If a viewer watches enough of Yasujirô Ozu’s work, many of the actors become as familiar as old friends. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of his films, in their largely low-key, down-to-earth, everyday quality, or perhaps it’s because the actors who appear in multiple Ozu movies often play similar characters. At any rate, there’s a definite pleasure in seeing certain faces pop up again and again. Along with the iconic Setsuko Hara and the ubiquitous Chishû Ryû, one of the most memorable of these performers is Haruko Sugimura — even if her characters aren’t always particularly pleasant people.
Born in Hiroshima in 1909, Sugimura developed a passion for theater early in life, and it was on the stage that she got her start as an actress; in fact, according to an obituary published by The Independent, her theatrical career lasted seven decades, ending a mere two months before her death in 1997 at age 88. Several Japanese dramatists wrote plays for her, and she performed in numerous Western plays as well — as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and as Gertrude in Hamlet, to name just two.
Meanwhile, beginning in the 1930s, Sugimura started to moonlight in cinema. It wasn’t until 1949 that she made her first film with Ozu, but the collaboration proved to be a fruitful one: She would appear in nine of his thirteen films released between 1949 and 1962, including his swan song, An Autumn Afternoon. That isn’t to say that their working relationship was always harmonious, however. In Donald Richie’s book Ozu, he notes that during the shooting of Tokyo Story (1953), Ozu “had her hold a fan and follow its outline with her eyes, making thus a complete circle that coincided with the length of her dialogue. Sugimura, a serious stage actress, was confounded. She asked what she was supposed to be feeling. ‘You are not supposed to feel,’ was the answer, ‘you are supposed to do.'” Another time, when editor Yoshiyaku Hamamura praised Sugimura’s emotional acting in a scene shot for Early Summer (1951), the director disagreed. “Ozu said no, not at all, that she was overacting, and that he did not want anyone’s performance to stand out in the finished film. He chose a later take, one made after the actress had lost some of her excitement.”
Regardless of Ozu’s determination that no actor’s performance should outshine anyone else’s, Sugimura never fails to make an impression. In Late Spring, her first Ozu movie, she plays a supporting role that’s nevertheless crucial to the story — its catalyst, really. The film is about a young woman named Noriko and her widower father (played by Hara and Ryû, respectively) who lead a quiet, peaceful, happy life together until the girl’s aunt — Sugimura’s character — decides that it’s time for Noriko to get married and leave home. Although the aunt only wants what’s best for her niece, she comes across as something of a meddler; she can be quite critical too, like when she speaks disapprovingly of a bride who ate heartily at her wedding. (“Gobbling up sashimi with that big painted mouth. I was shocked.”) On the lighter side of things, she also serves as a source of comic relief. She insists, for example, that the man she’s picked out for Noriko to marry is a dead ringer for Gary Cooper, though she quickly qualifies her statement: “Looks just like him. He has the exact same mouth. The top half is different, though.” Near the end of the film, she even breaks down in softhearted tears — a very touching moment.
Many of Sugimura’s Ozu characters are similarly multifaceted, capable of surprising the viewer with an unexpected comment or reaction well into a given film. One of the best examples comes from Tokyo Story, which focuses on an elderly couple visiting their children and grandchildren in Japan’s capital city. Sugimura plays Shige, the couple’s beautician daughter, and she spends a good bit of the film being rather unpleasant: “playfully” pointing out her mother’s obesity, complaining when her husband buys expensive cakes for her parents because “crackers would have been good enough for them,” generally trying to foist her parents off on someone else. Still, when she and her father receive bad news about her mother’s health later on, it’s Shige who immediately starts sobbing.
There’s also a scene in which her father and a friend unexpectedly show up at Shige’s beauty parlor late at night, both highly intoxicated. She tells her husband how her father constantly came home drunk when she was growing up, and how she hated it — suggesting that, if the inter-generational relationships in this family are less than perfect, the fault isn’t entirely on the children’s side. A similar scene occurs in An Autumn Afternoon: An older man, once a teacher, is brought home drunk after a reunion by two of his former students. They receive a polite yet slightly tense welcome from his middle-aged daughter, played by Sugimura, but once she’s left alone with her father, she can no longer refrain from crying. It doesn’t appear to be simple frustration or sorrow over the situation at hand; instead, it’s a kind of existential despair. As her father eventually reveals, she had several opportunities to marry in the past, but being a widower, he selfishly kept her with him — and running a mediocre noodle shop while tending to an elderly alcoholic clearly isn’t the kind of existence she would have chosen for herself. “His daughter’s kind of strange. She’s so cold and unfriendly,” one of the former students says after meeting her, oblivious to the reality of her life. Once again, a Sugimura character has hidden depths.
In addition to Ozu, Sugimura worked with many of the other great directors of Japanese cinema, appearing in such films as Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and Red Beard (1965), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Another director with whom she worked frequently was Mikio Naruse, and his 1954 film Late Chrysanthemums offers the rare opportunity (at least for a twenty-first century viewer in the West) to see Sugimura in a leading role.
Here, she stars as Kin Kurahashi, a former geisha who’s become rich by buying real estate and renting it out, sometimes to her old colleagues, and by lending money. While her business acumen is admirable in its way, it seems that business and money are all that matter to her, regardless of the fact that she’s known these women for years. When one of them notes that she gave Kin significant financial help in the past, Kin brushes her off: “I didn’t know you were that petty. Nobody remembers details from wartime. All we could do was survive.” (It’s said, too, that she manipulated men for money during her geisha days, so her avarice is nothing new.) She’s cold, suspicious, critical and judgmental toward the other women, often wearing a supercilious smile while saying something cruel. One woman expresses hope that her adult son will pass an employment exam, because she doesn’t know how she’ll get by otherwise; with a smile on her face, Kin replies, “Stop your whining.” She also loves to mention that she’s old, that she lives alone, that she has no children, as if the people who owe her money are actually much better off than she is — not that anyone buys that for a second.
And yet, as usual, there’s more to Sugimura’s character than meets the eye. Her acquaintances say that she used to be “a warm-blooded human,” that she “was a sweet girl when she was younger,” and though it appears as if that’s all in the past, traces of a softer personality emerge on rare occasions. She’s shown bowing before a household shrine, for instance, presumably in memory of her mother, said to be the only person she had when she was young. Even more striking is her reaction when she receives a letter from an ex-lover whom she hasn’t seen for a long time: first, a sort of silent, sentimental laughter, as if she’s holding back happy tears; then girlish giddiness; and finally, as she fixes her hair before a mirror, something more subdued, more pensive. Considering Kin’s apparent shallowness and lack of feeling up to this point, this scene could seem wholly out of character in the hands of a lesser actress, but Sugimura pulls it off beautifully, and she handles the revelations yet to come with equal finesse.
Haruko Sugimura’s characters may be hard to pin down — and hard to like, in many cases — but they’re never less than compelling.
Kirkup, James. “Obituary: Haruko Sugimura.” The Independent 7 April 1997. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-haruko-sugimura-1265922.html
Richie, Donald. Ozu. Berkeley: University of California, 1974.
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