Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "The Narusian Setsuko Hara" by Richie Abraham

Richie Abraham is a cinephile who lives and works in Mumbai, and whose regular comments on this blog have been wonderfully intelligent and insightful, and at times mindblowing. And so it is I am delighted to be presenting The Great Acting Blog's very first guest post, which I think is an excellent exploration our great and mysterious art form. James.



Mikio Naruse was one of the great Japanese directors who made quick movies pertaining to his personal vision of the suffering of women in contemporary Japan. Repast is one of his masterpieces and a personal favourite of mine. It stars the inimitable Setsuko Hara  (Michiyo) and the assured Ken Uehara (Mr Okamoto) as the middle-class couple who are parading through an unprepossessing lifeless marriage immersed in  ennui. This routine turns haywire when they face an unexpected visit of Okamoto’s  flirtatious young cousin who turns their married life upside down. The events that follow prove to be the push that Michiyo needed to search for her own identity.  This plot conforms with the usual Narusian motifs of the female tragedy and the tenacity and fortitude that the women portray in light of these gargantuan struggles that never seem to end. Like almost all his films , this film too ends with an acceptance,  not a meek or surrendering one but rather a brave enlightening one. But here for a change we don’t witness it as a tragedy but rather as a reinforcement of the spirit, a realization of the nature of marital suffering making it one of Naruse’s least pessimistic films.
Setsuko Hara who is widely known for her Noriko trilogy with Ozu gives a stellar performance which at least to me overshadows her fabulous work as the endearing daughter in her films with Ozu. We still witness the smile that moved us in Ozu but it is supplemented with a restless restraint which forms a dulcet counterpoint.  The only other performance of a wanting housewife that I could compare it with, would be of Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata. Every single time I view this movie , it unveils a newer dimension to her character. It thrusts the basic question  “What is the nature of Acting?” ,” What does it mean to deliver a genuine effective performance?”

Acting in the most theoretical terms should be  the  process of subjecting  the actor’s  own conscious self to the sense experiences of ‘the character’ being  portraying and responding to them as ‘he himself’  would  with a certain predestined intention. It is important to note that the character is just a notion, a concept, of which the actor is the corporeal manifestation. This process involves projecting his self into the space-time  zone of the character. The success of the performance then depends on both his seamless projection into the character and his own responses to the perceived sense experiences.  To bring Bresson , this  character ( as a part of the director’s  world )  is born in the Director’s mind and dies on his script ; is brought to life by the actor again when he lives it ; dies again on the screen and then lives an individual personal life for an eternity in the consciousness of the viewer.  Thus when we witness an honest portrayal of a particular character it is the honesty of the actor that reaches to us through the mise-en-scene of the director.  It becomes imperative for the actor to be infallibly  honest to the sense experiences that he must subject his consciousness to. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the director to create the mise-en-scene which form a medium through which  the performance reaches out to this world that the director has in his mind.  


Such instances of masterful direction and acting abound in this film. Naruse never looms on Michiyo’s face searching for reactions, he only provides glimpses of them and every single time they unleash a torrent of emotions. In one of the memorable scenes of the film, when Michiyo comes back home from a visit to her friends to find out  how her husband and his cousin have paid no heed to what she said prior to leaving, Naruse unfolds all her reactions and her husband’s responses in a completely matter of fact way. We are provided with semi close ups of both characters and emotion is mightily conveyed through the disdain that Michiyo shows when she hurries through her chores. The scene ends with a priceless expression followed by Michiyo turning back to her cat and him relaxing on the floor smoking a cigarette. What follows in the plot seems completely inevitable after this encounter.

Okamoto’s utter indifference seems to have stemmed more out of the habits of their married life. Michiyo exclaims at one point “You only see food when you see me”. His indifference ignites a desire in Michiyo to find meaning in her life. She leaves him and goes to tokyo and starts looking for a job. But there is no escapism in Naruse. A running irony throughout the plot is how everyone who greets Okamoto takes his married life for granted as he has such a beautiful wife and everytime he nods with an unwilling conformism wondering how he has forgotten to spot this beauty.  The film ends when Okamoto arrives at Tokyo asking her to come back. This scene immediately bring to mind the finale of Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy “ but its not a miracle here. It is  Michiyo's resolve that brings about this change. She has searched her soul and that feeling of resolve she filled herself with once, now seems to her an erroneous moment of caprice.

Michiyo is an endearing woman played with impeccable grace and restraint. One leaves the film carrying this brilliant characterisation of Miss Hara forever.


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