Saturday, January 01, 2011

In Memoriam: Hideko Takamine, 1924-2010


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.

Meanwhile, Cladrite Radio points out in comments that TCM is running Ozu's Tokyo Chorus, featuring a childhood performance by Takamine, Sunday January 2 at midnight EST. The Siren plans to pounce.

26 comments:

Dan Callahan said...

To know Hideko Takamine is to love her. I enjoyed seeing her in Ozu's "Tokyo Chorus" as a little girl. You can tell that it's her right away; that pout is unmistakable!

I love her in "Lightning," "Floating Clouds" and "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs"; those are givens. But I really love her particularly in "Untamed," where she fights her way to some happiness, for once. When I think about Naruse's dark comic tone, I think of Takamine. She's like all of Fassbinder's women rolled into one.

So glad you wrote something about her. Always wanted to send her a letter in Tokyo and am sorry now that I didn't. Her passing deserves much, much more coverage.

dr.morbius said...

Twenty-Four Eyes is a shameless tear-jerker, but it's an effective tear-jerker. I have friends who hate it (and don't care much for its director, Keisuke Kinoshita, either), but I love it. There's a scene where Takamine's school teacher is taking the roll and we see the faces of each of her 24 students in Twenty-Four Eyes that's kind of wonderful, especially when the audience knows that many of these kids are going to be killed in the war. Anyway, it's a lovely film. I recommend it.

Takamine is also in The Human Condition, also available from Criterion.

I hadn't heard about her death. It's a great loss.

Cladrite Radio said...

Thanks for your post. I'm a huge Naruse fan and a great admirer of Ms. Takamine's, so I'm very sorry to have learned of her passing.

Just an FYI, for those with access to Turner Classic Movies, they're showing TOKYO CHORUS at midnight, eastern time, on Sunday, Jan. 2.

Arthur S. said...

At the Mumbai film festival this year, I saw Keisuke Kinoshita's IMMORTAL LOVE. That movie tackles melodrama as if it were science-fiction and Takamine's performance is really brave in that. It should get wider attention too since it tackles the same Ozu-Mizoguchi-Naruse territory of women suffering from patriarchal society but the style is unlike anything in Japanese or international cinema at that time. It made BRANDED TO KILL look harmless by comparison.

She has always been one of my favourite actresses. WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS was also my first introduction to her work and Naruse. HIDEKO is also a big favourite of mine and FLOATING CLOUDS is one f the best. Ozu often claimed to dislike most Japanese films(his favourites were Vidor and Lubitsch) but FLOATING CLOUDS moved him deeply, he called it a masterpiece. Naruse started at Shochiku studios under his shadow and was famously reprimanded by the studio chief that he was too much like Ozu("We don't need two Ozus!").

The Siren said...

Dan, Untamed sounds great; I will keep an eye out for it. I'm so glad that Cladrite Radio (fabulous nom de screen) pointed out that Tokyo Chorus is on Sunday. Thanks so much for the pointer. Fire up the DVR.

Dr Morbius, there are parts of the web where "shameless tearjerker" is a warning; to the Siren it's a three-star Michelin ranking. So, yes, must see. I rather love the premise anyway.

Arthur, also making a note of Immortal Love, as it also sounds like it's up my alley and parked in my garage. Incidentally, I had no idea Ozu loved Vidor and Lubitsch, but that gladdens my heart.

Gloria said...

"The Siren will give herself this: Once she encountered Hideko Takamine, she was hooked"

I second this, seeing her for the first time in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs was a revelation of both takamine the actress and Naruse the director. This film is one that never fails to catch when I lend it to friends, even when those friends are not particularly keen with black and white or japanese films, but Keiko's plight is one to which many working women can relate.

I read that she was regarded like the "girl next door" by Japanese filmgoers, while Setsuko Hara was more the Garbo type. She had an exploitative mother (actually her aunt) and, like Keiko, she must have felt that her family was sucking the blood out of her, until she took the decision to take a vacation in Paris and take a break from her film work: when she went back to Japan, she was her own woman, and ready to work in the most reamarkable films of her long career.

さよなら、でこちゃん!

Chris Edwards said...

Dan's right on about Tokyo Chorus--my favorite of Ozu's early films, in which the fate of First Daughter (Takamine) prompts a crucial turn.

Noel Vera said...

Tragic, but more tragic is the lack of a response. For at least Floating Clouds and When a Woman Ascending the Stairs at least she should be remembered. Damn.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ozu was quite the film freak. Posters for favorite Hollywood movies figure in many of his films and the plot of I Was Born But. . . pivots on a Stan Laurel impression.

24 Eyes is a lot more than a tearjerker,IMO. It's truly trage. Hideok Takamine was lovely in it. But then she was always lovely.

The Siren said...

Noel, I feel sure that Dave Kehr must be planning something and I am keeping an eye peeled; there's a discussion of her in his comments right now. I suspect there are a number of things at play here, including of course the lack of availability of English-language versions of her films, and perhaps even something as technical as people having a hard time independently confirming her death.

Chris, thanks for the extra Tokyo Chorus prodding; I'm more eager than ever to record it.

Gloria, of course you were the first person I thought of when I heard this news! I had no idea she had a stage aunt. What an incredible story. Did you read her autobiography? If you know more details of her life, it would be a good deed indeed to post them for the Interweb denizens who loved her, and there's a number of us out there for sure. If you do, believe me I will link, in neon.

The Siren said...

David, I strongly suspect my reaction to Twenty-Four Eyes will be very much like yours and Dr. Morbius, but I certainly have seen some reviewers who recoiled from what they saw as excessive sentimentality. I also may be a rather lonely vote on A Wanderer's Notebook, although as I recall Gloria was the one who told me to see it.

The Siren said...

Adding that I was also told many moons ago to see Rickshaw Man if possible; and unfortunately, it hasn't been.

dr.morbius said...

Whoops. I need to correct my earlier comment. She has 12 students. 12 x 2 Eyes each = 24 Eyes. Doh! (Yeah, I can do math).

But, yeah, if you love tear-jerkers, you'll love it.

The Siren said...

Don't worry, there is no math on the test...

Aside to "Altaf" of AwardsDailyForum, whoever you are, thank you for the kind words there. I would say so in that forum, however, AwardsDaily seems to want nothing to do with me or my login attempts. I hope you see this here.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Thanks for the kind mention.

I'll be putting Tokyo Chorus on the Netflix queue.

May I recommend Carmen Comes Home? The Panorama DVD is reasonably priced, with reasonably good English subtitles for a Hong Kong produced DVD. Unlike some of the Panorama titles, this one actually is Region 3. Otherwise I would have done some screen shots when I wrote about this film a while back.

Yojimboen said...

When I heard she’d died, I grabbed her two Carmen films (Carmen Comes Home and Carmen’s Pure Love) down off the shelf and screened them in reverence.

The gal could slut it up with the best of ‘em. There are flashing-eyed, scenery-crunching moments in both movies where Hideko (as ‘Carmen the Stripper’) is trailing her kimono to several ends; not least of which was the challenge:
Follow that, Machiko Kyô!

Goddamn, but she was great!

girish said...

Thank you for this lovely tribute, Siren. Although it had Setsuko Hara and not Hideko Takamine in it, I vividly remember our outing one evening to catch Naruse's REPAST at the Cinematheque in Toronto. I also remember from our wide-ranging conversation how powerfully touched you were by the Takamine performances you'd seen.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Carmen films were really something in their day. Donald Ritchie has written of the impact thay had on Japanese society, reflecting the rapid social change that was going on at the time.

Yojimboen said...

And now Per Oscarsson is gone. Oh, dear. One of the world’s most under-appreciated actors has reportedly died in a house-fire. His last appearance(s) are in the Millennium Trilogy.

He won ‘best actor’ at the Danish and Swedish Academy Awards, the 1966 Cannes Festival and the US National Society of Film Critics for his role in Hunger but, for unknown reasons, never seriously pursued an international (H’Wood) career. Him, I will miss.

Brian said...

Proof of just how big a star Takemine was as a teenager: in the film Hideko the Bus Conductress (a real gem) she plays a character (a bus conductress, natch) named Okoma, yet her own name is in the title of the film! How often does that happen? I mean, Mary Pickford played in several films with "Mary" in the title, but her character was named Mary in all of those films (and many others.)

This is a great tribute. I love your paragraph on not knowing much about Takemine's personal attributes beyond those shown on screen, yet not loving her any less because of it.

I've been on a bit of a Kurosawa kick lately (thanks to a local theatre programming what will likely be the area's last tribute of his centennial year) and last night I watched (on DVD) Chris Marker's documentary A.K., mostly shot on location of filming Ran. Contrasting moments in the doc. are shots of moments from earlier Kurosawa films, as shown on a television set in a Marker-red room. Purely by chance, lo and behold, at one point who appears on the monitor but Hideko Takemine, in a clip from the 1941 film Kurosawa edited, assistant directed (and reportedly even directed, in part), Horse! Her face is in close-up, as she observes and circles a brown stallion on a hillside, then rushes to tearfully embrace it. The camerawork appears remarkable, but just to see this rare glimpse of the recently-departed actress was the more overwhelming aspect of coming across this clip. One day I hope I can see Horse in its entirety- Takemine is the lead.

B said...

For anyone interested in delving deeper into Hideko Takemine's life and what made her tick, the Phyllis Birnbaum essay, "The Odor of Pickled Radishes," is a must read. This extensive portrait of Takamine can be found in the book "Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: 5 Japanese Women," published by Columbia University Press (1999).

Birmbaum's book includes, as well (as the title makes clear), four other pieces on Japanese women, including one on the famous Japanese actress Sumako Matsui. If that name is slightly familiar, it may be because of the worthwhile but seldom seen Kenji Mizoguchi film, "The Loves of Sumako the Actress."

gmoke said...

"Tokyo Chorus" includes one of those echoes that may be characteristic of great Japanese directors: the retired teacher who runs a pork cutlet restaurant. It appears also in Ozu's "The Only Son" with the great Chishu Ryu playing the teacher. He is as lean and lanky as the actor who plays the teacher in "Tokyo Chorus."

The ending with the old school classmates celebrating their teacher is another echo, this time of Kurosawa's last film, "Madadayo," in which the principal movement of the film is built around recurring classmate celebrations of their old teachers. "Madadayo" seems to me to be an echo of "Ikiru" as well.

The Siren said...

This thread is so wonderful to read; thank you all so much for the insights into this fine actress. It's been a week since she died and I am sad that there is still so little out there, but there are also some wonderful comments at Some Came Running. And there are a couple of great quotes from the lady herself here.

Gloria said...

Thanks for the new links (hope to post mine within the week).

I second B's commendation of Phyllis Birnbaum's book: it is, to my knowledge, the best Takamine source in English languaje... It's one chapter but one filled by fine insights by Takamine herself and Japanese directors, critics and spectators

The Siren said...

Thanks Gloria & B, I will seek it out. Meanwhile, there is also this tribute at the fine blog Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Gloria said...

Her obituary in LA Times:
http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-hideko-takamine-20110105,0,3061850.story