The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue

Kinuyo Tanaka Retrospective

Between 1953 and 1962, Tanaka directed six films, becoming only the second woman to direct films in Japan.

<em>Forever a Woman</em>. Courtesy Janus Films.
Forever a Woman. Courtesy Janus Films.

Film At Lincoln Center
March 18–March 27, 2022
New York

One of the most celebrated actresses in the history of Japanese cinema, Kinuyo Tanaka appeared in over two hundred and fifty films during the course of her fifty-three-year long career. Between 1953 and 1962, she directed six films, becoming only the second woman to direct films in Japan (after Tazuko Sakane) and the only woman to establish a career behind the camera during the postwar Golden Age. Working within the boundaries of the melodrama and the woman’s film (josei-eiga), Tanaka focused on women’s experiences, carving out spaces of female subjectivity within the male-dominated industry. Her decision to direct grew out of her passion for cinema, as well as the new opportunities for women made possible by postwar gender reforms.

However, Tanaka’s career as a filmmaker has never garnered the same level of attention and acclaim as her career in front of the camera. Although her films were heavily promoted as women’s pictures made by women, her contributions were often overlooked due to her collaborations with famous male directors. Furthermore, for many years her films have been inaccessible, with very few available even in Japan. Lincoln Center’s pioneering March 2022 retrospective, organized by Lili Hinstin and Tyler Wilson, showcased the half-dozen films she directed, as well as a selection of Tanaka’s personal favorites among the films in which she starred. The new 4K restorations are stunning, making it possible to fully evaluate Tanaka as auteur.

Tanaka’s decision to step behind the camera was supported by many of the great male directors with whom she worked, including Keisuke Kinoshita and Yasujirō Ozu, though not Kenji Mizoguchi, who notoriously opposed her efforts to join the Director’s Guild of Japan. Her debut feature Love Letter (1953) was adapted for the screen by Kinoshita, and her second film, The Moon Has Risen (1955), originated from an unused Ozu script.

With her audacious third film, Forever a Woman (1955), Tanaka truly comes into her own. From this point on in her career, Tanaka would team up with female writers and producers. Her first such collaboration was with eminent screenwriter Sumie Tanaka on Forever a Woman. The film depicts the life of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajō (Yumeji Tsukioka), who died of breast cancer in 1954. Fumiko, a mother of two, divorces her philandering, drug-addicted husband, and dedicates her life to writing poetry. The only person who takes Fumiko’s talent seriously is her childhood friend Taku (Masayuki Mori), now married to her friend Kinuko (Yōko Sugi). After her cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, Fumiko feels disengaged from her societal expectations as a woman. Consequently, she feels unencumbered, free to focus on her poetry and reclaim her sexuality.

Kinuko accidentally catches a glimpse of Fumiko’s scarred chest while she takes a bath. Startled, Kinuko turns away in shock, shutting a small interior window that connects the vestibule and bathroom. Facing the camera, Fumiko emerges from the water, exposing her upper torso, and asks Kinuko to “take a good look” at her scarred chest with her breasts removed. She confesses her love for Kinuko’s late husband and remarks how happy she is to be taking a bath in the same tub he used. Fumiko opens the bathroom window, then shuts it again, obstructing the audience’s desire to see her body. Fumiko is the active bearer of the look in this elegantly staged scene. As such, the scene undermines the codes of visual pleasure that define women as the object of the gaze. Fumiko’s invitation to Kinuko to look at her scars also takes on a cultural and mythical resonance, since it involves the breaking of the taboo of looking at something forbidden, a taboo often depicted in Japanese folktales and associated with prohibitions against representations of female sexuality.

Tanaka compels the audience to look as well, unflinchingly showing us Fumiko’s operation, which she presents in a montage of brief clinical images: the doctors preparing her breasts, a surgical lamp, gleaming surgical tools. Throughout the film, Fumiko’s hand mirror becomes a central prop. We see her use it to examine her breasts and to observe family members and lovers who visit her hospital room. Her handling of the mirror puts the emphasis on Fumiko as the controlling agent of the gaze. She uses it to frame and mediate her vision of the world. This gaze merges with the gaze of the filmmaker herself. This identification between character and author is further underlined by Tanaka’s cameo in the film as an empathetic neighbor.

Tanaka reunited with Sumie to adapt a Masako Yana novel for Girls of the Night (1961). The film chronicles Kuniko’s (Chisako Hara) struggles to integrate into society following the anti-prostitution laws introduced in 1956. An inmate at a correction home for ex-prostitutes, Kuniko is a former panpan, or street prostitute, who catered to foreigners during the American Occupation. Panpan women were thought to possess excessive sexual appetites and were therefore viewed with both scorn and fascination. Tanaka incisively shows the hypocrisy of vilifying prostitution in a money-oriented society. In an exchange with Governess Nogami (Chikage Awashima), the director at the institute with whom she develops a close bond, Kuniko wonders what makes sex work more immoral than other forms of labor. What difference is there, she demands to know, between selling one’s body and selling one’s brains for a wage? Perplexed, Nogami confesses that she’s not certain.

Filmed in gritty black-and-white, Girls of the Night features widescreen compositions that teem with activity. Sitting in a café, Kuniko shuts her eyes, savoring a coffee and a moment of freedom. She’s flanked by a couple chatting in the foreground, while behind her, we see pedestrians through the window. Watching pairs of lovers walk by, Kuniko feels the pangs of sexual desire, pleasures that she nostalgically associates with her former clients. Tanaka presents Kuniko not as a mere object of desire, but as a subject who enjoys her sexuality.

Women’s communities in the film are portrayed as complex and heterogeneous, at once hindering and supportive. Intrigued by her past as a professional sex worker, three female co-workers in a factory set Kuniko up for a tryst with their own boyfriends. After Kuniko rejects the young men, their vengeful girlfriends hold Kuniko down and spread her legs, while the ringleader drips hot candle wax on her genitals. Shadows flicker demonically across the woman’s face, her expression conveying a strange sadistic pleasure.

In Tanaka’s career, Girls of the Night is sandwiched between two sweeping color epics, The Wandering Princess (1960) and Love Under the Crucifix (1962). Love Under the Crucifix, a jidaigeki set in the sixteenth century, is centered on women both on and behind the screen. The delirious melodrama was produced by the Carrot Club, a company founded by three major actresses, including two who appear in the film. The film recounts the forbidden love between Takayama Ukon (Tatsuya Nakadai), a married Christian samurai, and Ogin (Ineko Arima), a tea master’s stepdaughter. The two met years earlier when Ukon was an apprentice to her stepfather. Ogin made a vow to remain chaste until the day they consummate their love. For his part, Ukon has made a vow to God. When their paths cross again, Ogin openly confesses her desire for him and her willingness to exchange eternal damnation for earthly, carnal happiness.

Visually stunning, Tanaka includes scenes set against impossibly saturated blue skies, graceful tracking shots through Zen gardens, and long static takes from high outdoor angles. In a highly-stylized scene, Ogin encounters a woman (Keiko Kishi) who has been condemned to death after refusing a noble’s affections. Tied to the back of a horse, the woman is being led away to be crucified. Tanaka intercuts close-ups of the woman’s ecstatic features with shots of Ogin’s face, suggesting a profound kinship. She observes that the woman “looks so full of life, not yearning for death.” Foreshadowing Ogin’s own fate, the woman will become a martyr for earthly, sexual gratification.

Tanaka is perhaps best known internationally through her roles in Mizoguchi’s films, having acted in fifteen of them, including such classics as Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and The Life of Oharu (1952). Mizoguchi’s constant theme is the mistreatment and suffering of women. It’s illuminating to contrast Mizoguchi’s depictions of women with Tanaka’s. Although sympathetic to their plight, Mizoguchi portrays women as noble victims of a patriarchal society with little agency. In Tanaka’s films, women are rarely portrayed as passive victims. Neither victims nor victimizers, they are complex and flawed. Furthermore, their subjectivity is often defined outside of their relationships with men. Her tenacious heroines resemble Tanaka herself, who never married, quipping that she was married to cinema instead.


Ethan Spigland

Ethan Spigland is a filmmaker, visual artist, writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is a Professor in the Graduate Program of Media Studies at Pratt Institute.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

All Issues