Hideko Takamine: Japanese actress whose film career spanned half a century

Hideko Takamine was the most sought-after actress of the "golden age" of Japanese cinema. Her extraordinarily lengthy career stretched from her first part as a child star in the silent-era Mother (1929), to the end of the Seventies.

She is remembered particularly for her performances in immensely popular films of the Fifties – Floating Clouds and Twenty-Four Eyes, which Japanese critics still cite regularly as their favourites. As her career in films ebbed, she became a well-regarded author of volumes of autobiography and several novels.

Takamine starred in an astonishing 170-plus feature films, but her total screen performances may be as many as 400 due to her early start – her breakthrough occurred at the age of five, when her stepfather put her in for an audition – and wholesale exploitation by her family. After the success of Mother, her winning ways and sharp memory made her the first choice of Shochiku's top directors. She had roles in two films by Shimazu, and she appeared in Ozu's Tokyo Chorus (1931). The first of her many successful career transitions came in the mid-Thirties, when talkies gave her singing and dancing roles. By this time, she was often known fondly by her fans as "Deko-chan".

In 1941, when she made Horse under Kajiro Yamamoto, she was a teenage star who had acted for almost every top director in Japan. The film had her working under a second-unit director called Akira Kurosawa in the distant farmlands of northern Japan. Accounts of this brief encounter differ widely, but the forceful intervention of her "mother" (who was actually her aunt), upon the penniless Kurosawa, seems to have stopped in its tracks a reported engagement. Horse was a success and formed part of her emergence as an adult actress. During the war, photographs of her were widely distributed to Japan's servicemen but, as the author Donald Richie has observed, "She was not like some others, who had gone all out for the war effort. And so, after the war, people still trusted her, loved her."

Japan's occupation brought out an immediate flowering of radical politics. Takamine played a naive reporter in Mikio Naruse's A Descendant of Taro Urashima (1946), playing the "humble, realist figure".

But in 1950 the pressures of stardom, men and a never-ending trail of family dependants led her to sojourn in a Paris pension for six months of complete anonymity, an episode she writes of movingly in one of her bestselling books.

Return from exile saw her departure from studio contracts and the start of her freelance career – an extremely bold step for the period. She took a role in an Ozu film the following year and starred in Japan's first colour film under a director who would figure strongly in her life, Keisuke Kinoshita.

By 1952 Naruse's prestige was rising again and he was able to secure Takamine for Lightning. Takamine in later years had a seemingly limitless supply of anecdotes of wordless encounters with the legendarily taciturn Naruse, but she also reports persuading him, during the making of Lightning, to cut out lines of dialogue "that she didn't want to say", to rely more on the gesture of the eyes. This method would come to perfection in a series of memorable collaborations with Naruse, of whom Takamine wrote later with an almost religious regard.

But in 1954 it was for Kinoshita that she played the ever-enduring role of the rural schoolteacher in Twenty-Four Eyes. Focusing on a single-class school on an island in the Inland Sea, starting before the war, its narrative encompasses the hardships of a generation. Richie described this as "a deliberate dropping of experiments in form and technique to meet realism head-on in one of Japan's greatest lyrical pictures ... a truly beautiful performance by Hideko Takamine."

Naruse's Floating Clouds (1955), based on a story by Fumiko Hayashi, tells the story of a repatriated woman in the desperate times immediately after the war. By 1955, things were already on the move, so much that this might be regarded as a period-movie. With its doomed love story that uselessly chafes at the domestic confinement of Japan, it has, as Catherine Russell has noted "a special place in the national imaginary".

James O'Brien, a specialist scholar of Japanese autobiographical literature, has written an extensive review of Takamine's prize-winning Journal of My Life (1976) and found it "scintillating and pointed". It clearly deserves a translation into English. In the meantime, we must rely on Phyllis Birnbaum's beautifully written essay for details of Takamine's professional life, the unimaginable encumbrances of her extended family, and her happy marriage to the scriptwriter Zenzo Matsuyama.

Hideko Harayama (Hideko Takamine), actress: born Hakodate, Japan 27 March 1924; married 1955 Zenzo Matsuyama; died Tokyo 28 December 2010.

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