed an unshowy intelligence that Ozu said set her apart from many performers of her generation.

“Every Japanese actor can play the role of a soldier and every Japanese actress can play the role of a prostitute to some extent,” he once said. “However, it is rare to find an actress who can play the role of a daughter from a good family.”

After making her cinematic debut at 15, Hara became a household name two years later with “The New Earth” (1937), a bizarre melange of melodrama and propaganda made by a team of German and Japanese filmmakers. In one memorable scene, the ingenue played by Hara tries to fling herself in a volcano after her fiance becomes besotted by a German woman.

She continued her rise in nationalistic wartime fare such as “The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya” (1942), a big-budget spectacle that re-created battles such as the Pearl Harbor attack, and “Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky” (1943).

After the war, she made an indelible impression in Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth” (1946), a character study tracing the decade-long evolution of a bourgeois 1930s schoolgirl into a strong-willed woman who goes to extremes to live on her own terms.

Donald Richie, the American-born critic who became an expert on Japanese movie culture, hailed her performance as “marvelously detailed and delicate.”

She went on to make dozens of other films, including “A Ball at the Anjo House” (1947), which depicted the fall of an upper-crust family during the post-war American occupation and which won plaudits from Japanese critics as the year’s finest movie. To less-generous reviews, Hara appeared in Kurosawa’s “The Idiot” (1951), based on the Dostoyevsky novel.

The dominant force in her life was Ozu, a director of subtle, contemplative power who used Hara as his muse in a vaunted trilogy: “Late Spring” (1949), “Early Summer” (1951) and “Tokyo Story.”

In the first film, Hara was a marriage-shy daughter whose devotion to the well-being of her widowed father (Chishu Ryu) is a cause for worry in her family. Her father orchestrates a ruse -- a feigned romantic interest in a widow -- so that his daughter could move on with her life.

“Early Summer” again shows Hara as a woman who defies societal and familial pressure to marry, rejecting a series of suitors and impulsively making a choice of her own. “Tokyo Story,” the masterpiece of the trio, cast Hara as a widowed daughter-in-law whose embrace of her late husband’s aging parents far exceeds that of their own selfish and busy children.

The film, with sweeping questions of family, time, misfortune and regret, is almost wholly lacking in contrived sentiment. Instead, Ozu’s film is rich in moments that blend pathos with comic sweetness to unspool the major themes.

Hara’s aura of saintly sacrifice in “Tokyo Story” was also tempered by an enigmatic smile.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” she is asked.

“Yes, it is,” she replies with a wry grin. The contrast between the words and the expression evokes a truth uttered earlier by another character, “One mustn’t expect too much.”

Masae Aida was born in Yokohama on June 17, 1920. She entered filmmaking through her brother-in-law, a director at the venerable Nikkatsu studio.

In the 1950s, Hara made a series of first-rate domestic dramas for director Mikio Naruse, among them “Repast,” in which she portrayed a discontented wife threatened by the arrival of her flirty niece, and “Sound of the Mountain,” about the dissolution of a loveless marriage.

She continued to make films with Ozu, including “Late Autumn” (1960), which, in a twist on her role in “Late Spring,” cast her as the widow trying to marry off her live-in daughter.

Around the time of Ozu’s death in 1963, Hara announced her retirement. It was an abrupt and shocking move for an actress still in her career prime, and she offered little explanation beyond saying she had never much enjoyed making films.

From her home in the coastal town of Kamakura, she refused all interviews and entreaties to appear at industry gatherings. She never married or had children. She leaves only a lasting mystique among aficionados.

Adam Bernstein writes for the Washington Post.