best film:  Yasujirô Ozu made at least four masterpieces and Setsuko Hara was in all four of them (Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story and not to confuse things with the names, The End of Summer), so this is no slam dunk. Tokyo Story ultimately comes out on top as it lands as one of the top ten of all-time. This film is rightfully taught in just about every introduction to cinema art college class (though the focus is way too often on Ozu’s humanity- and not the artistic aspects of the film). Tokyo Story is the artistic peak for Ozu and his trademark visual style- but it is really more of the same when someone studies his rich body of work. Tokyo Story is not some sort of big breakthrough one off, nor a big departure for Ozu by any stretch from his previous (or subsequent) films. There are actually a number of shots in Tokyo Story that emulate similar shots in previous films (including that shot of Chishû Ryu meditating alone in the finale). Though, where another film of his is filled with 10-25 of these gorgeous mise-en-scene shots and setups… Tokyo Story has 50-100. It is impossible to keep count of all of these frames unless that is all somebody would want to do when watching the film. Tokyo Story is a candidate for the greatest mise-en-scene in film history. Ozu has a way of funneling the frame so to speak- he has objects and walls that not only take up all the white space (teapots, clocks, slippers, flowers, bicycles laundry, lighting those shoji doors) but directs the viewer’s eyes by creating frames within a frame, division and blocking of the mise-en-scene a la Josef von Sternberg (though, with all due respect, this dwarfs anything von Sternberg ever made).

 

 

Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story-  Setsuko Hara plays Noriko, the very important daughter-in-law role in the film. Her father and mother-in-law (Chishû Ryû and Chieko Higashiyama respectively) and their arc drive the narrative. Tokyo Story is a major triumph for Ryu- a stunning performance- his unspoken frustration at the loud music at the spa is virtuoso understated acting. Hara’s achievement is a little less but that is no insult- she plays a living, breathing saint- and few actors, if any, were better at playing such a genuinely good person.

 

 

best performance:    Hara’s best single performance is either 1949’s Late Spring or 1951’s Early Summer. These are films are first and second chronologically in The Noriko Trilogy. Tokyo Story is the third leg of this trilogy, and the three films were each made two years apart, (Tokyo Story coming in 1953). All three films are masterpieces. The edge, ever so slightly, probably goes to Early Summer as far as Hara’s work is concerned. Ryu is in a smaller role in this one- and Hara really gets the showcase role playing Noriko Mamiya. Hara’s character getting married, and the family’s preoccupation with that, is the closest Ozu gets to a plot here. Hara, always the dutiful (but pained) woman, is heartbreaking in the scene where she accepts the marriage proposal from her future mother-in-law. This understated style (though not quite as blank as Dreyer’s models) is the essence of Ozu’s methodology- and exactly what he wanted from his players.

 

 

Hara in Early Summer (1951)- not to be confused with The End of Summer (1961) which came a decade later during Ozu’s color period. Both feature Hara and both are masterpieces.

 

 

stylistic innovations/traits:  Hara was around long before her first collaboration with Ozu (1949’s Late Spring– and it may be no surprise Ozu did his best work with Hara). She was a child actor making films before World War II in her early teens in the 1930s. In all, she has over 100+ film acting credits to her name including collaborations with Kurosawa- her first in the archives- even before working with Ozu. She was done, retired, in 1962 at the age of 42 when Ozu stopped making films- he passed away in 1963. It is hard to even picture Hara, known as “the eternal virgin” for playing such gentle characters, working into the late 1960s and 1970s when film censorship changed. The End of Summer (Ozu’s second to last film overall and last collaboration with Hara- and one of his absolute best) marked the end of their partnership so it stands to reason if he had lived another few years that Hara could easily be top even higher on this list. She and Ozu (and Ozu’s writing collaborator Kôgo Noda) carved out such specific characters together – often the loyal family member. She was almost always smiling on the outside- but there is often a layer of pain underneath her character- and that can be felt. That is a compliment to Hara’s skill as a subtle actor.

 

 

directors worked with:  Yasujirô Ozu (5) and Akira Kurosawa (2). Not many actors worked with both of the two great Japanese masters (and contemporaries). She is Ozu’s greatest female acting muse/collaborator—just like Chishû Ryu is Ozu’s greatest male acting collaborator.

 

 

Hara in Late Spring– her breakout film (first collaboration with Ozu) and in many ways a breakthrough for Ozu

 

 

top five performances:

  1. Early Summer
  2. Late Spring
  3. The End of Summer
  4. Tokyo Story
  5. Late Autumn

 

 

archiveable films

1946- No Regrets for Our Youth
1949- Late Spring
1951- Early Summer
1951- The Idiot
1953- Tokyo Story
1960- Late Autumn
1961- The End of Summer