Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
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Of course, the main problem with a list of the best Setsuko Hara movies is the fact that you could very well wind up with a list of great Yasujirō Ozu movies, as well. Given the weight and unfathomable value of their collaboration as actress and filmmaker, which covered six films over twelve years, it easy to just lean on those, and call it a day. Every single one of the movies Ozu and Hara made together is a classic. All six of the performances Hara gave in films like Tokyo Story or Late Spring are contenders for any list of the best film performances of all time. Period. We only have five slots to fill in this column. To that end, we could just focus on Ozu, and we’d still have one left over at the end of the day.
Without question, this edition of Make the Case is certainly going to have a certain focus on at least some of those six films. Those performances are so good, it’s not like we really have a choice.
Still, it’s important to define Hara’s immense career as an actress, which ended immediately after Ozu’s death, by looking at her entire filmography. Beyond Ozu, you can find a number of Setsuko Hara movies and roles that are every bit as rich and fascinating as their extraordinary work together.
This might also be a good time to remind everyone that I also like to stretch the concept of this column. While I’m obviously interested in telling you about the five best movies of a given actor or actress, I also like the idea of creating an overview, rather than a list that focuses solely on performances I perceive to be the best. To be sure, all of the films listed are great performances, but there is also an idea in my head of trying to come up with the best overview. Make the Case is always a weird juggling act between those two thoughts. That has never been more apparent to me than it is here.
I would honestly consider Setsuko Hara to be one of the best actresses of her generation. This fact is obscured by a couple of things. With western audiences specifically, it’s hard to get large groups of people to care about an actor or actress from a non-English-speaking part of the world. The other problem is that it’s also hard to get large groups of people to give even a single damn about names or films from several decades ago. All of this compounded by the fact that although Hara died just recently, in 2015 at the age of 95, her film career ended 23 years before I was even born. She not only retired after Ozu passed away in 1963 (her last film was 1962’s Chushingura), but she pretty much peaced out on the entire fucking universe. She became extremely reclusive, and was rarely seen or heard from, between 1963 and 2015. That is 52 years for audiences to forget you even existed. Film nerds will carry the torch of Hara’s brilliance until the end of time, but she is barely remembered by anyone who doesn’t own a shitload of Criterion Collection releases.
A lot of people don’t even realize that Hara was an inspiration for Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece Millennium Actress—A movie about a popular, brilliant actress, who disappears suddenly at the height of her fame. Millennium Actress is not Setsuko Hara biopic by any means, but it’s one of the few contemporary documents we have that even discusses something akin to her fascinating life and story.
We aren’t going to really cover her life and story here. That isn’t what this column is really about, or at least it’s not the focus around these parts. However, since Setsuko Hara was an actress who seemed to put every last ounce of her overwhelming humanity and passion into her characters, it is inevitable that when we watch and discuss Setsuko Hara films, we consider the connections her roles and choices an actress had to her life outside of film.
To this day, she retains an element of mystery that compels even those who couldn’t possibly care less about such things under normal circumstances. These are not normal circumstances. Setsuko Hara was not a normal actress. She was peerless then, and can still captivate audiences in the present. It’s just a matter of finding and watching these movies.
We are very fortunate then that most of her films are available in streaming form and on physical media. If you are new to her work, I ask humbly that you consider the following choices.
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
On that long list of the best Akira Kurosawa movies, you will find No Regrets for Our Youth. The first film made by Kurosawa after the Second World War, No Regrets for Our Youth gets a little lost in the shuffle of great Kurosawa movies. I honestly don’t know where I’d rank it myself, but I do know that it’s an absolute masterpiece of pacing, atmosphere, and acting. Since we are talking about Kurosawa, and since we are perhaps right at the point in which he started truly coming into his own, there are lots of examples of all three of those qualities. Setsuko Hara as Yukie is certainly one of the best performances in the film, if not the very best.
At the same time, Hara’s willful, deeply empathetic Yukie also effects the acting and atmosphere of the movie. In both cases, she enhances those things. She is the only major female protagonist in the entire Kurosawa canon. That’s worth noting, but it’s not the main reason to watch Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth. Watch her performance in this film because she is captivating, heroic, and already capable of tapping into whatever reserves she had, when it came to one remarkable performance after another.
A Ball at the Anjo House (1947)
This is not the easiest movie to track down. Honestly, unless you are truly committed to watching some of the very best Setsuko Hara movies, this one may not seem worth the trouble. I would argue that it is, which is why it ultimately made its way onto this list. As the only shining hope for a doomed aristocratic family in the aftermath of World War II, Hara portrays the young woman Atsuko as a study in conflict. As an actress, she had a particularly fascinating talent for playing women who were torn between more than mere alliances. Hara played women who understood that their next step would likely determine the next several years of their lives, if not the rest of their lives period.
A Ball at the Anjo House is a great example of one of these characters. You can take or leave the material (I think it’s a little creaky, but nonetheless interesting), but I promise that Hara’s performance will make a distinct impression. Many of this movie’s best moments of genuine warmth in this family drama come directly from her nuanced work.
Tokyo Story (1953)
The collaborations between Setsuko Hara and Yasujirō Ozu define a great deal of the perception and understanding people have of Hara as an actress. I certainly won’t argue with the fact that Ozu and Hara enjoyed a working relationship as potent and extraordinary as the one Kurosawa had with Toshiro Mifune. Again, it would be very easy to just fill this list with Ozu and Hara movies, and just call it a day. We wouldn’t really be wrong to even do that either. All of the films they did together are glorious, and each one is miraculously about as good as a movie can ever hope to be.
Still, if we want to a somewhat more elaborate look at Hara’s career, we have to look to the brilliant work she did with other filmmakers. Working with men like Kurosawa and Kozaburo Yoshimura is part of the story of Setsuko Hara as an actress. It’s just that when we think about that story, we can’t help but want to dedicate a good deal of our attention towards her movies with Ozu.
At the very least, those movies deserve an entire chapter.
Then again, the depths of Tokyo Story’s narrative and characters is such that this single movie in of itself could command a long, long chapter to try and understand everything this movie brings to the surface. Tokyo Story is one of Ozu’s best-known films. In the simplest terms possible, it is a multilayered, heartbreaking depiction of a family relationship. Specifically, it is a depiction of this relationship when the parents have reached the point of old age. Everything that happens beyond this summary makes for some of the most arresting cinema you will ever watch. There are so many reasons for that, and Setsuko Hara’s performance as Noriko, the widow of the couples’ son, is at least at the top for me personally.
Tokyo Story is perhaps one of Ozu’s cruelest films. It is also one of his most realistic. Hara as Noriko is one of few elements of pure, almost-unbelievable kindness that run through this largely unhappy story. I say “almost” unbelievable because Noriko still comes through as a fully-realized, three-dimensional character. She has much to offer on her own, and not simply as a small glimmer of hope for an aging, fearful couple. It is a hallmark for both Ozu and Hara.
Sound of the Mountain (1954)
In one way or another, the subject of family is something that comes up in a lot of different Setsuko Hara movies. It’s a little interesting that this is something you notice with the different filmmakers Hara worked with, but familial connections and relationships has always been a deep well from which a lot of different writers, directors, performers, and others drew from. This seems to be particularly true with Japanese cinema.
Sound of the Mountain was actually something of a departure for director Mikio Naruse. Adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata, Sound of the Mountain deals with Shingo, a father who is forced to watch his two children flounder in an era of increasing social change. Naruse rarely delved into families quite this intensely, and the movie is an impressive emotional roller coaster, even decades after its release. Hara is one of the film’s most sympathetic characters. She is the wife of Shingo’s unlikable, mean-spirited son. The movie focuses largely on Hara’s performance as Kikuko, a woman who is forced to keep her humanity, in the face of a routine that will eventually destroy her spirit. The relationship between Kikuko and Shingo is another major element to the film. Throughout her career, Setsuko Hara could create characters who could play flawlessly off virtually anything else any other actor or actress could bring to a scene with her.
The End of Summer (1961)
The End of Summer would be the final Yasujirō Ozu film Setsuko Hara worked on. Ozu made one more film after this, and then died on December 12th, 1963, at the relatively young age of 60. Shortly after his passing, Hara announced her sudden retirement, ending a career that had spanned for over 30 years, and across dozens and dozens of films. She also indicated that she had never particularly enjoyed acting, and had worked largely to support her family. Of course, her retirement coinciding so closely with the death of Yasujirō Ozu has led to considerable speculation. Many believe that Ozu and Hara, who never married, were romantically involved. I honestly have no idea, and I doubt we’ll ever know for certain.
In the end, that aspect of their relationship doesn’t particularly. At least, it’s not important to Make the Case. The End of Summer is now regarded as another masterpiece by Ozu. It is certainly one of his most intriguing blends of comedy and drama. Once again, he turned his focus to a family that was trying to make sense of shifting social dynamics. As is often the case, they have to do that without actually knowing what they are doing. The End of Summer represents a moment of peace, such as it is, before another tremendous period of adjustment and transition begins. As Akiko, the widowed daughter-in-law of the film’s elderly patriarch, whose own spouse had recently passed away, Hara’s performance offers one of the most breathtaking, relatable performances to connect us to the complex larger themes of this story.
The End of Summer is just one amazing film in the five that make up this column. These five are only a sampling of Setsuko Hara’s career. If you are new to Setsuko Hara movies, I think you will do just fine with the ones outlined here. You can really start with any of these movies.
Still, most people start with the Ozu collaborations. I think that makes the most sense.