Setsuko Hara and the changing face of Japanese womanhood


Special To The Japan Times

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” remains on my list of least favorite movies. I’m in good company — every woman I know dislikes it, and the passing of the film’s star, Setsuko Hara (at 95 years old), in September was observed by the media with understated obituaries. But then Hara — known as Japan’s “eternal virgin” because she never married — shunned the spotlight during the latter half of her career and disappeared altogether at the age of 43, when she deemed herself too old for the screen.

Hara played daughters, wives and widows (in that order) and generally epitomized the ideal of Japanese womanhood, which involves mainly toiling in the house, caring for the family and having no fun whatsoever. This especially came to the fore in “Tokyo Story” when Hara played the hard-working, uncomplaining young war widow Noriko.

Outside Japan, “Tokyo Story” has been lauded, mainly by generations of Western male critics. But inside the confines of the archipelago, Japanese women were united in a collective “give me a break.” Thankfully, the women of this country have moved on and so have Japanese movies — though they still lag several meters behind.

“Hana-chan no Misoshiru” (“Hana’s Miso Soup”) will open nationwide on Jan. 9 and though at first glance it has some of the trappings of a classic story of Japanese womanhood — sweet, smiling mom, adorable daughter and somewhat clueless dad — it has a lot of pointers that demonstrate how far Japanese women have come on their journey. Based on a collection of essays of the same name by Chie Yasutake and her husband, Shingo, “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” is about how one woman married, worked, gave birth and stayed strong and positive even as she battled breast cancer.

Chie died in 2008 at the age of 33. In the book, she states plaintively that she was aware of the risks she was taking and the consequences of her choices (childbirth ups the risk of new tumors) but went ahead and did what she wanted anyway. Chie says she refused to be a victim of fate and, before her death, wanted to make sure that her 4-year-old daughter Hana would turn out strong, healthy and happy. To this end Chie trained Hana in the kitchen and, within a year, the little girl knew how to cook three things perfectly from scratch: brown rice, nattō (fermented soybeans) and miso soup.

The book became a best-seller, not just because of the rapid rise in the past decade of breast cancer patients, but because it was about a woman who stuck to her convictions and taught her daughter to do the same.

From the mid-1990s, Japanese women have felt under pressure because they have received little societal support should they return to work after having a child. Many responded to this by marrying late (35 is the new 24) or not marrying at all. The movie industry has subsequently been rocked by the box-office successes of the likes of “Kamome Shokudo” (2006), “Hito no Sekkusu wo Warauna” (2007), “Nonchan Noriben” (2009) and others, all of which featured women who sought personal fulfillment on their own terms, with or without male approval (mostly without). There was a crackling undercurrent of defiance in these films — and a kind of resignation. Some six decades after “Tokyo Story,” Japanese women were finally about to liberate themselves from the shackles of domesticity, but at the same time they realized that Japanese men would never understand or offer support. Sadly, very often women scored zilch with their own mothers as well, as there was much misunderstanding and resentment between the generation that spent their best years serving their husbands’ families as in “Tokyo Story,” and the generation who wanted no part of that legacy.

“Hana-chan no Misoshiru” (both the book and the film) offers a different perspective: a reconciliation of the Japanese mom, dad and daughter together in the tiny Japanese kitchen. The real-life Chie (portrayed by Ryoko Hirosue) worked as a music teacher while performing in a band — she was a fun, free-thinking individual who also believed that to live was to eat. After being diagnosed with cancer, she switched from a standard meat-and-dairy inclusive diet to traditional washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), focusing mostly on brown rice and miso soup, which are deemed to have cancer-fighting properties. The latter she made with quality, organic ingredients, and she even crafted her own miso paste.

Making miso soup from scratch is a skill many Japanese women have abandoned, though everyone is well aware of the soup’s health and beauty benefits. The instant stuff is everywhere, along with MSG-charged versions, which eliminates the hassle of making dashi stock. But the nutritional value is miles away from the real thing, and in the movie Chie tells Hana (Emina Akamatsu) that eating real miso soup is the first step to having a good life.

The main message of “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” is that the Japanese woman now has a choice not to marry, have children or labor in the kitchen. True, they were once the triple ball and chain that bound her to the household, but no longer. Look at Chie, a true heroine who did all three and came out on top.

  • Firas Kraïem

    “she switched from a standard meat-and-dairy inclusive diet to traditional washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), focusing mostly on brown rice and miso soup, which are deemed to have cancer-fighting properties.”

    Well, that didn’t really work so well now, did it? And those of us not eating “real” miso soup and thus presumably not “having a good life” could also go into a collective “give me a break”.

    • stevethewelder

      Are you so insecure that a dying woman’s attempt to find something meaningful and lasting to pass on to her daughter somehow threatens you enough to insult her this many years after her death? You’re a poor excuse for a human being.

    • KietaZou

      This comment makes you sound far more awful than this petty article, FK. Was that your intention?

  • Todd Strickland

    What lack of class! Hara Setsuko passes away and then Kaori Shoji damns her? No class at all! I’ve been reading Shoji’s reviews for many years now, and I can’t recall her ever mentioning Setsuko Hara before. But now it’s ok, I guess, because Setsuko Hara is gone. No class!

    And talk about missing the point on Hara’s roles and career! Shoji says, “The main message of “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” is that the Japanese woman
    now has a choice not to marry, have children or labor in the kitchen.” Well, guess what; that’s exactly how Setsuko Hara lived her life! On her terms, not on anyone else’s. Shoji’s claim that Hara quit when “she deemed herself too old for the screen” shows how little Shoji actually knows about Hara. Setsuko Hara quite famously said in her retirement announcement that she was quitting because she had never really enjoyed acting, but that she came from a large family and needed to work to help support them. This earned her wrath from the press and former fans. But she never apologized. Doesn’t sound like the lilting flower Shoji paints her out to be!

    And in her oeuvre, she played some of the strongest, most independent-minded women ever seen in Japanese film up to that time! ‘Tokyo Story’ is just one film, and even in this one Shoji doesn’t get it! Ozu has been called a ‘proto-feminist’, making movies which reflect on women’s roles in Japanese society at a time when NO ONE else was doing anything remotely close to feminist film.

    I seriously have to wonder how someone like Kaori Shoji, so poorly informed about film history, gets to write a film column in a major newspaper!

    “Some six decades after “Tokyo Story,” Japanese women were finally about to liberate themselves from the shackles of domesticity,” says Shoji. I would say that the films of Ozu, including ‘Tokyo Story,’ still speak volumes to the issues that women continue to face in Japan today. Ozu, and Hara, were not perpetuating stereotypes. Ozu was basically CRITICAL of conservative-mindedness in Japan. If Kaori Shoji is so ignorant of film history not to know this well-accepted reading of Ozu (and by extension, Setsuko Hara) I really feel she should not be writing for the Japan Times on film matters.

    • Tangerine 18

      Great post, Todd. I’ve read some rubbish in this newspaper over the years but this has to be one of the worst articles I’ve ever see, on so many levels.

      Also, given what is widely-known about Ryoko Hirosue’s past and character she is totally unsuitable to play this role.

      • Scott W.

        Why was Todd’s comment deleted???

      • DRP

        Well, I wonder… I’ve admired Ozu’s masterworks for decades, including Tokyo Story, along with those of Mizoguchi and Naruse, who both depict the often harrowing circumstances of Japanese women of that, and earlier times. The messages conveyed in their films were eloquent, often poignant.

        But time doesn’t stand still – values and perspectives change. After six decades it’s perfectly reasonable to examine them afresh; in this case from the viewpoint of a modern, independently-minded Japanese woman, and perhaps see something different. Ms Shoji does, after all, present some grounds for her argument, asserting: ‘…But inside the confines of the archipelago, Japanese women were united in a collective “give me a break” ‘. And based on my years of reading her perceptive and witty columns, I sense more than a modicum of insight – and conviction – underpinning this article.

        So I say to my fellow (mostly male) armchair ‘critics’ – curb that harrumphing reflex, settle down, re-read the article, and entertain the thought that she – and all those other women – may just have a point.

        And, if I might add my humble opinion on the matter, resorting to the old ad hominem is more often an indictment of the critic than the writer.

      • nametaken

        was eye opening for me. love hearing debates on status quo.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Ms. Shoji is apparently a ヤンキー, and maybe she should just move to the USA and follow her calling instead of spewing such inane yet spiteful copy for the neocolonialist horde the Japan Times caters to.

  • KietaZou

    I’m a man, so maybe my being 100% – and I mean 100% – in favor of the women’s movement is tainted, but this slur of Setsuko Hara and Tokyo Story is really uncalled for. I don’t have to “like” a film (though I very greatly love Tokyo Story) to appreciate its greatness and how other people (and I’m talking about people whose opinions, etc. I respect) love it – Gone with the Wind being the best example in my own case.

    What horrid and misdirected pettiness. Get in a few digs at the Mona Lisa while you’re at it, Ms. Shoji.

  • To deride one actress who starred in movies from another era in order to somehow make a point about the strengthening of women’s rights in Japan this century is, frankly, a really weird way to review a movie that is focusing more on how a woman is trying to pass on what she loves to her daughter before dying.
    The only reason I can imagine even mentioning Hara in this review is so Shoji could plop her name in the headline to get more people to read the review. Pretty tasteless. Shoji is one step away from making this article Buzzfeed quality.

    • nametaken

      because discussing history gives context to the struggle.

  • Stu

    This author wreaks of “yokkyuu fuman baba”. I know plenty of Japanese women who love Tokyo Story and virtually every film by Ozu Yasujiro. The fact that this author doesn’t know any Japanese women who like the film says more about the kind of feminazi circles she runs in and less about the way the NORMAL Japanese woman views Hara Setsuko, her roles in Ozu’s films, and the films themselves. Little woman spreading her personal agenda at the expense of a truly great Japanese woman (in her passing, no less). Shoji, if you’re going to insist on dumping this sort of drivel on the Japan Times’ readership, then please do us all a favor and go take a nose dive in front of the next Yamanote-sen densha. The world is better off without you.

  • Scott W.

    Tokyo Story is a wonderful film and Hara is great in it. Sad that Ms. Shoji is incapable of understanding it.