Obituary: Haruko Sugimura

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The Independent Online
Haruko Sugimura was a great stage and screen actress who gained world-wide fame in classic films by the masters of the Japanese cinematographic art - Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Mizoguchi and Keisuke Kinoshita, among many others. She was also a "sacred monster" of the revitalised new Japanese stage in the style known as shingkei, strongly influenced by realistic European drama.

Sugimura was born in Hiroshima, but her parents died when she was very small, and she was adopted by a building contractor who was a shareholder in the Kotobukiza Theatre in that city. Her adoptive mother was a theatre fan, and from an early age took her to watch performances of kabuki, bunraku (puppet theatre), shimpa (a new form of kabuki using both male and female players) and visiting western ballet and opera. Haruko was spellbound by Pavlova in The Dying Swan but even more impressed by the great soprano Miura Tamaki in Madame Butterfly. So her early ambition was to become an opera singer.

Her adoptive parents encouraged her to go to Tokyo and sit the examination for the Tokyo Ongaku Gakko (now Tokyo University of the Arts) but she did not pass. She stayed a year in Tokyo attending a preparatory music school, and took the examination once more. She again failed, and returned to Hiroshima.

There she found a post as substitute music teacher at a girls' school, where one of her colleagues sang the praises of the new-style theatre at the Tsukiji Shogekijo in Tokyo. In 1927, Haruko resigned from the school and went to Tokyo again, pretending that she was going to study music. But instead she presented herself at the Tsukiji Shogekijo and was taken on as a student actress, though she was warned she must overcome her strong Hiroshima accent. Almost at once, she got a non-speaking part, playing the organ with her back to the audience in Narukichi Fujimori's drama, Kanojo ("She"). When an actress fell sick, she took her small part, and for the first time spoke on stage. The play had a two-month run, and her mother discovered her daughter's deception. Her reaction was to close her house in Hiroshima and go to Tokyo to help Haruko further her career.

At first, Haruko played minor parts in Chekhov and Ibsen, and kept on appearing until, after a production of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, the theatre closed in 1929. But a new acting career started for her in 1932, when she appeared in the movie Namiko, a "talkie" made by the Oriental Movie Company, with a veteran actress Yaeko Mizutani.

In 1933, she married a Keio University medical student five years her junior. The new theatre company had by now re- opened as the Tsukiji-za, playing modern dramas until it, too, closed down in 1936.

The year 1937 was a very important one for the new Japanese theatre and for Sugimura. In September, the well-known haiku poet Mantaro Kubota and the modern playwright Kunio Kishida founded the Bungaku-za (Literary Theatre), and Sugimura was invited to join the company. Kishida had studied drama for two years with Jacques Copeau in Paris, and incorporated many of his revolutionary theories in shingeki.

At the same time, Haruko continued her movie career in the Shochiku Company's Asakusa no hi ("Light in Asakusa") directed by Yasujiro Shimazu. In 1938, Kubota wrote Shigatsu jin ("End of April") in which she starred as Otsune. There followed many good parts in plays by Jules Renard and Georges Courteline: then Pagnol's Marius and Fanny brought Sugimura into ever-greater prominence, and she began to be regarded as a promoter of new, progressive drama. Their theatre was the only one to go on playing right through the Second World War.

It was during the war, in 1941, that a Bungakuza playwright wrote for Haruko a play she was to be associated with all her life: Kaoru Morimoto's Onna no issho ("One Woman's Life") about the daily life of a woman from the age of 16 to 66. She eventually played in it nearly a thousand times, taking it on tour all over Japan, and to China and Russia.

She was invited by a movie director, Siro Toyoda to appear in Uguisu ("The Bush Warbler") in 1938, in which she played an uncertified midwife arrested for illegal practice but redeemed by delivering a pregnant woman's baby in prison. It seemed that realism could go no further. In 1940 she appeared in Kojima no haru ("Small Island Springtime"), a rather grim tale of a woman afflicted by Hansen's disease (a form of leprosy), and it was chosen as top of the annual list of "10 Best Movies". This remarkable, almost documentary style film by Toyoda was seen by an impressionable young actress, now famous, Hideko Takamine, who wrote about it in her autobiography Watashi no tosei nikki ("My Working Life Diary") in 1980. Takamine describes a sequence in which Sugimura, keeping her back to the camera to hide her deformed features, is taking down washing from a bamboo pole, and yet manages to express emotion so well that Takamine realises for the first time what true acting can be.

After the war, Haruko Sugimura's career flourished on both stage and screen, and then on television, where she appeared in numerous plays. From 1950, she acted in an amazing variety of parts including, in 1953, her first big hit, Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. She was Gertrude in Hamlet, and in 1956, Yukio Mishima wrote for her one of her best parts as Asako Kageyama in Rokumeikan. It was a big success, followed by his Nettaiju ("Tropic Tree") in 1960.

Other Japanese authors wrote for her: Tsutomu Minakami's Yamahida ("A Fold In The Mountains") and Uminari ("Sea Sound"). Sawako Ariyoshi wrote an amazing documentary play for her, Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma ("Hanaoka Seishu's Wife") about the first operation under general anaesthetic by Dr Hanaoka who did the first operation for breast cancer in 1805 - 40 years before the use of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The play depicts the struggle between the doctor's wife and his mother to take part in the first operation. The subject of the play, in which Sugimura was outstanding as the jealous mother, caused a sensation. She was playing in a revival of it in February this year, but had to leave the cast because of her illness, pancreatic cancer.

Haruko Sugimura's movie career was a long one. Yasujiro Ozu chose a shingeki actress for the first time when she played in his Banshun ("Late Spring") in 1949, then Bakashu ("Late Autumn") in 1951. Her greatest triumph was in Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953) in which she plays a domineering beauty parlour owner, memorable for a prim, sour, disapproving expression. She appears in several other notable Ozu movies, ending with Samma no aji ("The Taste of Mackerel") in 1962, his last film. She also appeared with other great directors: in Masaku Kobayashi's Kwaidan ("Ghostly Tales", 1964), and Akira Kurosawa's Akahige (Red Beard, 1965). She won innumerable awards, but in 1995 refused the greatest of all, the Order of Cultural Merit, saying she would not feel comfortable on stage if she accepted a prize she felt she was unworthy of.

Her motto might be this line from One Woman's Life: "Nobody chose this way for me - I chose it for myself", which made me recall my own line: "I follow no path - the path follows me." She said her favourite time was when she was waiting in the wings for the curtain to go up. She has made her last curtain call, a great lady of a universal drama, life itself.

Haruko Sugimura, stage and screen actress, born Hiroshima 6 January 1909; married 1933 (one adopted daughter); died Tokyo 4 April 1997.