January 4, 2011
Hideko Takamine, who passed away on Dec. 28th at the age of 86, had a face worth puzzling over. In her films with director Mikio Naruse, she engineered an impassive, barely perceptible sag to her delicate kewpie doll features, embodying the spiritual toll post-WWII deprivations had inflicted on her indomitable Japanese women. She expresses the sag with supreme subtlety in Floating Clouds (1955), and later, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) (both available on this BFI box). But this reduces her accomplishments to my limited view of what I’ve seen of her work, as she had a long career before and after the masterpieces I associate her with.
She began her film career at the age of 5, with a part in 1929′s Haha (Mother), which is considered lost (sad, since it would make a stellar double bill with Hong Sang-soo’s recent Hahaha). She rapidly rose to become a child star, nicknamed Deko-chan, and garnered comparisons to Shirley Temple, although Hideko would often play both male and female roles (this according to Chris MaGee, whom I also gleaned the above photo from). From this period, she can be seen in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931), available on DVD from Criterion in the Silent Ozu box set.
In 1937 she would leave the Toho studios for Shochiku, where her persona of stubborn independence would be developed over the next 40 years. During WWII she transitioned into a sex symbol, as Dave Kehr writes in the NY Times, becoming a “popular pin-up girl for Japanese troops” while also performing a nightclub act. It is during the U.S. occupation that she really digs into emblematic roles of iron-willed perseverance. In 1955, and married at the age of 31, she told a newspaper that she wanted to “create a new style of wife who has a job.” (quoted in Catherine Russell’s must read article in CineAction). She followed this thought through her life and her art – her characters who don’t have this kind of freedom are marked by dissatisfaction with their subservient role in life, and the frequent tragedy is that it is impossible for them to transcend these roles. Takamine’s reflects on her subtle approach in a conversation with Yukio Mishima, again quoted in Russell’s piece:
In a 1954 interview with Yukio Mishima, Takamine discusses her favourite Hollywood actors, Ingrid Bergman and James Stewart. Mishima suggests that “someone with strong characteristics has to be a supporting actor,” and they agree that Takamine has “no characteristics,” which is why she is so well suited to leading roles.
“No characteristics” implies a kind of blankness from which Takemine pardoxically is able to wrench unutterable emotions. There are inflections to her stone-face, either holding a glance a beat too long or deflecting it downward at the decisive moment, that are of a delicacy far more expressive than a more aggressively emotional style. This was aided, perhaps, by Naruse’s maddeningly hands-off approach. Takemine:
“More than merely reticent”, his “refusal to talk was downright malicious. Even during the shooting of a picture, he would never say if something was good or bad, interesting or trite. He was a completely unresponsive director. I appeared in about twenty of his films, and yet there was never an instance in which he gave any acting instructions.”
In my reading of this quote, Naruse wanted Takemine to act even less. His studied distance from his actors encouraged a pared down, more instinctual style, and despite her complaints, returning for close to 20 films says something about her opinion of the man and their work together.
For Japanese audiences, she is best known for her spunky work with director Keisuke Kinoshita, like her exotic dancer in Carmen Comes Home (1951, Japan’s first color film), and her school-teacher in the smash hit Twenty Four Eyes (1954, available on DVD from Masters of Cinema), who tends to her students from the rise of fascism through the after-effects of WWII.
Takamine retired from performing in 1979, and maintained an apathetic attitude toward her time on film, focusing instead on her late career as a writer, publishing travel articles as well as her memoirs . She described her first twenty years on-screen as nothing more than a “money making machine”, and her complaints of Naruse’s working methods are well-documented. This spirited indifference toward her remarkable career is not dissimilar from her characters, who vainly try to dismiss the past in order to capture a quicksilver moment of happiness in the present. Fortunately for us, Takamine’s past artistry is preserved (for the most part) on screen, and will speak to us for decades to come.