After six masterpieces together, it is hard not to think of actress Setsuko Hara as Yasujiro Ozu’s embodiment of the postwar Japanese woman. However, it is interesting to put this image up against the role she played years earlier for Akira Kurosawa in No Regrets for Our Youth.
In the 1946 film, Hara portrays Yukie, a farm girl growing up the hard way from childish middle-class student to socially engaged working adult. As this classical heroine, the actress plays every step of her evolution in such a straight-forward manner that even her ever-changing hairstyle works toward this end. No matter what external appearance she bares, Hara’s greatness is her ability to project an inner self that prevented her from wearing those styles as if she were at a costume party.
No Regrets for Our Youth proposes another Setsuko Hara—a woman who is not in a state of equilibrium, and not much in control of herself. This is best shown through Kurosawa’s use of one of his formal obsessions—repetition—in two scenes of serial movement. Yukie is depicted first as an irregular presence in the music scenes in which she moves frantically as if she were playing an electrified piano; and then as a regular one, in her methodical shoveling and planting in the rice fields.
In both sequences, Yukie’s movements seem to sway her thinking. It is only when she halts the repetitive act of putting one stalk after another that she realizes she has seeded a huge tract of land. There is, too, a certain degree of madness in these gestures. Hara embodies both transformation and excess to such an effective degree that by the final sequence in Yukie’s arduous journey, we hardly recognize the image we have of Hara from her other films.
In light of this performance, Hara emerges as a figure independent from the filmmakers she has worked with, to be appreciated as an artist who could be neutral, balanced, and also a paradox of excess, agitation, and directness.
Home to Ozu’s delicately daft “home dramas” and hearth to the Oshima-ignited hellfire of the Japanese “New Wave,” the perpetually modern and perennially conservative Shochiku Studios celebrates the 110th anniversary of its extraordinary career