"From her first screen appearance at age five, Hideko Takamine was for decades one of the most beloved Japanese screen stars," writes Kyoko Hirano for Film Reference, tracing the career from the Shochiku Studio to the Toho Studio, then Shin-Toho, for whom she appeared in Yasujiro Ozu's The Munekata Sisters (1950), "to which she brought her light, comic flair to the serious and tragic tone of the film." After going freelance, "Takamine became the indispensable heroine in 12 [Mikio] Naruse films, in which she created the archetype of the strong-willed, hardworking woman unrewarded at the bottom of society or subjugated by the family system. Among these excellent portrayals, her role in Floating Clouds  was outstanding, bringing her and the film all the major awards of 1955. Playing a character living in the confusion of postwar Japan, she gave a passionate performance as a woman who cannot help clinging to an unfaithful man, leading to her own destruction."
Wikipedia notes, too, her performance as "an aging Ginza bar hostess desperate to escape her circumstances in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) [image above]. Naruse was shy, few of his closest collaborators knew him well and Hideko Takamine remembered — 'Even during the shooting of a picture, he would never say if anything was good, or bad, interesting or trite. He was a completely unresponsive director. I appeared in about 20 of his films, and yet there was never an instance in which he gave me any acting instructions.'" Also noted is her role "as a dedicated small town teacher observing her students' lives over several decades in [Keisuke] Kinoshita's The Twenty-four Eyes (1954) [which] is credited with that film's tremendous success and enduring popularity in Japan.... She married director-writer Zenzo Matsuyama in 1955, but set a precedent by choosing not to give up her acting career. She made many of her most memorable films in the 1960s and retired from making movies in 1979."
"Despite being recognized as a screen immortal in Japan, only a handful of her more than three hundred film appearances are known in the United States, due to the tragic destruction of the Japanese film archives during the war," wrote Ron Holloway back in 2008. "From everybody's 'little girl,' she became 'the girl next door,' and then a popular teenaged pin-up star whose photo was carried by young Japanese soldiers into the front lines of World War Two next to those of sisters and girlfriends. In the files of great Japanese actresses, Hideko Takamine... takes her place next to Kinuyo Tanaka under Kenji Mizoguchi's direction and Setsuko Hara in Yasujiro Ozu's films."
The Siren saw When a Woman Ascends the Stairs about five years ago at the Toronto Cinematheque and found it to be "he ideal introduction to Takamine's unique 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. The Siren will give herself this: Once she encountered Hideko Takamine, she was hooked. She took out the schedule for the Naruse retrospective then running, and carefully marked off each film with Takamine, rushing downtown to see each one she could." She also links to Peter Nellhaus's piece on Naruse's Yearning (1964) and Keith Uhlich's reviews in Slant of Naruse's A Wanderer's Notebook (1962), Floating Clouds, Lightning (1952), Yearning and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
Glenn Kenny points us to another discussion, this one at Dave Kehr's place.
Update, 1/2: Back in October, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put together a series of images from Women's Ways, "Mikio Naruse's contribution to the omnibus film The Kiss (1955), which consists almost entirely of scenes where Hideko Takamine, our favorite sad-eyed gal, looks at something or someone; cinematography by Kazuo Yamasaki. Suggested alternate title: 'Sonata for Reaction Shot.'" Earlier, in August, Daniel Kasman created a GIF from a scene in Naruse's Hideko, the Bus Conductress (1941).
Update, 1/3: "Besides the defining films that she made with Naruse, Takamine would also work repeatedly with director Keisuke Kinoshita," writes Chris MaGee at Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. "Takamine would play the lead role in Kinoshita's 1951 musical comedy Carmen Comes Home, Japan's first colour film, as well as one of the most popular films in Japanese history, 1954's Twenty-four Eyes.... After starring in Keisuke Kinoshita's 1979 film My Son! My Son! Takamine would hold a press conference to announce her retirement from acting, leaving behind a film legacy that few actresses, Japanese or otherwise have ever achieved." Chris also posts the trailer for Twenty-four Eyes "as well as the hit theme song from the 1949 film Ginza Kankan Musume sung by Takamine herself."
Updates, 1/4: "Ms Takamine spent much of the 1930s skipping and singing her way through a series of light comedies and musicals as a sort of Japanese Shirley Temple," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "Under the United States occupation, Ms Takamine flourished in the sort of roles — modern, liberated women — encouraged by the American authorities as a break with imperial traditions.... In her later years she published an autobiography, My Professional Diary (1976), as well as travel writing and essays."
"It is during the US occupation that she really digs into emblematic roles of iron-willed perseverance," writes R Emmet Sweeney for TCM. "In 1955, and married at the age of 31, she told a newspaper that she wanted to 'create a new style of wife who has a job' (quoted in Catherine Russell's must-read article in CineAction). She followed this thought through her life and her art — her characters who don't have this kind of freedom are marked by dissatisfaction with their subservient role in life, and the frequent tragedy is that it is impossible for them to transcend these roles. Takamine's reflects on her subtle approach in a conversation with Yukio Mishima, again quoted in Russell's piece." Russell: "Takamine discusses her favourite Hollywood actors, Ingrid Bergman and James Stewart. Mishima suggests that 'someone with strong characteristics has to be a supporting actor,' and they agree that Takamine has 'no characteristics,' which is why she is so well suited to leading roles." Sweeney: "'No characteristics' implies a kind of blankness from which Takemine pardoxically is able to wrench unutterable emotions. There are inflections to her stone-face, either holding a glance a beat too long or deflecting it downward at the decisive moment, that are of a delicacy far more expressive than a more aggressively emotional style."
Updates, 1/5: "For Naruse, the cheery, expressive demeanor of the former child star was best administered in small doses, to hint at an imaginative life overwhelmed by mundane concerns. Did his pessimism provide the extra layer of complexity that turned a gifted performer into a great one?" asks Dan Sallitt.
In the Los Angeles Times, Dennis McLellan talks with Kevin Thomas, "a former Times staff writer who reviewed Japanese films from 1962 to 1985.... In the wake of the war, Thomas said, 'there was this renaissance of Japanese filmmaking. They could discuss the war and assess blame, the impact of the occupation, the growing emancipation of women — all this kind of stuff. There was this terrific ferment, and it was a really creative period.' And for many Japanese, Phyllis Birnbaum wrote in her 1990 New Yorker profile of Takamine, 'she was as much a part of postwar Japan as the strange-tasting powdered milk distributed by the American military.' ... 'Many of Takamine's heroines were typical of the women who had grown up after the war,' film historian Donald Richie told Birnbaum. 'Like so many Japanese women then, they wanted more out of life, but couldn't get it. The war may have been over, women found, but they weren't better off. They were still fairly unhappy. So the kind of roles Takamine played fit the zeitgeist, may have even made that zeitgeist.'"
Updates, 1/8: "Hers was an obstinate, forcefully continued observation and reflection of sorrow (never more so in the history of cinema than Floating Clouds )," writes Daniel Kasman. "This obstinacy of director and actress — a partnership as significant, if not more so, as the better known Hollywood collaborations of Wayne/Ford, De Niro/Scorsese, etc — year by year, film by film, is informed entirely by Takamine. She has a conscious, sponge-like presence in Naruse's films, frowningly absorbing and remaining stained by all the pettiness of a human world, and yet always amazingly, achingly matched by an acute and moving rebellion, the need to persevere, to and continue on."
Also, don't miss Adrian Curry's personal tribute in posters.
Update, 1/16: Ronald Bergan in the Guardian: "Naruse once remarked about his female characters: 'If they try to move forward even a little, they quickly hit a wall.' The director Akira Kurosawa's description of Naruse's films as "looking calm and ordinary at first glance but which reveal themselves to be like deep rivers with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current' could equally apply to Takamine's luminous performances."
Update, 1/20: Her "voice is that of a woman who wants to have a normal life," writes Undercurrent editor Chris Fujiwara in the new issue: "The voice makes no demand, it doesn't beg. It simply states, as if listing the ingredients of a recipe or the week's expenses. It comes from a place where such a thing as a normal life would be possible, and it carries the expectation of that life into this mixed life of cinema: part reflection of the reality of the lives of Japanese women from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (Takamine's peak period), part 'reality of the reflection' of the desires that viewers, at different times all over the world, bring to filmed images of human beings. Calmly and without resentment the voice accuses the world of the film. We accept the voice as our delegate; the voice is claiming, for all of us, the right to a different life. Claiming it as an exile can make a claim, patiently, factually."