On Setsuko Hara

On her side-eye, and what she teaches us about feeling stuck and alone.

Setsuko Hara’s face, it seems, has been stuck in a smile for the past century. It should not be surprising that some have chosen to remember her, this Japanese woman, one of the greatest movie stars of any era—our Garbo, our Bergman, our Hepburn—frozen in sweetness. I sound accusatory. But when I was a child, I would pause Naruse films whenever she beamed on a bike. That wattage, that force. “The only time I saw Susan Sontag cry,” a writer once told me, his voice hushed, “was at a screening of a Setsuko film.” What Setsuko had wasn’t glamour—she was just too sensible for that—it was glow, one that ebbed away and left you concerned, involved. You got the sense that this glow, like that of dawn, couldn’t be bought. But her smiles were human and held minute-long acts, ones with important intermissions. When she looked away, she absented herself; you felt that she’d dimmed a fire and clapped a lid on something about to spill. Over the last decade, whenever anyone brought up her lips—“Setsuko’s eternal smile,” critics said, that day we learned that she’d died—I thought instead of the thing she made us feel when she let it fall. 

This look of hers is a species of side-eye, perfected in its contemporary form by Billie Eilish or Rihanna. I wonder why its occurrence in paintings, in films and in screenshots of YouTube videos strike a chord within us. Perhaps it’s because the side-eye feels like the accidental unveiling of a secret. A flicker, and a woman seems to step inwards, drawing a curtain around herself, letting a bark of rage or laughter float from the top. The side-eye is not as unambiguous, committed, or as adolescent as an eye roll—it’s an ocular seismograph for something deeper, more fleeting. The thrill of witnessing a side-eye is that of chasing fireflies: of catching the elusive dart, the streak of bright-green

There’s something about Setsuko’s eyes that makes me want to whip out a tape measure and figure out the ratio of eye to skin, then pupil to whites, as though that, of all things, would help me understand her power. She has more surface, we can say, more to work with, the widest stage to showcase the most minuscule of bodily movements, the tiniest tendu. But that would be like measuring Baryshnikov’s toes to locate the source of his grace. I can evoke her timing, her control—a beat off-time or a millimeter more to the left, and a glance can look possessed—but that doesn’t quite get at it either.

“To pose, to smile as though to say ‘Look how beautiful I am’—how horrific,” she said to a photographer, late in her career. To read any biography of hers is to scatter exclamation marks on every other page, squinting through the hushed awe of chroniclers who were given far too much stuff to work with, and still far too much to surmise. Why did she stay single? How did she work with almost every Japanese auteur alive in her time? Why did she retire to complete isolation, at the age of forty two and the height of her fame? That’s the first tier of questions, the Setsuko starter pack that her chroniclers must try to answer. You can hear them wiping their brows from the opening page. What did you do, they seem to mutter to each other over a water cooler, with how her career lifts off like a cartoon? A Nazi film director arrives in Tokyo with grand plans for an Axis-power propaganda blockbuster, and holds a casting call for the Japanese female lead. The director randomly spots a sixteen-year old Setsuko wandering into a dressing room. He brushes aside Japanese executives’ pleas to cast an actress that isn’t an amateur nobody, points, and insists: he must have her.

I like how every film-world person interviewed seemed to have answered the question “What was Setsuko Hara like in person?” with: “Well, she was reading a book.” In her teens she’s recalled squirreling away to a quiet corner during breaks, carrying “big, difficult” books that people doubted she actually read; by her twenties she’s described reading in her chair on set alone, a quiet force field around her that people rarely crossed. When asked about what she did during the war, she said she did the Russians: “Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, I had time to finish them all.” Her solitude sings long before she reportedly stopped leaving her house. I close these biographies, and my mind continues to wade in the deep and fathoms of her last decades. What was it like to be alone for half a century, after such a life? Her only contact with the outside world, it’s said, was with a small specialty bookstore in Kamakura. She would call on a landline on a certain day, to read out a list of exactly what she wanted.   

Solace found in solitude, bookishness—these are familiar, lovable traits, but doesn’t quite explain Setsuko on screen. For she plays defiant, beautiful daughters of professors—most notably in Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth, and in Ozu’s Late Spring—who, as the girl-child of studious men, is asked to use spontaneity and surprise as her primary weapons. She holds court against the pale, linear comforts of sentences. Her father’s boy acolytes look to her for a joy and a dexterity that they think can’t be found in books, and therefore she wields her power most effectively in silence. She’s most expressive when she’s not moving her mouth, her face, or her body at all. Her eyes settle, and in that movement, she spells a certain inner destruction—usually for a man—but sometimes for herself. There’s a granite in those glances which we can’t help but love her for, perhaps because we feel its absence in our contemporary stars, of a restraint that will not yield. During the American occupation, she nearly starved because she refused to consort and party with GHQ officers—“Please do not mistake what an actress is,” she’d told studio executives, who’d gotten wind that there was a certain Japanese actress General McArthur liked to watch on screen—and was often seen falling asleep on the bus, two thin sacks of rice strapped to her back. But I’m not sure if it’s right to embalm her as a saint.

Setsuko, I think, helps us face a core facet of modern life: the anxiety of feeling stuck. She tugs on this feeling like sweet flypaper, and asks us to think about our hurry to change. Playing the unloved wife, the widow, the grown-up but unmarried daughter in a post-war world, we want her to unfunk herself, and to move on—for her own good—and she refuses. The side-eye is the mark we’re given of her resolve, a proud, temporary stand for her way of being. Each director she worked with brought out different shades to this resistance. Kurosawa takes Setsuko in full close-up: in No Regrets for Our Youth, we see a pedantic boy berate her for an unserious life oriented towards pleasure, and we cut to her cheeks filling the screen. Her eyes flicker, in a distillation of disdain. Ozu steps back a few feet and takes her from the waist-up, showing her side-eye twice in Late Spring: first a covert glance of reconnaissance at a Noh performance (Who is this woman, to usurp Setsuko’s role as her father’s caretaker?) and the second with crouched shoulders, as a dismissal to a father who, by insisting on marriage, tries to shove past the happiness they’d found in a life together. Naruse steps back even further in Repast, and depicts her full body as she stares to the side at the window on a train, wholly absorbed in dreaming of a life beyond drudgery and boredom. The closer the camera is to her face—the less we can see the people around her—the more we feel their claustrophobic, chatty presence. The further we walk back from her, the more we shift from our observing her reactions to witnessing her absorption. Away from the camera, Setsuko finds it easier to consider her own alternative paths, a more quiet world. Is it so odd that she wanted them to recede even further, so that she could be stuck in peace?  

At the age of thirty-three—around the release of Tokyo Story—Setsuko developed cataracts. Her eyes were the finest things she owned, so she got them repaired. “I couldn’t blink during the surgery,” she said at a press conference announcing its success, “I think I could only do that because of my training as an actress.” The fourth or fifth time I watched the film was on a plane back to Boston. I was nineteen and watching it on a computer on my lap. By its end I was the weird person sobbing on a plane. When I closed the computer the woman in the seat next to me asked what I’d just been watching. Whether I would mind too much—the black and white was nice, compared to the offerings on the flight screen. No, I did not mind. I handed her my computer and clicked back to the beginning and started watching it again for the fifth or sixth time. “Oh,” the woman said, once every few minutes, when Setsuko appeared on screen. I fell asleep. When I woke up, the woman was crying with her hand pressed on her mouth. Isn’t life disappointing? I flagged down a flight attendant, asked her for tomato juice, and a few more paper napkins.