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Rediscovering Director Kinuyo Tanaka

Kinuyo Tanaka with Shuji Sano on the set of The Moon Has Risen (1955)

In 1952, Kinuyo Tanaka, the renowned star of films directed by Heinosuke Gosho, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, and Keisuke Kinoshita, let it be known that she intended to direct a feature herself. Only one woman—Tazuko Sakane, a frequent collaborator of Mizoguchi’s—had previously dared to rattle the hierarchies and rules of the Japanese film industry, and her experience was anything but encouraging. On the set of New Clothing, shot in 1936 and now lost, Sakane’s all-male crew openly mocked her and blew off her directions. Sakane left Japan for Manchuria, where she made documentaries, and when she returned after the Second World War, she found that all the old doors were still shut tight.

Tanaka—in her early forties yet still at the height of her acting career—was determined. Mizoguchi, who directed Tanaka in The Life of Oharu (1952) and Ugetsu (1953), was dead set against the idea, allegedly saying at one point that she “does not have enough brains to be a film director.” But Tanaka found support from other directors respected in the industry. Naruse took her on as an assistant director on Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953); Kinoshita wrote the screenplay for her first feature, Love Letter (1953); and Ozu gave her one of his unproduced screenplays for her second film, The Moon Has Risen (1955).

From tomorrow through March 27, New York’s Film at Lincoln Center will present a retrospective of the six features Tanaka completed before she died of a brain tumor in 1977 at the age of sixty-seven. All six have recently been restored by the studios Tanaka worked with—Nikkatsu, Toho, Shochiku, and Kadokawa—and Janus Films will soon be bringing these new restorations to other cities, including Los Angeles, where the Academy Museum will screen these rarities in April. If you’re in Italy, you can also catch them at the Cineteca di Bologna through March 30.

FLC, in the meantime, will also present six films starring Tanaka, including Kinoshita’s Army (1944), Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind (1948), Naruse’s Mother (1952), and The Life of Oharu. For 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson, this “double tribute promises two types of ecstasy: seeing unsung films for the first time and (re)watching canonical titles with a new appreciation for a singular figure.”

Writing about Love Letter for Another Gaze in 2018, Cathy Brennan detected parallels between Tanaka and Michiko (Yoshiko Kuga), the long-lost love of Reikichi (Masayuki Mori), a veteran who translates romantic letters written by Japanese women to American GIs. In October 1949, Tanaka traveled to the U.S. for a three-month tour as a cultural goodwill ambassador, and when she returned, wearing western clothes and dark sunglasses and blowing kisses to the crowd, the Japanese press turned against her.

Quoting from Koji Kajiyama’s 2009 documentary The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka, Brennan noted that the “ferocious drubbing in the media” was short-lived but so severe that Tanaka considered killing herself. In Love Letter, Michiko actually attempts suicide when Reikichi rejects her after having learned that she struck up a relationship with a GI in order to survive following her husband’s death. “Both director and character are perceived as corrupted by an American influence,” wrote Brennan.

In The Moon Has Risen, Ozu favorite Chishu Ryu (Tokyo Story) plays a widower with three daughters (Hisako Yamane, Yoko Sugi, and Mie Kitahara) who introduce him to the changing mores in the country as they sort out their love lives. The film “maintains a poignant mood even through lighthearted passages, with shots of grazing deer at its opening and conclusion,” writes Kristin M. Jones in the Wall Street Journal.

Tanaka made two widescreen historical sagas in color. The Wandering Princess (1960) stars Machiko Kyo as an aristocrat forced to marry the younger brother of the soon-to-be-deposed Chinese emperor at the outset of the Second World War. Set in the sixteenth century, Love Under the Crucifix (1962) is a tale of the forbidden romance between the daughter of a famous tea master and a married samurai. Between these pageants, Tanaka returned to the issues raised in Love Letter in Girls of the Night (1961).

Sex work was a booming business in Japan during and immediately after the war years, and in 1956, lawmakers passed the Prostitution Prevention Law, which the police began to enforce with rigor the following year. Some women were sent straight to prison, but others, like Kuniko (Hisako Hara) in Girls of the Night, were checked into reform institutions. In 2019, Hayley Scanlon noted that Tanaka and coscreenwriter Sumie Tanaka’s adaptation of a novel by Masako Yana “tones down” the book’s steamier scenes “but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing postwar society.”

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