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June 17, 2010


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Chushingura - Hana no maki yuki no maki
Hiroshi Inagaki- 1962
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In addition to remembering Setsuko Hara, today marks the fifth year of Coffee, Coffee and more Coffee.

Today I hope Setsuko Hara is enjoying her 90th birthday, wherever she is. Unlike some of my cinephile friends I don't love her for her roles in Yasujiro Ozu's films. I once joked with the Self-Styled Siren that Hara's screen persona, at least in Ozu's films, makes Meryl Streep appear to be a selfish harpie. Having your baby eaten by a wild dog or choosing which child lives or dies in a concentration camp is nothing compared to sacrificing one's personal happiness on behalf of father Chishu Ryu.

Hara came to mind last April when I saw Mikio Naruse's film, Sound of the Mountain. Sure, she remains relatively stoic when in the face of her husband's inattention, but better yet, Hara laughs. If there was a double feature to be had, it would be Sound of the Mountain paired with Ninotchka. Hara has been described by some as the Japanese Greta Garbo for her also choosing to retire rather than age before the camera, and live out a reclusive existence. The differences are that Garbo retired to hide among the crowds in New York City, while Hara chose the more remote Kamakura. Hara also retired with the nickname, "The Eternal Virgin", intact. The status of Greta Garbo's virginity has never been questioned.

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It was also last April that I saw Millennium Actress theatrically. The actress of the title lives in a difficult to find cabin in northern Japan, alone except for a live-in helper/companion. That premise seemed inspired by Hara, although the glimpses of fictional films that we see have more in common with the costume dramas starring Hara's contemporary, Machiko Kyo.

Inagaki's version of Chushingura was the last film of note to feature Setsuko Hara. This is basically a featured supporting role, that also includes turns by Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. For those who have never seen any version of this film, the story is about a young lord, Asano, in the beginning of 18th Century Japan who is caught between conflicting codes of behavior. Refusing to participate in the bribery and corruption of the court, he is goaded by the older lord, Kira, who is to serve as his mentor. Frustration and anger give way to Asano's pulling out his sword, wounding Kira. Asano is forced to commit ritual suicide, while Kira's embarrassment to the court remains unpunished. The vassals of Asano exist in exile, deliberating on whether to avenge themselves, and if so, how to uphold their honor. The basic story has been done many times because it lends itself to open interpretation regarding the themes of loyalty and conflicting codes of behavior, written and unwritten laws, and the value of sacrificing one's life for an ideal.

Setsuko Hara is only seen in less than half an hour of this three and a half hour film. She plays the wife of one of Asano's leading vassals. What is curious about her performance is how she is filmed. The camera is often distant from her, so that there are times when I wasn't immediately certain that I was in fact watching Hara. There are no close ups such as one would note with the other stars. Hara was 41 at the time the film was made. Was she self conscious about her appearance, or was that decision made by Inagaki? Hara is usually seen in full shots, and the few close ups of her are extremely brief, as if it to let the viewer know that that is in fact Setsuko Hara, again keeping reserved while injustices take place around her. Maybe Hara was in this film only to fulfill contract obligations with Toho Studios. One could possibly imagine Machiko Kyo or Hideko Takamine taking the part with little appreciable difference. The effect of watching Setsuko Hara in Chushingura might be said to indicate that even before she stepped away from the cameras, she was already starting to disappear before our eyes.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 17, 2010 12:26 AM