Friday, April 3, 2015

Frozen In Time: The Cinematic Legacy Of Japan's 'Eternal Virgin'

Setsuko Hara's iconic career spanned only three decades.

For more than three decades, she dazzled audiences as the ideal Japanese woman. Boys fell in love with her, women wanted to be like her, and everyone respected her incredible talent. Then, in the blink of an eye, her career was over. Japan’s Eternal Virgin, Setsuko Hara, had retired, never again to be seen by the public eye.

Born Masae Aida, Hara began her journey to stardom in 1935, with her big break coming in 1937, when she starred in The New Earth, a German-Japanese collaboration that cemented her role as “the go-to actress” for young female characters.

The film features Hara as an innocent girl who, upon being rejected by her fiancé in favor of a German woman, attempts to jump into a volcano in order to end her suffering. Eventually, her father convinces the fiancé, who had fallen in love with Germany and its culture, to embrace Japanese culture once more and proceed with the wedding. The film, intended to strengthen the alliance between Nazi Germany and Japan while introducing Japan and its culture to the rest of Europe, was a commercial success in Japan, and was well reviewed in Germany, mainly because the government ordered critics to praise it.

The New Earth was one of the rarely screened WWII propaganda films featured in Japan Society’s ongoing series The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara, which shows how the actresses' roles reflected a nation during a time of upheaval and change. Continuing through Saturday with iconic postwar films, the series also juxtaposes the actresses' lives. Yamaguchi was often in the public spotlight (Artforum wrote that "the entire twentieth-century history of the Pacific Rim is reflected" in her life). In stark contrast, Hara was about as fond of interviews as Greta Garbo.

Two Hara films remain to be shown in the series, both of which would eventually define her legacy.

In Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), screening April 3, Hara finds herself trapped in the middle of a love triangle. Her suitors are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with one being a liberal-minded man and the other a militant radical. Her decision brings her great sadness, and serves to reinforce the idea of democracy as a positive change, with women’s rights and anti-militarism being points of emphasis. 

Screening April 4 is Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), the first in a series of films often referred to as the “Noriko Trilogy”, comprised of Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953). All three films featured Setsuko Hara as a character named Noriko, showing her gradual progression from a daughter who fears marriage into an eventual widow, and the conflict between the demands of society and the desires of the individual.

Aiko Masubuchi, Japan Society Film Program Officer, notes that throughout Hara’s entire career, it was as if she were two separate entities – the onscreen Hara, and the private Hara, known to only her close friends. Even now, we can only guess as to what she was like in private. Her onscreen persona was was often representative of an idea, an existence that changed to suit the prevailing ideas of the time, from militarism to democracy. On the silver screen, she was the sweet sisterly figure supporting the future pilots of the Japanese air force, the perfect daughter, and a devoted wife.

Where the cinematic persona of Setsuko Hara was usually a stoic, serious woman, Masae Aida was surprising her fellow actors with her love of beer and her sense of humor, playfully kicking actor Ryo Ikebe for teasing her.

Hara’s collaboration with Ozu would go on for 12 years, lasting until 1961. When Ozu died of cancer two years later, Hara, then 43, announced soon afterward her retirement in a shocking press conference, where she admitted that she enjoyed neither her job nor any of the work she had done. She was merely providing for her family, and now that that was done, she could finally retire and be herself again – not Setsuko Hara, but Masae Aida. 

After her retirement, she retreated to Kamakura, in Kanagawa Prefecture, where she still lives to this day. She has consistently refused all media requests for interviews and photographs, and has not been seen by the public eye since her final press conference, save for a few paparazzi photos taken without her consent. Having never married, she exists to the public as the “Eternal Virgin”, a name given to her at the peak of her career.

And it is at that peak where her image will forever remain, frozen in time.

--Mark Gallucci
Images (from left to right): Setuko Hara stars in The New Earth, 1937; Toward a Decisive Battle in the Sky, 1943 © Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.; Late Spring, 1949 © Shochiku Co., Ltd.; No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946 © Courtesy Toho Co., Ltd.; and Tokyo Story, 1953 © Shochiku Co., Ltd.. 


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