Sunday, November 18, 2012

All About Setsuko Hara


Since last year, Shincho 45+, the Japanese magazine catering to the conservative readership, ran Setsuko Hara retrospective, not only once, but twice. A couple of articles on the actress were featured, but their marketing ploy for both occasions was the DVD packaged with the magazine, very rare silent films never released before (and of course, starring Setsuko Hara). I fell for the ploy on both occasions. Yet, Shinchosha decided to release another publication, this time whole book dedicated to Setsuko Hara, with another rare, never-released film on DVD. I decided to fall for their ploy again.

Even though Shinchosha is one of the more straight, somber, serious publishers in Japan, their features on Setsuko Hara in these publications are little more than collections of gossip articles. Especially this new book, titled "All About Setsuko Hara", is full of hearsay and rumors. The tagline for this book is "Next to The Beauty, there was a Monster”, insinuating questionable relationship between Hara and her brother-in-law, Hisatora Kumagai. The titles of the articles sound like something from 1940's tabloid journals: “The reasons Ozu did not marry Hara”, “I arranged the secret meetings for Hara and the Big Producer”, “The price of the great actress” and so on.

One of the most often quoted controversial story about Setsuko Hara is her alleged anti-Semitic remark. This story is originated in the interview collected in “Kouza Nihon Eiga (Seminar: Japanese Cinema)”, 7-volume series published by Iwanami Shoten in 1985. Tadashi Imai, the director of “The Green Mountains (1949)”, reminisces the bizarre relationship between Hara and Kumagai during the war years in his interview. Kumagai was a right-wing fanatic, and an active member of the group called “Smera-juku”, a radical political group, too strange to become popular even in the totalitarian Japan. The group advocated the plan to protect Japan from invasion of the Jews. According to Imai, Kumagai influenced young Hara to the point that she warned Imai about this “the invasion of the Jews”. He said this happened during the war, while shooting “Bourou No Kesshitai (1943)” in Korea. His interview is the only source that refers Hara’s alleged anti-Semitic remarks or views, and I have never seen anything else on the topic even remotely related. The interview was done in 1980’s, roughly four decades after and I feel that this story had to be digested with some skepticism. However, it had popped up in the various places (including Wikipedia Japan), and this new book details the story again to support its theory that Kumagai is some kind of Svengali to his sister-in-law.

The book is not without its merits. It has several articles by actors and actresses, reminiscing their encounters with the Setsuko Hara on the set. Tatsuya Nakdai recalls the nervous tension around the studio during the shooting of kissing scene in “Daughters, Wives and Mother (1960)”, while Kyoko Kagawa tells us the story behind the set of “Tokyo Story”. Setsuko Hara surprised them with her frank personality, quite different persona from the screen. She loved beer, little gambling, countered young Ryo Ikebe’s off-color joke (”You have a big butt like a stone mill”) by kicking him.

The accompanying DVD contains one of the rarest feature film starring Hara, “Nana Iro No Hana (七色の花, Seven-Colored Flower, 1950)”. The print was in the private collection, rarely seen after its initial release. It is about a novelist (Ichiro Ryuzaki) flirting with three women, Kazue (Rieko Sumi), Koyabu (Haruko Sugimura) and Teruko (Setsuko Hara). Even though the film is topbilled by Hara, her screen appearance is actually very limited. In fact, it is more or less dominated by Sugimura, who plays the (supposedly) voluptuous kept-woman in romantic battle with Hara and Sumi. Considering the fact that Sugimura played Hara’s aunt in Ozu’s “Late Spring” a year earlier, it is a total miscast, to say the least. The script, co-written by giants of Japanese cinema screen (Funabashi Kazuo [Gan no Koe], Kaneto Shindo Naked Island] and two others), has a slight hint of Lubitch-like humor, but mostly embarrassing throughout. Against all odds, Hara’s performance is still very solid and Sumi’s portrayal of young mistress is quite refreshing. It’s a strange peak into the world of “adult” romance in Japan more than half a century ago, with bold reference to sex, adultery and promiscuity.

Setsuko Hara is still alive and well (92 years old). After her retirement from the screen, she has never appeared in public, never agreed to any interviews or photographs, and never talked about anything about her life. Her images are forever frozen in the frames, completely shielded from vulgar reality - time itself. While most of the actors and actresses of her era deceased, this most mysterious actress is still with us. Come to think of it, she is only 20 km away from where I live. Now, that feels weird.

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