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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Setsuko Hara in One of Her First Movies

Setsuko Hara in one of her first movies (the fifth, to be very precise): it's Atarashiki Tsuchi (The New Earth), made in 1936 - 37, and this movie has quite a story. I'm not speaking about what happens in the movie; it's about what happened to the movie: overloaded by a heavy political message, its fate followed all political turmoils of that epoch.

The New Earth was a German-Japanese co-production aiming to symbolize the power of the alliance between the two countries, based on shared values, the Volk ohne Raum and all that stuff. The title (The New Earth, or The New Soil) was referring to Manchuria: the plot presented in the most idyllic way the colonialist ambitions of Japan.

Setsuko Hara was playing the role of a girl (descendant of an old samurai family) whose heart was filled with a chaste love; the chosen one was a young Japanese just returned from studies in Germany.

As it is the case in all love stories the heart of the young man vacillated for a while between Misuko (Setsuko Hara) and Gerda (played by Ruth Eweler), a German young lady who (as it happened) was traveling to Japan right then. But (of course) Gerda had a high understanding of political correctness imperatives (well, as they were understood in Berlin and Tokyo those times), so she convinced Teruo (that was the name of the hero) to marry Misuko.

Setsuko Hara and Ruth Eweler

So, the wedding followed and the new family moved to Manchuria (where else?), to bring there the Japanese lights. As simple as that! You'd say it's creepy, but look at some war movies made in the epoch in other countries as well.

The movie had two directors: the German Arnold Fanck (famous for his Bergfilms that made known the name of Leni Riefenstahl), and the Japanese Mansaku Itami, a specialist of jidaigeki (the word used in Japan to designate period dramas).

The issue was that each director had totally opposite views about how to make the movie. Fanck was fascinated by Nippon feudal traditions (the way Europeans knew about them), while Itami had enough of all that stuff and liked to mock the traditions: his jidaigeki movies were actually kind of satires, with personages trying to continue revolute behaviors in modern Japan.

No wonder the two directors went each on his own way with filming and finally two versions emerged. Even the title was not the same. A movie with a plethora of titles! Die Tochter des Samurai, and Die Liebe der Mitsu were used in Berlin, while The New Earth or The New Soil were intended for English speaking countries.

More than that: it could sound weird today, but in 1937 Nazi Germany had still diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, and the Chinese Embassy issued a strong protest against the way the movie was presenting the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Thus any reference to this was censored in Berlin!

I found a very interesting essay on the web, telling the history of this movie.

Well, you like it or not, this was the first movie where Setsuko Hara had a leading role. You could say that in Germany as well as in Japan Arnold Fanck proved really a good eye in discovering great talents!

For me, searching materials about The New Earth was also the occasion to find info about an earlier film with Setsuko Hara: Kochiyama Soshun, made by Sadao Yamanaka; the history of the movies made by Yamanaka is fascinating and I promise to come on them as soon as I can!

(Yasujiro Ozu and Setsuko Hara)



  • Thanks for the video clips for The New Earth. I agree that Yamanaka is a good director -Japanese films from the 1930s fascinate me and are one of the surprising and great "lost" decades in film history, with many fantastic examples of gentle, humane films that go against (or ignore...) the militaristic stance of Japan at the time.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:49 AM  

  • Thank you for your comment.

    I watched all videos I found on youTube with footage from the movies of Yamanaka and he was amazing; a genius in the same line with Ozu, no less!

    I intend to discuss the footage I have seen on the blog, as soon as I can. Actually I promised that; I didn't find time yet.

    Thanks again.

    By Blogger Pierre Radulescu, at 11:54 AM  

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