August 2016, arsenal cinema

Modulations of the Smile – An Homage to Setsuko Hara


No other actor has ever mastered the art of the smile to the same extent as Setsuko Hara (1920–2015), a celebrated star and highly regarded idol who was one of the outstanding actors of 40s and 50s Japanese cinema. Her radiant smile floods whole scenes and at times cautiously undermines the expectations made of her in coy, ironic fashion. Yet her smile's impressive range also encompasses its darker shades: Hara's delicate, dignified, melancholy smile with which she responds to disappointments, papers over the emotions churning under the surface, and flanks life's sobering realizations. Her smiles don't just function as a condensed version of her ever-precise, expressive, yet understated acting ability, they also allow the very essence of the films they appear in to shine through for a brief moment, often studies of the everyday, post-war dramas which revolve around the break-up of family structures or the failure of marriages. Her performances tread a fine line between social expectation and personal desire in post-war Japan, as Hara attempts to lay claim to the autonomy of the female characters she plays – frequently with a smile. Between 1935 – her brother-in-law helped her land her first role at the tender age of 15 – and 1962 Setsuko Hara acted in more than 100 films, of which those that emerged from her creative partnership with Yasujiro Ozu are the most well known, a collaboration which started with BANSHUN (Late Spring, 1949) and ended with KOHAYAGAWA KE NO AKI (Early Autumn, 1961). We are happy to present four films from this collaboration while also taking the series as an opportunity to broaden the view of this great actress, who died last September. We are thus showing her performances in films by Mikio Naruse, Keisuke Kinoshita, Akira Kurosawa, Kozaburo Yoshimura, and a German-Japanese co-production by Arnold Fanck, most of which are seldom screened in Germany.

BANSHUN (Late Spring, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1949, 2. & 11.8.) The outstanding first collaboration between Ozu and Hara of the six they made together and the opening film in the so-called Noriko trilogy. Hara plays unmarried daughter Noriko, who at 27 still lives with her widowed father (Chishu Ryu). Concerned for his daughter's future, he encourages her to get married, yet she firmly rejects his suggestion, wanting to cling on to their life together as father and daughter and their close relationship. It's only a trick that enables the father to maneuver his daughter into marriage. Ozu's sensitive, moving study of people and the everyday is pervaded by an awareness of life's unavoidable transience – the concept of "mono no aware", the classic Japanese gauge of atmosphere and aesthetic leitmotif, which becomes increasing inscribed into Ryu's but most of all Hara's facial expressions and smile over the course of the film. A virtuoso melodrama of reduction.

ANJO-KE NO BUTOKAI (The Ball at Anjo House, Kozaburo Yoshimura, Japan 1947, 4. & 7.8.) Setsuko Hara dances the tango! An empty, dimly lit ballroom and a gun – Atsuko (Hara) asks her father to tango with her, just another small, richly symbolic gesture of the sort frequently found in Hara’s work. One gesture that thus rescues him from the abyss, enables him to avoid any loss of face, and hands the reins of leadership back to him, even as the life of the entire aristocratic Anjo family moves towards an unknown future. Behind them is a noisy celebration held for the Anjos to take their leave – of both their house and all their possessions, which are to be passed on the American occupiers as Japan grapples with the immediate aftermath of the war. With the family's sell-off having already been long in progress in human terms, it is their material ruin that finally brings it to an end. It is only Atsuko who is capable of facing the challenges of all the social and political upheavals: the final image is dedicated to her and her only, smiling as the embodiment of "the new Japanese woman". The print comes from the collection of the National Film Center of National Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo)

KOCHIYAMA SOSHUN (Priest of Darkness, Sadao Yamanaka, Japan 1936, 5. & 12.8.) Setsuko Hara in one of her very first roles: Lit so as to stand out and repeatedly placed at the centre of the action via a series of glamorous close-ups atypical of the genre, the 15-year-old actress plays the young Onami, who runs a successful market stall in front of a temple in 19th century Edo (today's Tokyo). A samurai’s valuable dagger is stolen close to her stall, ushering in a series of events that leads to Onami becoming forced to sell her body to a hoodlum. The titular Kochiyama Soshun turns up on the scene to prevent this from occurring, with the upshot being a breathtaking chase sequence through side alleys rendered with an impressive depth of focus.

MESHI (Repast/A Married Life, Mikio Naruse, Japan 1951, 5. & 17.8.) "I had hopes and dreams before. Where did they go?": Five years of married life, financial worries, disdain, and the humdrum existence of a housewife have all been gnawing at Michiyo (Hara), with her only remaining smiles and affection being directed at the cat, while the domestic atmosphere is underlain by disenchantment and irritation. Looking for refuge with her family in Tokyo, Michiyo does manage to take some cautious steps towards independence, yet it is not the protagonist's re-discovered hopes and dreams that have come to the fore by the end of the film, but rather the realization that disappointment is inevitable and life takes the same form wherever you are. Naruse's melodrama offered Hara the opportunity to leave behind her standard role as a loyal daughter, wife, or mother, if only for a while: playing an impatient housewife, sharp-tongued aunt, and sometimes phlegmatic daughter rolled into one (all of which acted with the same panache), she shows modes of behavior uncharacteristic of her Hara screen persona, which stand in stark contrast to the end of the film (which can be variously interpreted as having been dictated by the commercial, the reactionary, or the ironic).

TOCHTER DES SAMURAI (Atarashiki tsuchi, Arnold Fanck, Germany/Japan 1936, 8.8.) Having reached the age of 16, Hara was cast in a German-Japanese propaganda production: Mitsuko (Hara) is still little more than a child, but has already waited eight long years for Teruo, the man promised to her. He's studied in Germany in the meantime however and now rejects the traditional Japanese matchmaking process. The daughter of a samurai, who has received lessons in the bow and arrow, playing the shamisen, and ikebana, Mitsuko decides to throw herself into a volcanic crater. Famous for his mountain-set films, Fanck is entirely in his element here, staging her bold ascent in all-encompassing fashion. We are showing the heavily-cut version (also the only available one), which may have been drained of propaganda, but is all the less nuanced in its generalizations about Japanese culture. Childishly naive when surrounded by fawns, full of concentration while sword fighting or learning German, the modulations of Hara's smile can already be detected here.

OJO-SAN KANPAI! (Here's to the Girls, Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan 1949, 10. & 12.8.) Money, love, and the clash between two different social strata form the focus of this comedy, the only collaboration between the versatile Kinoshita and Hara, who once again appears here as a daughter from a good home. A matchmaker is to establish the connection to newly affluent car dealer Keizo, whose own background is modest. Keizo feels flattered by the matchmaker’s offer until he find out the reason behind the marriage of convenience: his money is to secure the living standards of the now destitute family. Hara is shown as both radiant and mutable, initially willing to sacrifice herself for the family's wellbeing before liberating herself from tradition's grasp to follow her own feelings.

SHU-U (Sudden Rain, Mikio Naruse, Japan 1956, 11. & 22.8.) MESHI in reverse: after four years of marital life, the relationship between Fumiko (Hara) and Ryotaro (Shuji Sano) has reached a nadir. Small matters lead to big arguments and life in the Tokyo suburbs is harsh and somber, which Naruse shows in detailed fashion in the gloomy marriage scenes. The big city phenomena of alienation, egotism, and consumerist behavior dominate the climate of Japanese post-war society, which Fumiko is neither able to fight nor elude. The titular sudden rain functions as a new impulse, conjuring up a possible way out from routine, from being in a mess, from monotony, working in comparable fashion to Hara's timid smile, which equally alludes to the possibility of change.

TOKYO MONOGATARI (Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1953, 14. & 20.8.) "Isn't life disappointing?": In Ozu's melancholy swan song to the myth of the Japanese family, it is Setsuko Hara that finds the appropriate form of response, the only possible answer to this question. Completely calmly, without either bitterness or embarrassment and with a smile that lacks any hidden intent, she simply replies: "Yes, it is." These two lines of dialogue in combination with Hara's acting get to the very heart of Ozu and Hara's most famous collaboration, in which Hara plays the widowed daughter-in-law of an old married couple, who realize during a visit to their children and grandchildren in Tokyo that the family has grown apart. Pushed away by their own offspring, the parents only find warmth and affection with Noriko, who lives a modest existence, having withdrawn from life following the death of her husband. A great masterpiece of Japanese cinema, carried by Setsuko Hara with extreme sensitivity, pared-down to the bare essentials.

HAKUCHI (The Idiot, Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1951, 16. & 18.8.) A document of admiration for Dostoyevsky, upon whose novel of the same name the film is based. Kurosawa, who held the Russian author in high estimation from his youth onwards, gently transposes the literary antecedent's setting to the snow-bound island of Hokkaido, situating the characters in the petty bourgeois middle class milieu of the post-war years. It is here that a melodramatic dance unfolds in two parts, revolving around love and pity, pride and jealousy. The impressive leitmotif is the snow, which transforms the scenery into an unreal world reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's landscapes of the soul. Ozo's "Norikos" and Hara as Taeko in HAKUCHI are truly worlds apart: radiant, approachable, and warm in the former; implacable, cold, and inscrutable in the latter.

MUSUME TSUMA HAHA (Daughters, Wives, and a Mother, Mikio Naruse, Japan 1960, 17. & 21.8.) Aki is a widow who lives with her five children in a sizable abode in the Tokyo suburbs. Her recently widowed sister Sanae (Hara) returns to the home with a considerable inheritance, but is unable to save it either in financial terms or emotional ones, as the family falls apart. An ensemble film with a star cast (including Ken Uehara, Chishu Ryu, and Takamine Hideko), from which Hara stands out nonetheless: always dressed in a traditional kimono and on a collision course with the modern world, she marries the old-fashioned Goyo from Kyoto, with her mother supposed to move in with them as a result. But the mother prefers an old people’s home, leading Sanae’s image of herself as a good daughter to evaporate before it could even find proper use. In this brave new world, her selflessness seems like a foreign body, all the more lost in the magnificent colors and Cinemascope format of Naruse’s last collaboration with Setsuko Hara.

BAKUSHU (Early Summer, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1951, 24. & 27.8.) A non-drama, a quiet, constant flow of everyday events: Noriko (Hara) goes to work, meets her friends, is supposed to marry one man but marries another, a widower with a child, moves away, just like her parents, who move into the house of an uncle. Minimal movements with maximum consequence, albeit under the surface: this seemingly simple story conceals a complex study of how a three-generation household gently comes undone. Sometimes light and radiant, sometimes pondering and lost in thought, Noriko is a modern young woman ready to subvert the concept of arranged marriage, self-determined and protective of her autonomy, albeit entirely without drama and with a minimum of movement.

AKIBIYORI (Late Autumn, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1960, 25. & 30.8.) In Ozu's third-to-last film, Hara doesn't just shift into the mother role, but also onto the other side of a relationship structure she already portrayed in BANSHUN from the perspective of the daughter. Ayako, an only child, is supposed to get married, but doesn't want to break away from her loving relationship with her mother Akiko (Hara). An unresolved misunderstanding brings with it dissonance, finally making Ayako consider getting married and starting a new life, leaving the mother behind, alone. The film's often burlesque tone and glowing autumn colors embrace Ozu's cinematic leitmotif of change and transience, which is unambiguously echoed by Hara's shift in role from the character of the daughter to that of the mother.

KOHAYAGAWA KE NO AKI (Early Autumn, Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1961, 29. & 31.8.) "New Japan" – the garish neon sign in the jungle of flashing ads that illuminate the entertainment district is to be understood in programmatic fashion: Modernity has long since arrived in Japan and traditions serve at best to maintain the facade. Ozu and Hara's last collaboration – Ozu died two years later and Hara categorically gave up her career as an actress in entirely unexpected fashion – begins as an endlessly digressive fresco of a large family, augmented with elements of comedy. The family's sake distillery is not doing well and is supposed to be rescued, a second spring is celebrated, and different life paths discussed. With the death of the family head, an era comes to an end in quiet, wistful fashion. And the next one begins: for Akiko (Hara), the widowed daughter of the deceased, a new world of freedom and self-determination opens up – "New Japan"! (mg)

A series with the support of The Japan Foundation, Cologne and Tokyo/Angela Ziegenbein (Cologne), Hiromitsu Takaha (Cologne), Yuri Kubota (Tokyo), and the National Film Center of National Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo) and the Shochiku Co./Azusa Taki (Tokyo). With special thanks to Kanako Hayashi (Tokyo FilmEx).

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour – Of Shadows, Ghosts and Doppelgangers

07:30 pm Cinema 2

Der Andere

Zweimal gelebt

*Der Andere Max Mack Germany 1913
With Albert Bassermann, Hanni Weisse 35 mm 51 min
*Zweimal gelebt Max Mack Germany 1912 35 mm 27 min

Eunice Martins on piano
arsenal cinema: Modulations of the Smile – An Homage to Setsuko Hara

08:00 pm Cinema 1


Bakushu Early SummerYasujiro Ozu Japan 1951
With Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima
DCP OV/EnS 125 min