For those who’ve seen her movies, it’s hard to imagine Setsuko Hara as an old woman. Hara appeared in numerous Japanese films between 1936 and 1962, including a pair of films for Akira Kurosawa: No Regrets for Our Youth, the director’s first film after World War II, and The Idiot, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name. But it was Hara’s six films with Yasujiro Ozu for which she’ll be remembered, and in those films she played, she embodied youth and beauty — but also the inevitability that youth and beauty would pass. In Late Spring, her first film with Ozu, she plays the devoted only child of an aging widower (Chishu Ryu) whose devotion to her father and seeming lack of interest in getting married becomes a cause for concern. In Tokyo Story, her best known collaboration and one of the finest films ever made, she plays a young war widow whose smiling demeanor only barely masks the pain of her loss.
Hara died September 5 of pneumonia at the age of 95, but her passing is only now being made public. She’d been out of the public eye since the 1960s, making few appearances after Ozu’s death in 1963 and granting no interviews. Her reclusiveness earned comparisons to Greta Garbo, but in some ways, Hara was even more mysterious. She made her movies and walked away, living, as the Guardian‘s fine obituary puts it, “alone in a small house in the picturesque city of Kamakura, about 50 kilometers from Tokyo, close to where her beloved Ozu had died and was buried.”