An Unexpected Conjunction: An Interview with Laura Mulvey About Douglas Sirk and Tanaka Kinuyo

From the new issue of "Outskirts," an exclusive interview about two exceptional filmmakers' notions of melodrama, desire, and death.
Sofie Cato Maas

The following interview was originally published in the second issue of Outskirts Film Magazine, an independent print magazine on the past and present of cinema. Issue two is now available from the Outskirts e-shop.

At 189 pages, Outskirts Nº2 is made up of original essays, interviews, reviews, translations, and a single large dossier dedicated to Japanese filmmaker and actress Tanaka Kinuyo.

Forever a Woman (Tanaka Kinuyo, 1955).

During the last edition of the Locarno Film Festival, a retrospective dedicated to Douglas Sirk took place, organised by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto. Among the many incredible guests invited to introduce Sirk’s films, such as Miguel Marías, Jon Halliday, Olaf Möller, Martina Müller, was Laura Mulvey. In speaking to her several months later, what started out initially as a conversation between myself and Mulvey about Sirk, unexpectedly morphed into a broader investigation that included the work of Tanaka Kinuyo, the subject of our dossier.

The result is an interview meant as an exploration of two directors who might not be the most obvious to discuss together or in relation to each other. Nevertheless, the more time I spend thinking about both filmmakers, the more interesting overlaps there are to be found between them and the more connections to be made, highlighting various points of contact. My hope is that this conversation is ultimately, if anything, illuminating and precious in its unusual exploration, with one of the greats of film theory, of the work of two exceptional filmmakers and notions of melodrama, desire, and death.

OUTSKIRTS: I think as a starting point, I would like to begin where we met: with the Douglas Sirk retrospective curated by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto this summer in Locarno. When Jon Halliday, who was also present there, curated and organised the first ever Sirk retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1972, you edited the accompanying publication with him. And in that case, Sirk was actually present with his second wife Hilda. Can you tell me a bit more about how that was and came into being? What was it like to have Sirk in attendance and to get to know him?

LAURA MULVEY: It was wonderful to be there for the Sirk retrospective in 2022, exactly fifty years after the Edinburgh program. Locarno inevitably brought back vivid memories of Edinburgh and, of course, of Sirk himself. But I would like to add a wider context to Edinburgh 1972, which might not seem relevant but actually it is. It was the same year as the ‘Women and Film’ event that Lynda Myles – who was the Festival Director at the time – Claire Johnston – the pioneering feminist film critic and theorist – and I organised. It was during my search for forgotten women film directors that I first came across Tanaka Kinuyo.  The event was important as an initial archaeology: trying to ‘excavate’ lost directors and collect their names together. It was impossible to get Tanaka’s films then. But now that her name and her films have come back into circulation, I feel as though an old missing link has been put together again.

OUTSKIRTS: Yes precisely, with the new digital restorations that are being shown everywhere, such as at the BFI, EYE Filmmuseum, Lincoln Center, and so on.

LM: Yes, and the renewed interest in her and in her work.  Although it was coincidental that both the Women and Film event and the Douglas Sirk retrospective were held in 1972, the conjunction prefigures the later feminist film’s interest in Hollywood melodrama, a minor genre that addressed a female audience and depicted women’s lives and problems. Later in the 1970s, I first wrote about Sirk and melodrama and continued to do so across subsequent decades.  Other feminists wrote about melodrama more generally, but I stayed with Sirk.  

Perhaps a starting point: why Sirk in 1972 and why in the United Kingdom? Various UK cinephiles had noticed Sirk in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and valued his extraordinary cinema, so often dismissed as ‘kitsch women’s weepies’ by critics even following the Cahiers du Cinéma’s ‘rediscovery’ of Hollywood. At that point, my former husband Peter Wollen was editing the ‘Cinema One’ series, the British Film Institute’s first books on film, and he commissioned Jon Halliday to do the Sirk on Sirk interview. This in itself had a story behind it. Sirk had disappeared from Hollywood after Imitation of Life (1959). And then someone, probably Jon, noticed in Cahiers du Cinéma that two critics had found Sirk in Switzerland and published an interview with him. We had all thought that he was probably dead, and there he was! So, Jon went to see him in Lugano and they became very close friends.

Lynda Myles, the director of the Edinburgh Film Festival at the time, was a pioneering, courageous, and extremely original programmer. She organised thorough retrospectives of some of the great Hollywood directors taken up by the Cahiers. Samuel Fuller in 1969, followed by Roger Corman, Sirk, and later Frank Tashlin and Raoul Walsh. Her programming was radical in two ways: taking Hollywood, popular, industrial cinema seriously and also screening the latest experimental films and world cinema.  

Meeting Sirk was an extraordinary experience. He was a man of enormous charm and erudition and wit. His films seem so quintessentially American, but to meet him was to meet a European. His English was, of course, perfect, spoken with a slight German accent, and a bit of stylized American, bits of American slang, thrown in. He was a very distinguished figure, very elegantly dressed. Although the interview with Jon made it clear that he was a man of enormous culture, a man of the theatre, of literature, philosophy, art, at that first meeting there was so much to take in about this extraordinarily unusual Hollywood director! While he was interested in being rediscovered and adopted, he was also interested in us, in our thoughts about cinema, Peter’s work on semiotics, for instance. I deeply regret that I hadn’t yet started reading Freud at that point and didn’t talk to him about the psychoanalytic significance of his cinema, that later interested me so much.When he and Hilde first arrived in London, Jon brought them, and Lynda, to supper in Peter’s and my old flat in Ladbroke Gardens. The front door opened into a corridor with a staircase turning round at the far end. As he came in Sirk immediately put his hand to his eye as though visualising a shot! He was both a formal and informal person. He was very fond of Lynda, very fond of Jon, Peter and me. So meeting Sirk in 1972 was a really extraordinary moment. And he stayed in Edinburgh for the whole of the retrospective. I wish I remembered more… I remember that the only one of his films he wanted to see again was The Tarnished Angels (1957).

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956).

OUTSKIRTS: Serge Daney also wrote in 1978 that ‘The decline of the melodrama goes hand in hand with the rise of a cinema that privileges, rather than symbolic determinations, socio-economic determinations. The “sane” reaction to melodrama, therefore, that of the spectator who doesn’t “fall for it” (but falls for something else, the belief in “context”, for example) has for a long time been to sneer at it.’ Why do you think Sirk’s reappraisal first happened in the UK, rather than anywhere else?  I was also, again, struck by the reaction of the audience in Locarno to his work.

LM: The reaction to Sirk generally has stayed by and large the same over the years; certain moments still cause a kind of embarrassed laughter. However, sometimes the laughter is a kind of recognition of his stylistic excess, artifice, and what you might call over-the-top-ness of the melodrama itself. Perhaps one reason why we valued Sirk in England (and I mean English rather than British consciously here) was due to our generation’s reaction against the tradition of English realism: from the 19th century novel, to the English realist film of the 1960s, to the English documentary… We associated this tradition with a parochial and rather complacent insularity, in which Englishness was given superior value—very much superior to American popular culture but also to European ideas and theory.

The New Left Review where Peter worked and wrote had initiated a turn towards European culture and politics and a turn away from an English tradition of culture and politics in the mid ‘60s. In film terms, this involved rejecting realism and embracing American popular culture—definitely shocking to the English film intelligentsia of the time, who still couldn’t grasp the idea that popular cinema could have aesthetic value.  In a sense Sirk seemed perhaps particularly subversive, more radical, in this particular anti realist context, and he still does now. To reiterate my earlier point: his stylistic excess, artifice, and what you might call over-the-top-ness of the melodrama itself! I think he is still quite a difficult director to understand.

To return to the point I mentioned earlier: in Edinburgh 1972, the Women and Film event coinciding with the Sirk retrospective, prefigures a key strand of feminist film theory. The Women’s Movement influenced film in three ways (or three that I want to mention here). One was, as it were, archaeology: as I mentioned earlier, the rediscovery of lost women directors; the second was the celebration of the new women directors whose work was just emerging in dialogue with feminism; and finally, critique, for instance, of the patriarchal gaze, which led on to my article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. But alongside these three strands there was also a special interest in the melodrama and films made by the industry for a female audience. The strand of critique and of interest in melodrama were both influenced by psychoanalytic theory. Thomas Elsaesser’s essay, also dating from 1972, ‘Tales of Sound and Fury’, had a very important impact on me. He argued that the melodrama as a genre revolved around a particular relation between form and content: as key emotional issues couldn’t be spoken, repressed by social situations and the oppression of women, these meanings were displaced onto the mise-en-scène: camera, lighting, framing, and so on. From this perspective, at least to my mind, Freud’s concept of the unconscious, and the work of displacement within it, had a theoretical relevance to the Hollywood melodrama. And Sirk’s films are, once again, at least to my mind, exemplary in this conjuncture.

OUTSKIRTS: In relation to this notion of significance, in Locarno you also spoke a great deal about the need to decipher Sirk’s work, especially drawing attention to the way in which his cinema makes visible and invisible the unspeakable or the unspoken, that which is subscribed within the image. Norbert Jochum wrote that watching melodramas is a skill you need to learn. This is something I have been thinking about, because you also once wrote that Written on the Wind (1956) is a film that assumes its audience will absorb its symbols intuitively. Do you think that highlights an essential and crucial duality in Sirk’s films, namely this reliance simultaneously on the intuitive, the metaphor, as well as the need for distance in order to actively decipher the image? 

LM: Yes. Paul Willeman wrote a fascinating essay applying Brecht and his idea of distanciation to Sirk. He argued that Sirk’s images draw you in and push you away simultaneously. Sirk is very much a master of cinema; his films take on their meaning through its language and expressive imagery.

Forever a Woman (Tanaka, 1955).

OUTSKIRTS: This notion of articulation and repression might be a good bridge to Tanaka. So perhaps to start off, the first film by Tanaka you watched was The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955, also known as Forever a Woman), the film about the life of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajō (1922–1954), who died of breast cancer. And you wrote to me that it was one of the best films you had ever seen. I am curious about what that initial reaction was based on? What was particularly striking to you about the film?

LM: I didn’t know, at that point, that the film was based on the life of a particular woman poet. So, I was completely amazed by the trajectory of her story: that it starts in a farm yard, that the woman protagonist becomes a well-known poet and it then ends, as she is dying, with an extraordinarily ethereal sex scene. I know now that the film tells Fumiko’s (based on Nakajō) life story but it’s still remarkable not only that Tanaka chose to tell it, but also how she tells it, how she stages events cinematically.

OUTSKIRTS: That’s interesting, I can see how that would change your perception of the film!

LM: In a sense, it’s good not knowing that it’s a biopic, at least on first viewing. But I then became interested in how Tanaka structured the narrative and how she staged it.

OUTSKIRTS: The fact that the film has two titles, The Eternal Breasts (the official translation of the Japanese title) and Forever a Woman (the ‘international title’ that has been used for the retrospective), is very interesting – because in both there is an immediate reference to and simultaneously negation of the connection between this traditional idea of womanhood and having breasts. The temporal connection as well, the specific use of eternal and forever, also highlights the theme that runs through the narrative of loss and death in relation to the female body, sexuality and desire. What did you make of this particular discourse on sexuality and its representation through Tanaka? The female body is portrayed as complex, a figure of sexuality, illness and pain, in such a frank manner. 

LM: There’s an irony, because of course it’s her breasts that bring disease. But the breast motif links to another theme in the film: Fumiko’s relationship to her children, which is very rich and rewarding, and brings a portrait of motherhood into a film about a poet. In this sense, it’s a film made with a woman’s consciousness. Sirk, on the other hand, depicts the mother/child relationship very differently. I mean, mother and child relationships are important in many Sirk films, but, by and large, they are flawed and difficult. Sirk brings something of Greek tragedy to the family melodrama. What is the area of human life that’s most flawed and most valued, that causes most emotional fulfilment and emotional pain? It’s the relationship between mother and child. While Greek drama erupts overtly out of these incestuous and difficult, murderous relationships, they still colour the bourgeois American family of the 1950s. Sirk sees the woman’s – the mother’s – vulnerability, that is, where she has invested the most emotion and the most love. There is a kind of constant irony there. Whereas I think in Tanaka, her approach to a mother and child is much more tender and much more fulfilling. And the scenes between the mother and children are not flawed as in Sirk.

OUTSKIRTS: And by the end, that relationship, or bond, is even further emphasised. When Fumiko has passed away and her body is brought through the iron gate in the hospital that otherwise remains closed to the living in the film. There is even an earlier scene in which she walks up to the gate and it remains closed for her and she stares through the bars. At the end her children mimic that movement, as they are not allowed to go through either, and stare at their mother’s body going through, sort of sharing her earlier movement.

LM: Yes, and I think the tenderness is there at the very beginning of the film. The opening shot is of Fumiko and her children coming home together on a little cart.  Although it gives no sense of where the story is going or where it’s going to take its characters, the very first shot of the film establishes the closeness between the mother and her children. There is also a closeness between Fumiko and her mother, and indeed her mother-in-law. 

OUTSKIRTS: Precisely, that is always sort of carried through the whole film. In terms of the beginning, I was also thinking about how Fumiko’s story begins according to the conventions of the melodrama: she is a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage with a cheating husband, whom she then leaves. Her subsequent attempt at finding someone to fill this ‘gap’ created by her husband is anything but traditional: she is in love with her married friend, tells him how she feels, and he shortly after dies, she is then later on diagnosed with breast cancer. With her impending death she grows bolder and bolder in expressing her desire and ends up having an affair with Akira towards the end of her life. When she dies there is no resolution, no peace, no filled void, but she does leave her written poetry. Death is therefore not pushed away, it is the one of the main themes in the film, but what is emphasised is her survival and an important connection is made between death and sexuality.

LM: Let’s just think about this for a moment. You are making a really interesting point: women, as in Fumiko’s case, were expected to stay within the conventions of their society, and to keep their desires under wraps. They are repressed. But you are suggesting that Tanaka implies that death is liberating. Death breaks down taboos and makes the unspeakable more speakable. That is, in some ways, the trajectory of the film. Fumiko emerges out of the melodrama of silence, to become a woman who is actually finding a voice, first through her poetry and then her body.

Forever a Woman (Tanaka, 1955).

OUTSKIRTS: Shall we take a closer look at some sequences?

LM: Yes, I wanted to look at quite an early sequence. It's only 15 minutes in, and it seemed to me to be a sequence relevant to melodrama. We have discussed the way in which the film immediately establishes the relationship between mother and child as one of safety and mutual support and love. This is the sequence when Fumiko comes home to the realisation that her husband has lied to her and is still having an affair.

First sequence is played. Images from when the music starts to play, Fumiko leaves her husband.

LM: Tanaka is using depth here, which she also does in later compositions in the film. But here there is a really interesting play between his space and her space. Their separation is realised on the screen and her space is of suffering and emotion and his is of indifference. This is it, and the music starts. The music comes in to reinforce her emotion, at the point when she cannot speak and she can only cry, inarticulately. She sees his slippers, a signifier of domesticity and intimacy. She throws the slippers at him, transforming her space from one of passivity to one of aggression, and the music reaches a crescendo, which is then carried on to the image of Fumiko walking away from the house, down a road, her escape. 

OUTSKIRTS: Ton Bernts also wrote a piece analysing the direction of the gaze in Sirk’s films. He argues that the gaze is one strategy that is enforced to depict the passive, reacting-not-acting position of the female characters in Sirk’s films. And that one of the most important features of this system of the gaze is the asymmetrical treatment of man and woman. In Sirk, female characters are filmed frontally or en profil, while often looking forward or staring into the distance, while the man is filmed diagonally from the front or from the back, his gaze on the woman. This of course directly relates to your theory of the female character being the object of the double gaze: that of the man within the narrative and that of the camera/spectator in the audience. I am mentioning it because Tanaka does something really interesting in Eternal Breasts, where she reverses this system of the gaze. In the beginning of the film, Fumiko is passive, and often looks downwards or into the distance, while in the rest of the film her character changes and she becomes an active agent; she starts to show the characteristics of the active gaze.

LM: Especially in her relationship to the journalist.

Second sequence is played. Fumiko is accompanied to the bus stop by her friend.

LM: You see, the sequence starts with this wonderful, extraordinary, empty image without clear spatial orientation. It could be the sky. But, actually, it’s the wet ground reflecting the clouds. Then the camera reaches the little fence and the road. There’s something very resonant about this last walk: Fumiko carrying her little daughter, accompanied by her friend  with whom she is in love. Shall we just watch it? [Watching.] Look… then it changes into an elongated tracking shot. I don’t think there is another scene in the film where the camera just follows its characters. Perhaps at the beginning with the cart? By any standards, this shot is protracted, extended both in space and in time. There is a real sense of a journey. Then there are some very interesting, intimate shots at the end. So the walk, the physical movement along the road mutates into an emotional ‘journey’, as it were, of emotional recognition between the two… But also Tanaka draws out this moment because, unknown to them at the time, that this is the last time they will see each other. The arrival of the bus and their farewell and separation is also beautiful. And the intimacy between mother and child is foregrounded throughout.

OUTSKIRTS: I am also just struck again by her use of the word ‘selfish’ in relation to her professing her feelings for him. This is something that reoccurs later in the film, the question of morality in connection to her illness.

LM: And right here, watch the way Tanaka circles the camera right around without cutting. It is extraordinary. And the trees create such a beautiful composition. This is the last sequence between Fumiko and her friend, as he later dies and she never sees him again.

Forever a Woman (Tanaka, 1955).

OUTSKIRTS: The scene in the hospital is such a particular and bold sequence that I think is incredibly characteristic of Tanaka’s style as a director, and that incidentally, really reminded me of Sirk. At the end of this sequence, Akira returns to Fumiko’s room by opening the door slightly and looking through it. She lies now turned with her back towards him, but upon hearing the door, picks up a small round mirror that lays next to her. We see her face reflected in it, her eyes wet with tears, looking at him. He smiles and closes the door, leaving her behind. The way in which Tanaka employs the mirror here, as a way to bridge the distance between them, which is impossible as she is dying and he is leaving, reminded me of what you wrote in your text for the Criterion Collection release of All That Heaven Allows (1955): ‘[Sirk] his trademark use of the mirrors to break up the surface of the screen’—do you think the mirror functions here in a similar way?

LM: It is amazing the way she uses the mirror there, for the two lovers to exchange their last looks. As a director, although her shots are always beautifully composed, I feel Tanaka does not necessarily want to be flamboyant. She’s quite measured with her use of cinema. And so, when she does move out into something which actually draws one’s attention aesthetically, like the walk along the road to the bus-stop, or like this mirror scene, the emotional burden is captured cinematically. She is really drawing on the language of the cinema for specific emotional effect. This is, of course, the style of the melodrama. 

OUTSKIRTS: For me, all is expressed within this sequence: the impossibility of love, the awful sadness and fear of abandonment. She is grieving, and while in the beginning she could not speak, she now carries herself boldly, and even though it grinds her down, she becomes active and vocal. 

LM: Yes, I quite agree that her trajectory is achieved here and questions of woman’s silence and her voice are clearly depicted. But also, the image in the mirror depicts Fumiko and Akira’s desire and their feelings for each other as a reflection, that is, on a kind of equal basis. It is a very beautiful ending of mutual understanding, mutual love. Again, this exemplifies Tanaka’s tenderness, her celebration of, perhaps, a certain human warmth—when, that is, such feelings manage to emerge into the otherwise quite cruel lives that people lead!

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Outskirts Film MagazineLaura MulveyDouglas SirkKinuyo Tanaka
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