Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Late Spring: Setsuko Hara's Smile

Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest and also most beautiful of all Japanese actresses, died last year, and if you've never seen any of her films, Ozu's Late Spring would be as good as any place to start. The film itself is a masterpiece, the beginning of Ozu's late period that found his themes and style becoming more contemplative and earnest as he investigated conflicts of generational divides and friction within family dynamics. 

In Late Spring, Hara plays Noriko, 27 and still living with her father, Shuckichi (Ozu regular Chisu Ryu). She acts as his caretaker, and despite pressure from her aunt, her friend, and eventually her father to get married, she's bent on staying single and a caretaker at home. It's a complicated situation, one built around her love for her father, her sense of responsibility towards him (especially because his wife has died), and also a fear of moving forward and making a life for her own. 

In the early parts of the film, Noriko, despite devoting most of her time to her father, comes across as somewhat child-like. Note how in many of the early scenes, much of Hara's performance is defined by her smile, a playful innocent smile that despite its charm feels somewhat forced. She's acting too innocent, it seems, suggesting a callowness stemming from her lack of experience in the world. 

In one scene, she goes to a bar with a friend of her father, where she refuses to drink any sake, but asks to pour his drink. It reminded me a little of when I was a kid and would ask my mom if I could pour the wine at dinner, because it seemed sort of exciting to a young, innocent mind. They begin to talk, and when she finds out that the friend has remarried, she expresses disapproval, going so far as to call it "nasty," but all the while keeping her childlike smile. The idea seems to be that she doesn't quite know what she's talking about in passing this judgement because the only world she really knows is living with her father. The smile functions as a kind of safeguard for Noriko, a mask that suggests all is well and good, life sweet and content. 

There's another scene a little later when Noriko converses with her friend Aya, who is pressuring her to go ahead and get married. Noriko continues to just smile, as if the idea is so absurd it's funny, and when Aya continues to pressure her, the smile's not enough and she says she's hungry and needs some bread. We sense more than ever, though, that this smile is a disguise, Noriko's constant reliance on it simply evincing how artificial it really is. 

After this we get a similar scene, this time between Noriko and her Aunt Masa, who tells her about a man who looks like Gary Cooper and would suit her well. Noriko explains her problem in the simplest of terms: "If I left home father would be lost." But it's more complicated than that, for she also says, "I'm used to him and can handle him," which implies that it's not simply a sense of filial responsibilty that keeps her at home, but also because it provides her with a sense of security, the ability to deal with what she knows as opposed to venturing into the unknown. At this, her aunt responds: "Then you can never get married." We cut back to Noriko and we see her smile yet again, yet this time it's changed, less wide and joyous, a hint of both selfishness and guilt behind her large white teeth. "I don't care," she says. 

This is one of the reasons Hara was so great: she could express who a character was by a smile and the way she altered it depending on the dramatic context. In this latter example she makes just a minor adjustment, and we sense her underlying discomfort and guilt because she's just admitted she doesn't care if she doesn't get married. Rather than desiring marriage but remaining with her father out of love, she's subtly acknowledging that she's also staying with him because she's afraid of a world in front of her she knows she has no experience with, and is afraid of.

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