One of Japan’s most respected and beloved actresses, Setsuko Hara, died Sept. 5 in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the age of 95. Her family withheld the information until two weeks ago, another protection of the privacy she held so dearly. Though Hara made her final film in 1961, after which she retired from public life, she remains one of Japan’s most powerful, appealing and popular actresses.
Hara made her first film at age 15 in 1937, dropping out of high school and pursuing her dreams. During the war years she acted in propaganda films and then became a star soon after the war ended. Her work was central to many of the best films of the postwar period. She appeared at the astonishing rate of four to five films a year, starring in films by some of Japan’s most highly acclaimed directors, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, among others.
Her roles ranged from fiance, widow or student activist to rich girl or devoted daughter, but in every one she exuded a powerful presence. Filmgoers and critics alike were riveted to the screen by her simple and natural, yet nuanced and intricate, acting. Her ability to convey a woman’s internal tensions and unresolved conflicts appealed to viewers who felt the same way during the upheavals and uncertainties of Japanese life in the ’40s and ’50s.
Hara came to represent a new type of Japanese woman. Her characters were often steeped in traditional values such as forbearance and respect for elders, but followed their own longings for work, friendship or love. She was an idol, like Greta Garbo or Katherine Hepburn, with intelligence, depth and authenticity. Long before “womenomics,” Hara played female characters who balanced independence and self-confidence with compassion and a sense of duty.
Hara’s most compelling films, such as “Late Spring” and “Tokyo Story,” both directed by the great Ozu, have long been on international film critics’ lists of the best films ever made. By modern standards, those films move slowly, but they uncover rich emotional depths in the lives and times of the characters. The films Hara starred in stand as important social documents and great artistic achievements.
After quitting the film industry and public life in 1961, Hara never again made a film or even gave an interview. She lived in seclusion in Kamakura for reasons yet unknown, but surely in keeping with the many powerful female roles she embodied. In those roles, she made decisions, not always expected ones, but always for the right reasons. Her private life, like the inner world of the characters she brought to life, was her own.
Fans and critics have long regretted Hara never made more films, but perhaps a new generation, in Japan and abroad, will discover the pleasure, complexity and intensity of her work. Fortunately, she left an artistic legacy of over 100 films for people to enjoy, watch, re-watch, and be moved by.