TOKYO — Setsuko Hara, the muse of Yasujiro Ozu as well as other directors of Japanese cinema’s 1950s and ’60s Golden Age, died on September 5 of pneumonia in a hospital in Kanagawa Prefecture, according to Japanese press reports. Hara was 95.
Born in 1920 in Yokohama, she made her film debut at age 15. Hara shot to fame for her starring role in 1937’s “The New Earth,” a German-Japanese co-production, with Hara playing a woman who ventures to Manchuria, then a Japanese colony, with her new husband. Audiences were attracted to her Western-like features and air of fresh-faced purity.
In the postwar period, with directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita, Hara portrayed modern women unbound by shackles of feudal mores, with critics making comparisons to Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. In her films with Ozu, such as “Late Spring” (1949), “Early Summer” (1951) and “Tokyo Story” (1953), she also embodied more traditional virtues, including a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others. At the same time, she gave the impression of acting from choice, not convention, as in her smiling devotion to the aged parents of her dead husband in “Tokyo Story.”
In 1962, after appearing in her 101st film, Hiroshi Inagaki’s “47 Samurai,” Hara suddenly announced her retirement at age 42, stunning the Japanese film world. After that she never gave a media interview or appeared at industry events, maintaining a Garbo-like silence to the end. She lived in retirement in Kamakura, a seacoast town 30 miles southwest of Tokyo that was the setting for some of her most famous films.