RIP. A week late, but she’s apparently not known enough here to make this newsworthy–still nothing from the New York Times. My entry point into classical Japanese cinema (non-Kurusawa) was Ozu. Unfortunately (and taking nothing away from Setsuko Hara), Takamine appeared in Ozu’s more forgettable films (Tokyo Chorus, Munekata Sisters), so I didn’t really think much about her until I turned to Mikio Naruse, an utterly brilliant director who has been almost entirely overshadowed by Ozu, due to a number of superficial similarities in their work. Nasure wisely cast her has the lead (and gave her virtually no direction) in some some of his best work.
Three of her performances stand out as particularly memorable. First, her lead roles in Kageshita’s somewhat overrated, overly sentimental Twenty-Four Eyes. With a lesser actress in the lead role, the sentimentality would have overwhelmed the entire film. She provided a depth to the personal and emotional growth of the central character that was largely responsible for saving the film from itself.
The other two that stand out are two of Naruse’s masterworks, Floating Clouds (a film that desperately cries out for the Criterion treatment) and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. The characters aren’t noticably similar (the former is a study in post-war Ennui, the latter a study in practical if doomed determination to control one’s own fate), but they’re both made all the more memorable through her remarkable performances On When A Women Ascends The Stairs, I’ll quote The Siren, who describes her better than I could:
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.
If I described the plot of that movie in detail, it would sound gratuitously abusive of its lead character. It’s a testiment to both Naruse and Takamine that it never quite feels that way. Takamine’s Mama-san’s relationship with her own emotional life–at arms length from it, largely but crucially not entirely in control of it–is a tightrope Takamine walks perfectly, and it’s absolutely necessary for the film to work.
She played the lead role in twelve of Naruse’s films, of which I’ve only seen the above two. If they’re anywhere near as good as the obove two, I really hope Criterion or someone gets to work on some more releases soon.
(And if anyone’s actually seen Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, let me know in comments if it’s worth the substantial investment of time…)