The Grace of the Japanese Screen

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Hideko Takamine played an aging bar hostess seeking a better way of life in Mikio Naruse’s 1960 classic “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.”

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts and Entertainment Editor

Sad news from Tokyo emerged over the New Year’s holiday, when it was revealed that Hideko Takamine, the actress who took on roles that transformed the expectations of women in Japanese cinema, died at age 86.

Takamine passed away at a Tokyo hospital on Dec. 28, after a long battle with lung cancer, her attorney reported. A memorial service arranged by her husband, director Zenzo Matsuyama, was held the following day and attended only by family and close friends.

A veteran of more than 300 films, Takamine began acting at the age of five, and continued to take roles until retiring from the screen in 1979. After being considered a kind of Japanese Shirley Temple as a child, she became perhaps the most potent talent in what became the fertile post-war era of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 60s, regarded by many as that nation’s golden age of movies.

Portraying women with a gentle smile but unprecedented strength on screen, Takamine also flexed her power by becoming one of the first actors in Japan to break away from the studio system of contracting, leaving Shin Toho Studio in 1950 and becoming a much sought-after freelance actress.

Born in 1924 in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Takamine’s first role was in the 1929 silent feature “Haha” (Mother), a film that was lost during to the ravages of war, a fate suffered by many pre-war works. Her fame took off in earnest after she appeared in the 1938 film “Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu” (Writing Lessons).

Takamine was already hugely popular when she starred in director Keisuke Kinoshita’s school teacher drama “Niju-shi no Hitomi” (Twenty-four Eyes) in 1954, which has become one of the most recognized films in Japanese cinematic history. She also held the lead roles in “Ukigumo” (Floating Clouds) in 1955 directed by Mikio Naruse, and “Yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki” (The Lighthouse) in 1957, also directed by Kinoshita.

Takamine, seen above in an early publicity photo, became a successful essayist after retiring from acting.

It is for her films with Kinoshita and Naruse during the 1950s and early 1960s that she is best known, and which made her Japan’s top star. Takamine was an especially favorite muse of Naruse, starring in at least a dozen of his films. She played uncharacteristically strong-willed women, working against a traditional class and family system that kept female progress in check.

Much of Takamine’s best work is widely available on video in the United States. Her portrayal of a woman blindly in love with an undeserving man in  “Floating Clouds” is considered one of her signature roles, as is the transcendent performance she delivered as a widowed bar hostess trying to break free of that lifestyle in Naruse’s “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki) in 1960. The latter film is readily available at the Little Tokyo Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.

“Many of Takamine’s heroines were typical of the women who had grown up after the war,” film historian Donald Richie told New York Times writer Phyllis Birnbaum in 1990. “Like so many Japanese women then, they wanted more out of life, but couldn’t get it.

“The war may have been over, women found, but they weren’t better off. They were still fairly unhappy. So the kind of roles Takamine played fit the zeitgeist, may have even made that zeitgeist,” Richie said.

In a 2007 interview, Takamine remembered Naruse as a shy recluse who was well-known by only a few of his closest collaborators.

“Even during the shooting of a picture, he would never say if anything was good, or bad, interesting or trite,” she recalled. “He was a completely unresponsive director. I appeared in about 20 of his films, and yet there was never an instance in which he gave me any acting instructions.”

In another bold move, after marrying Matsuyama in 1955, she chose not to give up her acting career in favor of a domestic life, an expectation commanded of almost all Japanese women at the time.

After leaving acting, Takamine became known as a witty essayist and published a popular memoir, “Watashi no Tosei Nikki” (My Diary) in 1976.

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