Hideko Takamine, a Japanese actress who over the course of nearly 200 films developed from an endearing child star into a powerful representative of the Japanese woman’s search for identity and autonomy in the years after World War II, died Dec. 28 in Tokyo. She was 86.
The cause was lung cancer, a spokesman said.
Takamine, who often seemed to be gallantly fighting back tears with her famously gentle smile, was widely regarded by Japanese and foreign critics as one of the three great actresses of the classical Japanese cinema. Her two peers were the aristocratic Kinuyo Tanaka, who worked extensively with the director Kenji Mizoguchi (“Sansho the Bailiff”) and died in 1977, and Setsuko Hara, whose portrayals of modern middle-class women were associated with the films of Yasujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”).
Takamine was most notably the muse of Mikio Naruse, who, although not as well known in the west as Mizoguchi and Ozu, is frequently ranked as equally important in Japanese film history. For Naruse, Takamine often played women from rural or lower-middle-class backgrounds who were forced to make their own way in the world, often saddled with weak or unfaithful men.
Among her best-known work with Naruse was “Floating Clouds” (1955), in which she played a secretary in love with her married boss, sticking with him from a wartime post in Indochina to contemporary Tokyo despite his coldness, and “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (1960), in which she played a widow working as a bar hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district.
A different, less tragic side of Takamine’s personality emerged in the many movies she made with the popular filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita. In “Carmen Comes Home” (1951), the first Japanese feature to be filmed in color, she was an exotic dancer who returns from Tokyo to her native village, bringing a whiff of modern attitudes with her; in “Twenty-Four Eyes” (1954) she was a female Chips, a schoolteacher who guides her charges from the rise of militarism in the 1930s through the aftermath of war.
Born on March 27, 1924, in Hakodate, on the southern tip of the northern island of Hokkaido, Takamine entered films at age 5, appearing in “Haha” (“Mother”) for the director Hotei Nomura. Like much prewar Japanese cinema, that film now appears to be lost. A rare surviving example of her work as a child star is Ozu’s 1931 “Tokyo Chorus.” She was reunited with him for “The Munekata Sisters” in 1950.
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. She successfully made the transition to young-adult roles as the country moved closer to war, notably in the 1941 film “Uma” (“Horse”), in which she was a farm girl forced to give up the beloved animal she had raised from a colt. During the war, she became a popular pinup girl for Japanese troops and performed in nightclubs.
Under the United States occupation, Takamine flourished in the sort of roles — modern, liberated women — encouraged by the American authorities as a break with imperial traditions. Her 1949 film “The Cancan Dancer of the Ginza” generated a hit single, on which Takamine was backed by an American-style swing band.
In 1950, Takamine became one of the first Japanese stars to renounce a studio contract and go freelance; soon, guiding her own career, she found her way to her mature collaborations with Naruse and Kinoshita. She was at the height of her popularity in 1955 when she married the screenwriter Zenzo Matsuyama, and again defied convention by continuing to work as an actress rather than withdraw into domestic life.
She retired from the screen 50 years after she began, after appearing in one last film for Kinoshita, “My Son! My Son!,” in 1979. In her later years, she published an autobiography, “My Professional Diary” (1976).