The Siren confesses to disappointment that there has been little so far in the Western press about Hideko Takamine, the great Japanese actress who died Tuesday, age 86. Guardian? New York Times? Other big shots? Where y'all hidin'? Takamine was a supreme talent with a tremendous filmography. Once upon a time she was the Shirley Temple of Japan, a child actress with a huge following. She translated that into a long career as an adult actress, a feat that surely can't be much more common in Japan than it is here in the U.S. Even less common is a child actor who grows into an adult performer of such breadth and power.
Then again, the Siren doesn't have much room to talk. She first saw Takamine only about five years ago, at the Toronto Cinematheque. When she settled down in her seat to watch When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, not once had the Siren heard Takamine's name. Most of the actresses the Siren knows and loves were discovered in childhood, or adolescence at the latest. The experience of seeing a performance like Takamine's, in a film the adult Siren knew nothing about--beyond the fact that Girish, bless him, told her to see it--was a cymbal crash. It was a coup de foudre.
The film was directed by the man most associated with Takamine, Mikio Naruse, and shot in widescreen format that he used perfectly for the small-scale, agonizing tale of a Ginza bar hostess and her attempts to find a stable and dignified life. The camera is usually at a bit of a distance from Keiko, a.k.a. Mama-san (Takamine), so the frame can show you the dreariness of the bar where she works, the noisy banality of the more upscale establishment run by her former protege, the sterile luxury of the apartment she keeps to maintain appearances. Frequently you see Mama on one side of the screen, crowded and seemingly pushed there by her customers, the manager who collects her bills, the banker she loves, the family that drains her emotions and her finances.
It was the ideal introduction to Takamine's qualities. In most great women's pictures, the misfortunes of love, of just being a woman, descend like nightfall, and if the actress plays only the pain she will surely become a chore, and the film like seeing a kitten kicked around the room. Takamine's weariness is everywhere in this movie, and those stairs she climbs to the bar might as well be K2 in terms of the odds arrayed against her. But the primary impression of Takamine as Keiko is courage. This woman gathers herself like a battle-hardened soldier, the sole remaining goal being the next sunrise.
The Siren will give herself this: Once she encountered Hideko Takamine, she was hooked. She took out the schedule for the Naruse retrospective then running, and carefully marked off each film with Takamine, rushing downtown to see each one she could. Thus did the Siren encounter Hideko the Bus Conductress, made when Takamine was 17 years old, and a movie that showed off her lightness and charm in the beginning, and her ability to shade into sorrow toward the end. There was her turn as the lively but trapped daughter Kiyoko in Lightning, again showing that Takamine could time a comic-relief line in an essentially somber movie and keep everything perfectly, flawlessly in tune. Takamine was an exquisite beauty, but she could push that aside as writer Fumiko Hayashi in A Wanderer's Notebook, playing an occasionally unscrupulous woman with a grimly poor early life and little claim to beauty. Takamine showed Hayashi's plainness through manner and gesture, not makeup--a seething portrait of a writer constantly observing the way her own emotions look to others even as she tries to get them on paper.
The movie the Siren most wanted to see, Floating Clouds, was sold out--frustrating, but on the other hand, good for you, Toronto. She had to see it later, once more through Girish's kind offices, and discovered what is probably Takamine's greatest performance, a portrait of heedless, headstrong, doomed love that Davis, Crawford, Sullavan or Fontaine would have recognized as part of the sisterhood.
Often when the Siren writes about the death of a great actor, she weaves in her knowledge of the life. She doesn't believe that is off-limits. The image of a star is tied up with the screen. When an artist dies, a life ends along with the work, and the Siren never thinks it wrong, when possible, to pay tribute to them both.
The Siren has been told before, however, that such matters are irrelevant--that the fact that one actor was ornery, another gracious, one darkly violent, another longsuffering, has no bearing on the work. And that is also a legitimate view, one borne out by Takamine. The Siren can't tell you much about the woman's life; a long marriage to director Zenzo Matsuyama and a dignified, largely silent retirement argue a person of refinement and intelligence, but that is guesswork. Truly, it doesn't matter. Seek out Hideko Takamine, and you will love her as the Siren did, without needing a scrap of foreknowledge, and at first sight.
An excellent piece on Yearning at Peter Nelhaus's place.
Passionate Naruse fan Keith Uhlich on A Wanderer's Notebook (he didn't like her in it, but the Siren did); Floating Clouds, Lightning and Yearning, and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
A brief, rare interview with Takamine, from 2008.
Many Hideko Takamine films, like those of Naruse himself, remain frustratingly difficult to obtain, and the Siren suggests any chance you get should be seized immediately. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is available via Criterion, as well in this BFI box set that includes Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums (no Takamine in that one, but it is a masterpiece). Flowing is part of this British DVD set, which also includes Repast and Sound of the Mountain--again, no Takamine in the latter two, but very great movies. Twenty-Four Eyes, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, is also available via Criterion; the Siren hasn't seen that one, and she intends to remedy that.