Film

In Ozu’s ‘Late Spring,’ Setsuko Hara Faces (and Embodies) a Changing Japan

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The extraordinary Japanese actress Setsuko Hara, who died last September, at age 95, has often been compared to Greta Garbo, largely owing to the fact that both retired early from the screen (Hara at 43, Garbo at 36) and lived the rest of their lives in seclusion. Yet they are imperfect analogues, for the Swedish legend, who retreated to an apartment on East 52nd Street, still milled about Manhattan, while the Japanese star chose to live in isolation in Kamakura, a much smaller city near Tokyo.

But their effect on spectators, past and present, is very much the same. “Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy,” the French theorist Roland Barthes wrote of the actress once known as “the Divine.” Hara’s radiant visage likewise inspires rapture, perhaps never more so than in Yasujiro Ozu’s magnificent family drama Late Spring (1949), which Film Forum is presenting in a new 4K restoration.

The first of Ozu’s seasonal films, Late Spring also marks the first of an eventual six collaborations between the director and Hara. She plays Noriko, a spirited 27-year-old, the only child of a widower academic, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu, another Ozu regular), to whom she is completely devoted. Her friends and relatives, however, deem her too attached to living at home with Dad and insist that she marry soon. “I’m the only one who knows what he needs,” Noriko explains to a number of meddlers. Performing her filial duties provides complete contentment — what matrimonial match could be as satisfying?

Ozu, who helped create and refine the shomin-geki genre — dramas about working- and middle-class people and life — explored in his films the tension between ancient custom and modernity, a divide that he refused to see as a simple contrast between outmoded and enlightened thinking. The dizzying changes in Japan in the immediate postwar period, especially those regarding women’s roles, play out in Noriko’s complex demeanor and responses. However traditional her dedication to her father may be, Noriko is bold and forthright, her assessments never softened even when they are delivered with a near-constant smile: Beaming, she tells an older family friend that she finds it “disgusting” that he’s planning to remarry.

Possessed of a beautifully wide, open face, Hara conveyed despair just as miraculously as she did joy. Attending a Noh drama with her father, Noriko at first appears lost in elation, transported by what she’s witnessing on the stage, a moment made sweeter by the fact that she’s sharing it with the person she loves the most. That serenity cracks when Noriko sees among the spectators the young widow whom Shukichi has said he might wed. With each glance directed at her father’s potential new mate, the proud daughter sinks deeper into rage, hurt, and possessiveness — a range of riotous emotional states that Hara communicates with devastating precision: The earlier beatific smile is now a downturned mouth, a grimace of utter dejection.

Late Spring was the first entry in what would be known as the “Noriko trilogy,” followed by Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). Though Hara’s characters in each share the same first name and each is without a spouse (whether single or widowed), they are not the same person. Yet the actress herself, who never married and was celebrated as the “Eternal Virgin” in her country, was frequently conflated with the roles she played in Ozu’s films. This collapsing of Hara’s real life and screen personas was heightened by her decision to retire in 1963, the year Ozu died. Near the end of her career, Hara implied that she became an actress reluctantly, entering the profession only to help support her large extended family. Surely her own act of fealty to her kin shaded and deepened the one she performs so hauntingly in Late Spring.

“Movies resurrect the beautiful dead,” Susan Sontag once wrote, and there’s no better way to commemorate Hara than to watch her in Late Spring, a film in which she is heartbreakingly vibrant. After paying your respects to this exquisite performer at Film Forum, celebrate the birth of a new cinema on the Lower East Side: Metrograph, at 7 Ludlow Street, a two-screen repertory and independent-movie house, opens its doors on March 4. Staffed with many of the most fervent, perceptive cinephiles I know, Metrograph kicks off with a series called “Surrender to the Screen,” showcasing titles — ranging from Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) to Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) — in which characters are held rapt by a moviegoing experience. I anticipate spending many afternoons and evenings in blissful submission at Metrograph and will devote next week’s column to discussing two examples of the thrilling, wide-ranging programming we can expect from the art house: a retrospective of the post—New Wave godhead Jean Eustache and a new 35mm print of Stephanie Rothman’s undersung exploitation movie The Student Nurses (1970). Let’s surrender together.

Late Spring

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Janus Films

Film Forum, March 4—10