Setsuko Hara: Smiles and Subtleties

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Although Yasujirô Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn (1960) were based on different novels — by different authors, no less (Kazuo Hirotsu and Ton Satomi, respectively) — they tell strikingly similar stories. Each film revolves around a young woman living with a widowed parent; in the first, it’s a father, and in the second, a mother. Various acquaintances urge the girl to marry, even proffering potential husbands, but she turns them down because she’s happy as she is. However, when she comes to the conclusion that her parent intends to remarry, she feels betrayed, which may make the separation easier.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Eventually, the girl in each film agrees to get married. Following the wedding, each parent is left alone, as neither one intended to remarry after all, but there are significant differences between their reactions. In Late Spring, the father (Chishû Ryû) sits down and begins peeling an apple. The camera cuts to a close-up of his hands, then back to his face; he’s in tears, or very nearly so. Another shot of his hands; the peel falls to the floor; then a medium shot in which his head droops, his sorrow more intense. This is followed immediately by twenty-odd seconds of crashing waves. Fade to black. The end. It’s all quite poignant and powerful and bleak, bleak, bleak.

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After returning home from her daughter’s wedding, the mother in Late Autumn, played by Setsuko Hara, kneels down on her bed, removes her outer garment and begins to fold it. She stops, her face pensive. After showing a kimono hanging on the wall, the camera returns to the mother, and although she appears to be holding back tears, she manages to smile. The film concludes with a shot of the hallway outside of her apartment, empty and half-dark. Like the ending of Late Spring, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s more subtle and not nearly as grim. Her life will never be the same, and she’ll certainly be lonelier than before; still, that smile suggests that she’ll find a way to adapt, and that she takes pleasure in imagining future happiness for her daughter.

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Hara made six films with Ozu, beginning with Late Spring, in which she was the daughter; the others, in addition to Late Autumn, were Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), Tokyo Twilight (1957) and The End of Summer (1961). In them, she smiles frequently, even at times when it might appear somewhat inappropriate. One example is in Tokyo Story: when her character’s sister-in-law (Kyôko Kagawa) says, “Isn’t life disappointing?” Hara looks unduly content as she replies, “Yes, it is.” Within a few minutes, though, it becomes evident that her character, Noriko, isn’t quite as resigned to life’s disappointments as she seems. The young widow, whose husband died during the war, finally breaks down and pours her heart out to her father-in-law (Ryû): “Sometimes I feel I can’t go on like this forever. Often I wonder, when I can’t sleep, what will become of me if I stay this way. Day passes and night comes, yet nothing happens, and I feel a kind of loneliness. My heart seems to be waiting for something.”

This is one of the final scenes of the movie, and it’s the only time that Noriko acknowledges her “selfish” unhappiness so openly. Except when confronted with another character’s death, she’s perpetually cheerful up to that point, always smiling and glad to help her parents-in-law enjoy their trip to Tokyo, far more so than their children are. As such, the rare occasions when her happy countenance falters really stand out. One of these occurs when her in-laws visit her apartment. They begin talking about her late husband and how, like his father, he used to come home drunk and bring his friends with him. “Then you had as much trouble as I did,” says her mother-in-law (Chieko Higashiyama). “Yes,” a smiling Noriko agrees. “But now I miss it.” In the next shot, she’s seen from behind, flanked by her in-laws, who continue discussing their deceased son. “He was such a willful boy. I’m afraid he gave you trouble,” the father-in-law says to Noriko. The camera then cuts back to her face; her eyes are downcast, and it’s clear that she’s deep in thought, perhaps scarcely listening to the ongoing conversation. She looks up, smiles and assures him that that wasn’t the case, then reverts to that pensive expression right away. “It seems he really caused you some problems,” her mother-in-law says. Noriko neither responds nor makes eye contact. Much to her relief, no doubt, their meal is delivered just at that moment, allowing her to change the subject and become her usual upbeat self once more.

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Long before she confesses her loneliness, this understated moment calls her cheeriness into question. Is her constant smile merely a mask to hide her discontent? Maybe, but that seems like far too simple an explanation, even if it’s true in some situations. Is she in denial? Is she forcing herself to appear happy as a means of reaching that state? Is she generally content in life, with only intermittent lapses? It’s difficult to be sure, and that makes Hara’s performance particularly fascinating; so much can be read into it.

In another scene in Tokyo Story, Noriko’s mother-in-law encourages her to remarry, but Noriko tries to reassure her that she’s fine as she is: “I’m happy. I like it this way.” It’s a common refrain with Ozu’s heroines, especially the ones played by Hara. Of course, Noriko’s speech at the end of the movie undercuts this declaration, even if she thinks she’s being sincere as she says it. Similarly, her character in Late Autumn, Akiko, tells her soon-to-be-married daughter (Yôko Tsukasa), “I’m fine as I am,” after admitting that she isn’t actually going to remarry. “I don’t want to climb that mountain again. I’ve had enough.” Her daughter has doubts about leaving her alone, but she insists that the girl go through with her wedding. “Nothing would give me more joy than seeing you happy with someone you love. It’s okay if you forget about me. I’ll never be lonely.” Again, the ending belies this, at least to some degree (she certainly looks lonely as she kneels on her bed in the empty apartment), yet it doesn’t come across as a total falsehood.

Then, in The End of Summer, her character — also named Akiko, and also a widow, this time with a young son, Minoru — is urged to remarry once again, and even has to endure an awkward set-up arranged by a relative. “I’m happy as I am,” she tells her sister Noriko (Tsukasa) in the final scene. “Minoru’s still growing up. I think this would be best for him.” Noriko replies, “That sounds like something you’d say,” and Akiko laughs. “I don’t know about that,” she says, but Noriko is right — and, naturally, Akiko is smiling the whole time, like all of Hara’s Ozu characters when they insist that they’re content. This time, though, her statement is much more believable than elsewhere. Although there are superficial similarities amongst her performances, her dialogue and her characters’ circumstances, Hara demonstrated again and again that she was capable of conveying a great deal of nuance — both through her smile and in spite of it.

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