Cinemasters: Kinuyo Tanaka Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the films. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

There used to be every excuse for not knowing the six films directed by Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-1977). For one thing, her long, glittering career as a star had long eclipsed her work behind the camera. This is an actor who made over 200 screen appearances and collaborated with some of the greatest names in Japanese cinema from Kenji Mizoguchi to Mike Naruse, Yasujirô Ozu to Akira Kurosawa. In recent years, it has also been nigh on impossible to watch her directorial work. Prints have largely been unavailable and those in circulation were of a poor quality or badly subtitled. Now there is no excuse. Thanks to a series of restorations, originally scheduled to premiere at the cancelled 2020 Locarno Film Festival, the six titles are shining brighter than ever. They have been on tour from the BFI in London to the Edinburgh International Film Festival and now arrive at GFT.

Tanaka was born in 1909 to a family of kimono merchants. Her father died when she was young, leaving intense financial pressures on the family. Tanaka entered the film industry as a teenager and was seen in high profile roles from the late 1920s. A favourite in melodramas and romantic dramas, her popularity grew to the point where they started to use her name in the titles, including Kinuyo The Lady Doctor (1937) and Kinuyo’s First Love (1940). Some of her best performances were for Mizoguchi, including The Life Of Oharu (1952) and Ugetsu (1953).

Tanaka once described herself as being ‘married to the cinema.’ Like contemporaries Ida Lupino and Edith Carlmar (both the subject of Glasgow Film Festival retrospectives), Tanaka became determined to use her status as a popular star to secure the opportunity to direct. This may have been a mark of personal ambition but also seems to have been influenced by a trip to America in October 1949 as a cultural goodwill ambassador. Bette Davis was among the American stars she met. Tanaka returned to Japan three months later and met a wave of criticism that she had been unduly influenced by western attitudes, clothes and fashion.

From what one can gather, Tanaka turned director because she wanted to make films covering stories and social issues that she simply didn’t see in Japanese films of the time. Again, like Lupino and Carlmar, she wanted to reflect women’s experiences in a changing post-War world where old orders and certainties were at least beginning to be questioned. In one interview, she remarked: ‘After the war also in Japan, women’s advancement became evident in every aspect of society, including the entrance of women in parliament. I too felt like trying to do something new by working as a female director.’

We are told that some of Tanaka’s male contemporaries were less than supportive of her directorial ambitions. Mizoguchi is reported to have opposed the idea that Nikkatsu studios would hire her as a director and was alleged to have said that ‘she does not have enough brains to be a film director.’ Other male directors were more encouraging. Naruse hired her as an assistant director on Older Brother, Younger Sister (1952), Keisuke Kinoshita wrote the screenplay for her first feature Love Letter (1953) and Ozu allowed her to film his screenplay for her second feature The Moon Has Risen (1955).

Like Kurosawa’s thriller Stray Dog (1949), Tanaka’s Love Letter offers a vivid sense of life on the city streets of post-War Japan. There is an undercurrent of optimism in everyday lives coming to terms with defeat, the American occupation and what might be rebuilt. Former naval officer Reikichi finds a job using his language skills to write letters on behalf of Japanese women maintaining contact with American GIs. There is concern with reputation and reality; what women have done to survive and how they are viewed. Reikichi’s own romantic hopes rest in a reunion with his former sweetheart. It is a touching, heartbreaker of a film.

Forever A Woman (1955) is Tanaka’s best film for me. It was inspired by the true story of poet Nakajo Fumiko who died of breast cancer aged just 32. There feels a very personal connection for Tanaka in the story of a woman dedicated to her art and unflinching in the way she confronts her impending death. It is a film about the triumph of the human spirit and a complex, emotional woman living life on her own terms. In the Hollywood of the time, it would have been a great Jane Wyman weepie or a fantastic role for Susan Hayward. Tanaka’s approach feels strikingly modern in its attitude, frankness and willingness to find the nobility and heroism in a tragic situation. Critic Melissa Anderson once noted that ‘As both an actress and a director, Tanaka never lets us forget the exquisite sorrow of being alive.’ If you only see one film in this Cinemasters focus then it should be Forever A Woman. Although, you will probably want to see all six.

Tanaka was working within mainstream, commercial filmmaking. She was the only woman director in that golden age of Japanese cinema and only the second female director in the country’s history. Her films have pace and craft. She worked across genres and periods, showing a delicate touch with the ensemble comedy The Moon Has Risen (1955) in which the lives of a widower and his three daughters reflect the social changes in Japan. She described the historical epic The Wandering Princess (1960) as ‘a new version of War And Peace seen from a woman’s perspective.’ Her interest in social issues led to Girls Of The Night (1961), an exploration of sex workers forced into state reformatories. She ended her directorial career with Love Under The Crucifix (1962), a lush 16th century epic in which a tea master’s daughter accepts marriage to a rich merchant whilst her heart is drawn to a Christian samurai. It is a complex, sensitive tale of the conflict between duty and desire.

We don’t really know why Tanaka stopped directing at this point. She kept acting, winning the Best Actress Prize at the Berlin Film Festival for Brothel No 8 (1974) in which she played a former sex worker looking back on her life and how it reflected the wider circumstances of women’s lives in Japan.

Kinuyo Tanaka died in 1977 from a brain tumour. Recent years have seen waves of renewed interest in her career and especially her work as a director. Mark Cousins epic documentary Women Make Film (which screened at Glasgow Film Festival in 2019) encouraged everyone to think again about the canon of great filmmakers. There are the Fords and Hitchcocks and Wilders and Truffauts but there is also Agnes Varda and Edith Carlmar, Vera Chytilova and Laura Shepitko, Kira Muratova and Ana Mariscal and so many more. Cousins proudly sports a number of tattoos on his body. One on his arm is a commemoration of Kinuyo Tanaka. This rare Cinemasters season is a chance to discover why she means so much.

Allan Hunter, Glasgow Film Festival Co-Director
30 August 2022

Cinemasters: Kinuyo Tanaka

We're delighted to bring you six films by Japanese director Kinuyo Tanaka, each offering a unique perspective on a nation grappling with the scars of war, social upheaval, and modernisation.

Explore the Programme

If you have attending any screenings in our Cinemasters: Kinuyo Tanaka season and want to share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email and tell us what you thought.

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