The Strange Life and Death of Japan's Greta Garbo

RealClear Staff


She was one of Japan's top stars of the 1950s, making some of the greatest films ever made. Then she walked away from it all, never to appear in public again. After she died a half-century later in September 2015, her death went unreported for months. Who was Setsuko Hara?

1. She Was the Ideal Japanese Woman

Or at least, that's how Japanese critics and moviegoers thought of her. Known as "The Eternal Virgin," Setsuko Hara was a key figure in boosting post-World War II Japan's morale, playing female characters who balanced independence and self-confidence with compassion and a sense of duty.


2. She Made Propaganda Films as a Teenager

Haru began making films at age 15. During the late 1930s, she -- like all Japanese filmmaker and actors -- was used as a tool by Japan's military dictatorship to make positive films about their regime, and to rally support by their war campaigns against Manchuria, China, and eventually the United States.

3. 'No Regrets for Our Youth' (1946) Spoke to a Generation

Setsuko Hara’s talent only became fully apparent after the end of the war when she gave an astonishing performance as Yukie, a Japanese girl who transforms herself from dutiful professor’s daughter to passionate social activist in "No Regrets for Our Youth," an early success by esteemed director Akira Kurosawa. You can watch it on Hulu plus.


4. She Hit Her Stride with Director Yasujiro Ozu

Setsuko Hara first worked with film director Yasujiro Ozu in 1949' "Late Spring." Over the next dozen years they made six films together, which many consider to be her greatest and his greatest films. Their masterpiece is "Tokyo Story" (1953, pictured above, also available on Hulu plus), a deceptively simple story of family relationships centering on a widow (Hara) who visits her late husband's parents, a poor elderly couple.

Hara’s performance is a stunning work of restrained kindness and melancholy, her brave smiles heart-wrenchingly failing to conceal her deep loneliness. 


5. She Became Japan's Top Female Star

Often, her name would be billed above that of her male co-stars. Women wanted to be her. Men wanted to marry her. It was around this time she became known as "The Eternal Virgin," both because she was unmarried and was not linked to anyone romantically, and because she came to represent the ideal Japanese woman.

6. And Then, She Threw It All Away

In 1963, Hara abruptly retired -- just like Hollywood's Great Garbo did -- at the top of her profession. At a press conference, she refused to say why she was quitting. There is speculation that she and Ozu (they are pictured above) had a secret romance; like herself, Ozu had never married. At the time of her retirement, Ozu was dying of cancer. 

Consider this: Ozu was buried in the seaside resort town of Kamakura, just outside Tokyo, and it was to Kamakura that Hara retired shortly after his death, living out her long life in her family house. She never married or had children and declined to be interviewed or photographed.

7. Her International Reputation Started Here

While Kurosawa was well-known in the West for such films as "Rashomon" and "The Seven Samurai," Ozu's films had never been distributed outside of Japan (they were deemed "too Japanese" by distributors). That all changed in 1972, when Dan Talbot (above, with Alfred Hitchcock) booked "Tokyo Story" in his legendary Upper West Side Manhattan repertory cinema the New Yorker. Talbot later scooped up the rights for his indie distribution label New Yorker Films.

Soon, the international fame and influence of Ozu and Hara would grow to their current towering stature. Countless Western directors such as Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, have cited their work as an influence. In 2012, "Tokyo Story" was voted “the greatest film ever made” in a poll of directors by Sight and Sound magazine.


8. In Japan, as the Years Passed, Her Legend Grew

If this were England or Hollywood, the paparazzi would have ambushed her or taken long-range photos violating her privacy. But this is Japan, where her privacy was respected. That didn't stop Japanese film fans from speculating about her. In 2001, the anime film "Millennium Actress" was based on her amazing life.

9. Her Last Wishes Were Respected

Setsuko Hara, born Masae Aida on June 17, 1920, died on September 5, 2015, of pneumonia at age 95. Her wishes, carried out by her surviving family, was to delay the announcement of her death until well after her very private funeral. "She didn't want a fuss," said her 75-year-old nephew. When the news did get out, there was a national day of mourning in Japan, and of film lovers around the world.



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