The Right to Refuse: The Films of Kinuyo Tanaka

A new retrospective shines light on the directorial output of legendary Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka.
Kelley Dong

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

Directed between 1953 and 1962, six newly restored features by Kinuyo Tanaka are the subject of a historic retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Tanaka was already a preeminent actress of international renown when she turned to directing, a decision that made her Japan’s second female filmmaker and the only woman making pictures during the nation’s postwar era. (Tazuko Sakane’s feature New Clothing [1936] was the first Japanese feature film directed by a woman, but exclusionary studio policies prevented her from making another feature.) Tanaka’s relationship with major studios ensured that her directorial works would be mainstream productions with high-profile talent and skilled crews. As Irene González-López and Michael Smith state in Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity, the first English-language book on Tanaka: “Only a few others, including the actress Ida Lupino (1918–95) in America and Jacqueline Audry (1908–77) in France, worked in commercial cinema.” The retrospective, however, calls for a reappraisal of her filmmaking career as much more than the sum of these important but gendered accomplishments, and as more than an impressive secondary venture. Audiences are invited to witness Tanaka’s distinct eye, her technical ambitions, and thematic obsessions as auteur. 

Sexism eclipses the fact that Kinuyo Tanaka was in many ways an overqualified director. Having never married, Tanaka liked to say that she was instead married to cinema. Cinema was one of her oldest and closest friends, their histories intertwined. After being harshly scolded by a teacher at the age of nine, she dropped out of school and started acting for Shōchiku Studios at fourteen. Her popularity boomed in the 1930s following a lead role in Japan’s first feature-length sound film, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931). Soon Tanaka’s fame had increased to such a degree that she was playing characters named after herself in films like The Story of Kinuyo (1930) and Kinuyo’s First Love (1940). An even higher apex was reached during the postwar Golden Age of Japanese cinema, when Tanaka left Shōchiku and became a freelance actress. She forged long working relationships with multiple illustrious auteurs, starring in films by Keisuke Kinoshita; Yasujirō Ozu; Mikio Naruse; and Kenji Mizoguchi, who cast her in fifteen of his films. (Several of these titles, like Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu [1952] and Naruse’s Mother [1952], accompany the retrospective. Their inclusion helps to distinguish Tanaka’s directing style from her contemporaries.) By the end of her life, Kinuyo Tanaka starred in over 250 films. 

Many interpreted Tanaka’s pursuit of directing as the move of an aging actress in her forties whose leading lady days were behind her. But Tanaka was less driven by desperation than by a renewed zeal for her craft. In a 1961 roundtable hosted by Kinema Junpo, she mentions that after the war she saw that there were more opportunities for women “to do, to a certain extent, many things which they’ve wanted to do.” This appeared to be true both in and outside of Japan. In Koko Kajiyama’s The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka (2009), about Tanaka’s 1949 visit to the United States as a global ambassador for the arts, Kajiyama states that Tanaka observed an “independent and creative female identity” among American women’s groups, female politicians, and actresses like Bette Davis, who told Tanaka she was the “Kinuyo Tanaka of America.” With an expanded view of the world and a strong sense of urgency, Tanaka decided that she wanted to try something new. Though her limited educational background was perceived by others as a crutch, it inspired her to see film as something to master above any other expertise. In the aforementioned roundtable, Tanaka states: “There was nothing but directing for me if I eventually wanted to do something a little new as a woman. [...] After acting, directing is certainly the thing I could say I know best. I don’t know anything else beyond that.” This matter-of-fact attitude seems to have motivated her productivity. In nine years, she directed six films, an accomplishment that evinces her deep artistic hunger and ability to match the demanding production schedules of the studio system. Her productions closely overlapped with those in which she acted: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu was released in March of 1953, and her debut feature Love Letter was released later the same year, in December. On the last day of Love Letter’s production, she left for the set of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954). 

From film to film, Tanaka took on an extremely broad range of genres, from the romantic comedy and the biopic to the period drama. Within scenes, she executes tonal shifts that astonish with bursts of intense feeling and stretches out tension (especially sexual tension) like pulled sugar, firm but still delicate. Yet in Tanaka’s lifetime, these signs of dexterity were diminished by the assumption that she was at best a token filmmaker propped up by her male crew members and male mentors. Scholar Ayako Saito writes that Kenji Mizoguchi, who famously opposed Tanaka’s application to the Directors’ Guild of Japan, was rumored to have said: “Kinuyo does not have enough brains to be a film director.” He was not the only one in the male-dominated Japanese film industry to doubt her. Decades of such condescension enriched Tanaka’s perspective into the ways that women are treated as passive items of fluctuating value—sometimes a prize and sometimes property, and always expected to belong to a man. 

Love Letter (1953) 

An adaptation of the popular novel by Fumio Niwa penned by Keisuke Kinoshita, Tanaka’s Love Letter (1953) tells the story of Reikichi (Masayuki Mori), a repatriated Japanese soldier shattered by the revelation of his former lover Michiko’s (Yoshiko Kuga) involvement with an American GI. His entitlement to her sexual actions resembles the behavior of ​​the veteran Shuichi in Yasujirō Ozu’s Hen in the Wind (1948). In Ozu’s film, Shuichi becomes violent after his wife Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) informs him that she prostituted herself for one night in his absence. Whereas Hen in the Wind coldlydepicts the wife’s confession, the husband’s abuse, and the couple’s reconciliation in abrupt succession, Love Letter is steeped in Reikichi’s troubled perspective. The film’s jarring rhythm matches his contradictory impulses. 

Though Tanaka does not explicitly critique Reikichi’s attitude towards Michiko, she connects his misogyny to a deep-rooted sense of emasculation. The unemployed Reikichi is first seen cooking and cleaning in his younger brother’s home. He pines after the long-lost Michiko of his childhood affections, a fantasy kindled by his desperation for a job and a wife. He disdains the sex workers whose love letters he translates, because their financial dependence on American GIs represents the furthest extent of postwar devastation. (One of the translators’ clients is played by Tanaka herself.) When he overhears that Michiko is in need of such a letter, the angelic object of his desire depreciates before his eyes into damaged goods—more specifically, damaged goods that should’ve been his. Much of Love Letter consists of men gossiping about the pitiful state of women like Michiko as patches of teeming city life peek through the windows. And as the men commiserate with one another inside, the women continue to work in restaurants and stores and in the streets, knowing that their survival will always be a lonely uphill battle.

The Moon Has Risen (1955) 

Though the well-received Love Letter proved Tanaka’s capacity to make a film about men—or rather, about women as seen by men—her directorial sensibilities are much more apparent in the two films she released in 1955: The Moon Has Risen and Forever a Woman (also known as The Eternal Breasts). Written by Yasujirō Ozu and Saitō Ryōsuke, The Moon Has Risen is a breezy romantic comedy about the awkwardness that emerges at the juncture between tradition and modernity. In a nod to Ozu, Chishū Ryū stars as an easy-going, joke-cracking widower whose youngest daughter Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) decides to play matchmaker for her unwitting older sister Ayako (Yôko Sugi). Ayako has been presented with a marriage proposal by an unattractive suitor. The problem is that Ayako would rather accept the proposal than take on the uncomfortably modern task of confessing to Mr. Amamiya, a family friend. In an attempt to shake Ayako loose of her modest ways, Setsuko and her boyfriend Shôji (Shôji Yasui) conspire to bring the shy lovers together through a risky series of deceptions. 

Audiences and critics were keen to point out Ozu’s influence in The Moon Has Risen. But the filmevolves beyond homage with Tanaka’s lively pace and frontal compositions, which contain large expanses between foreground and background. A number of devices from Love Letter reappear in The Moon Has Risen, presented with more precision: for instance, the recurring use of gossip as a means of indirect characterization—an unsurprising move given Tanaka’s familiarity with being the talk of the town. There are vivid contrasts between men and women (men wait to be served, women rush to serve) as well as older and younger people, who have very different opinions on when and how to confess. The filmmaker again makes a cameo, this time as a servant instructed by Setsuko to impersonate Ayako on the phone. Framed like an audition, Setsuko sits across from the nervous servant, hands her a sheet of paper, and guides her through the lines. “You’re a natural,” Shôji says. The joke is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s appearance in A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), in that it assumes and teases the audience’s knowledge of Tanaka’s star power. The encounter itself, between a legendary actress and Nikkatsu Studio’s up-and-coming it girl, playfully extends Tanaka’s examination of generational differences among women to the realm of cinema. 

Forever a Woman (1955) 

Autobiographical elements permeate Tanaka’s staggering masterpiece Forever a Woman (1955). Penned by female screenwriter Sumie Tanaka and adapted from the book by journalist Akira Wakatsuki, the film depicts the life of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajo (played by Yumeji Tsukioka and here named Fumiko Shimojō), who died of late-stage breast cancer in 1954. Like Tanaka’s previous films, Forever a Woman switches between a life lived and a life talked about. After divorcing her drug-addicted and cheating husband, who she married after only one matchmaking meeting, Fumiko refuses to remarry. Though this makes her the subject of much scrutiny, she ignores the gossip and dedicates herself to writing poems that others refer to as overblown “female problems.” The only person who sees value in Fumiko’s poetry is her childhood friend Taku (Masayuki Mori), a married man. In her research on Tanaka’s shooting scripts for Forever a Woman, Ayako Saito notes that Tanaka “[made Sumie’s] narrative more compact and less dialogue-driven, relying more on subtle mise-en-scène and tight editing.” The formal elements of Forever a Woman exactly parallel the narrative’s vast emotional leaps. When Fumiko forthrightly confesses her love for Taku, Tanaka tracks away from the pair and stops at a far distance, revealing the towering scale of Fumiko’s heart. The first half of the film features wide shots filled with layered movement and swiveling tracking shots across wide distances, imbuing the film with a thick sense of vitality. After Fumiko’s diagnosis and her double mastectomy, the second half of Forever A Woman narrows into close-ups in dark hospital rooms, where faces shine as if beneath a spotlight on the verge of being switched off. 

The loss of her breasts and the end of her marriage awakens in Fumiko a need to be both feared and wanted so that she might feel alive. Her complex yearning manifests in expressions of sexual dominance. She exposes her mastectomy scars to Taku’s wife, and initiates a sexual relationship with the male journalist (Hayama Ryōji) who has been sent to write an article about her. Both scenes place the flustered target in the foreground and Fumiko in the background. Her striking eyes stare directly into the camera. If read as implicit self-portraiture, Fumiko’s refusal to die quickly and quietly can be seen as a reference to Tanaka’s feelings towards the ageism she herself faced, which equated her forties to the start of old age. As Fumiko lies on her deathbed, she thanks the neighbor who cared for her children, played by Tanaka herself. A shot reverse shot shows the sick poet and the older woman tearfully exchanging a look of recognition and solidarity. 

The Wandering Princess (1960) 

Six years after the release of Forever a Woman, Tanaka was given the opportunity to direct a big budget josei eiga (or “woman’s film”) by Daiei Film. Her first color and widescreen film, The Wandering Princess (1960) is a historical epic about the challenge for a woman to be an individual and to be the face of the nation at the same time. Using a screenplay written by Natto Wada (the wife of filmmaker Kon Ichikawa), the film stars Machiko Kyô as Ryuuko, a fictionalized version of the Japanese noblewoman Saga Hiro—the wife of Puzhe, the younger brother of the emperor of Manchukuo. The arranged marriage of Ryuuko and Puzhe in 1937 is swiftly decided through short meetings between the Manchurian court and Ryuuko’s family. In these scenes, Tanaka makes use of the widescreen format to convey the large number of people who have a say in the matter. Arranged marriages frequently appear in Tanaka’s films as a major obstacle to independence, particularly because they usually involve coercion rather than outright force and therefore tacitly pressure the woman to deny herself. In The Wandering Princess, Ryuuko’s family assures her that she can turn down the offer. But the weight of the proposal discourages her from saying no. Once married, she becomes a representative of Japan, but despite her raised visibility she continues to be a non-participant with little political power.   

The resulting marriage is a diplomatic obligation to improve Sino-Japanese relations, a relationship that progresses as political theater. Like an actress shuttled from one production to another, Ryuuko must play her part for an international audience. She changes from Japanese to Chinese dress, and switches between Japanese and Mandarin when moving in and out of the home. (Her transformation recalls Tanaka’s scandalous 1949 trip to the United States, which saw the actress-as-ambassador leaving in a kimono and returning in red lipstick, a dress, and high heels.) Once a passion, painting becomes a lesser priority to Ryuuko’s daily maintenance of appearances. Tanaka leaves ambiguous whether Ryuuko loves Puzhe or whether she merely fears him less than others in the Manchurian court. In contrast to the sensuous stroking in Forever a Woman and the flirtatious cradling in The Moon Has Risen, Ryuuko and Puzhe rarely touch. Their daughter Eko sporadically appears, already several months old. The extent to which The Wandering Princess emphasizes Ryuuko’s detachment from history is as moving as it is disconcerting. The film’s swelling sentimentality—Tanaka described the project as her take on War and Peace—sweeps the audience off its feet, up and away from an interrogation of Japanese imperialism. But paradoxically, the link that Tanaka draws between Ryuuko’s limited autonomy as a wife and mother and her lack of political responsibility generates a perceptive portrayal of how a colonial empire manipulates images of womanhood for a nationalist cause without necessarily advancing women’s rights. 

Girls of the Night (1961)

Tanaka’s next film, Girls of the Night (1961), marked her reunion with Forever a Woman screenwriter Sumie Tanaka. Released eight years after Love Letter, the film continues Tanaka’s investigation of the stigma against sex workers with afocus on the mistreatment of sex workers by other women. Filmed in black-and-white, Girls of the Night opens with close-ups of multiple newspaper headlines announcing the passing of the 1956 Prostitution Prevention Law, and the subsequent arrest of hundreds of sex workers. As a police van filled with waving women is driven out of an alley, a narrator describes how the Ministry of Justice sends habitual offenders to reformatories like the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women. Though Shiragiku’s female directors express sympathy for the women’s plight, the facility’s many disciplinary measures—a smoking ban, solitary confinement, and so on—punish the women for their presumed lack of respectability. The irony of the facility is that it is at once a prison and a shelter, as indicated by a shot of the women looking out at the world through a wire fence. Women escape into the night as often as they return days later, preferring Shiragiku’s community of captives to the judgment that awaits outside. 

The protagonist of Girls of the Night is Kuniko (Hisako Hara), a former yo-pan (a sex worker that exclusively serves foreigners) known at Shiragiku for her model behavior. Hoping to set an example for the other women, the directors send Kuniko off to work at a grocery store. Upon her exit, Kuniko immediately learns that her rehabilitation has done nothing to change society’s view of her as a fallen woman. The grocer’s wife taunts her as if she’s dirty, the store’s male employees corner her like a piece of meat, and her paltry wages fail to mitigate the poverty that led her to sex work in the first place. Kuniko quits. Her next job is at a factory, where she endures the vicious gossip and violent bullying of working-class factory girls. Tanaka demarcates each job with a change in appearance, from the apron Kuniko wears at the grocery store to the headwrap she wears at the factory, and the beehive hairdo she wears when she briefly considers returning to sex work. (The wealthy housewives who especially despise Kuniko are seen in traditional kimonos.) But Kuniko’s status as a sex worker makes it impossible for her to fully assimilate into the workforce and to be accepted by women who see her as a seductress of their boyfriends, husbands, and sons.

In a confrontation with the Shiragiku director, Kuniko demands to know what makes sex work worse than other forms of labor. What difference is there, she asks, between selling one’s body and “[selling] your brains and freedom for a salary”? The director confesses that she’s not so sure herself, and Kuniko lets out an excruciating cry because she knows that though she is right she will always be seen as wrong. From there Girls of the Night follows Kuniko as she finds work at a nursery, then settles by the sea as a female diver. Through the brisk repetition of Kuniko’s switch from one banal job to another, Tanaka renders the woman’s past as a sex worker just one of many fading memories of employment. 

Love Under the Crucifix (1962) 

Produced by the independent production company Carrot Club and distributed by Shōchiku, Tanaka’s final film Love Under the Crucifix is a sixteenth century-set jidaigeki about Christian samurai Takayama Ukon (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Ogin (Ineko Arima, who co-founded Carrot Club), the tea master’s stepdaughter whose lust for him threatens to dethrone his God. Swathed in ornate layers of blues, pinks, and greens, the film inverts the usual structure of Tanaka’s films, which feature delayed love confessions usually already marked by resignation. Ten minutes into Love Under the Crucifix, Ogin finds Ukon in a garden and offers herself to him. Being a married man and a Christian, he turns her down and redirects her to the Virgin Mary. The camera tracks backwards to reveal a set of doors, constraining Ukon within the structure as Ogin looks in from outside. Though Ogin vows to never marry without Ukon’s permission, that commitment is broken when she accepts a merchant’s marriage proposal with a push of encouragement from her parents. Marriage, in Ogin’s words, leaves her an “empty husk.” But as she makes increasingly explicit, it is not just marriage with Ukon that she wants but also, and mostly, sex. Her tenacious longing makes Love Under the Crucifix Tanaka’s most erotic film. Sexual tension is sustained by elegant (and never excessive) intimations and symbols, including a cross necklace that appears twice: first on Ukon’s neck as a mark of abstinence, then on the floor—a sign of his surrender to Ogin. 

The sight of a woman (Keiko Kishi, another Carrot Club founder) sentenced to death for rejecting a nobleman’s advances inspires Ogin, who sees in her a fellow sinner. Both are condemned for being faithful to their innermost desires, for wanting to live their own life and die their own death. For them, individualism is a fundamental value untethered to any political ideology, law, or historical era. The women’s dignified encounter brings to mind an anecdote shared by Tanaka in Kaneto Shindō's documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975). In response to Shindō’s claim that she was the “great love” of Mizoguchi’s life, Tanaka describes a confrontation with a reporter from many years before. When pressed about her rumored engagement to Mizoguchi, the young Tanaka bluntly replied with the first thought that came to mind: “I love the way he directs, but he’s not my ideal husband.” As the concluding chapter of Tanaka’s directing career, Love Under the Crucifix is the peak of a linear progression and the natural culmination of Tanaka’s vested interest in a woman’s right to refuse—to turn down any man, to say no to an unwanted life.

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