Kinuyo Tanaka is an unsung talent deserving of more attention.
Tanaka has primarily been known as an actress, working with greats like Keni Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa. By 1953, she began directing films, at times working with former collaborators like Keisuke Kinoshita and Ozu. During the time, she directly and intimately tackled post-war subject matter while subverting the tropes of female characters in Japanese cinema. While her directorial career comprised of six films, she used these opportunities to belt her compelling voice, crafting powerful and touching films that can easily be described as timeless. Throughout Film at Lincoln Centers retrospective, they showcased all of her directorial features, along with notable and rare films that showcased her performances in glorious 35mm. These were a few films that caught my attention.
Kinuyo Tanaka’s debut film, Love Letter, aggressively taps into post-war anxiety at a personal level. The film follows Reikichi Mayumi (Masayuki Mori), a sad, lonely man who takes a job writing love letters while pining for his lost love, Yasuko (Kyōko Kagawa), separated in WWII. The film played on my expectations with how deceptively flawed Tanaka makes her characters. While she doesn’t explicitly make Mayumi aggressive, it’s stunning to see how his ego played into his damage. It’s not overt, but you begin to rethink many of his earlier scenes when it happens. Tanaka brilliantly contextualizes Reikichi’s depression and egotism within the confines of post-war Japan, revealing a unique take on WWII’s impact. In addition to seeing how the war separated Mayumi and Yasuko, we see the early stages of Western influence in Japan, especially in Reikichi’s customers wanting English letters. The western encroachment in Reikichi’s world reflecting his personal life makes his trauma and frustration, and Love Letter as a whole, feel grand and compelling to see.
The Moon Has Risen
An incredibly fun romantic comedy, The Moon has Risen follows Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) and Shoji (Shoji Yasui) as they try to set up Setsuko’s sister, Ayako (Yoko Sugi), with Shoji’s friend, Takasu (Shuji Sano). Written by Yasujirō Ozu, you can see some of his common themes in the film with generational conflict, namely with Setsuko and her sisters. They all experienced different types of relationships and have different relationships with modern Japan, shorthanded by the personalities and even their clothing. Tanaka injects tremendous life and humor into the film through her direction. The film is hilarious, with Setsuko and Shoji having great chemistry and hilarious backtalk as they scheme their matchmaking. Shôji Yasui as Shoji makes an excellent straight man for the bubbly, idealistic Setsuko, played coy and confidently by Mie Kitahara. The humor and romance build incredibly well off these likable characters’ real desires, like a better job, moving to a modern city, or even a quiet life. The film feels modern both in its writing and brisk pacing. The dialogue spits quickly like a screwball comedy while allowing the more touching moments to rest like a pleasant mist. The Moon Has Risen makes a great addition to any romantic evening.
Girls of the Night
In Girls of the Night, Kinuyo Tanaka and writer Sumie Tanaka demonstrate their excellent characterization, showcasing some of the most compelling characters in Kinuyo Tanaka’s filmography. Following Kuniko (Hisako Hara), an ex-prostitute recently released from a reformatory school during the 1950’s Prostitution Prevention Law era, the film is as sensitive as it is brutal. As Kuniko tries to find work, you see the expected misogyny from men who refuse to see beyond her history as a sex worker. But what makes Girls of the Night compelling is the wide range of obstacles and hardships she faces just trying to live a normal life. Whether systemic or among other women, we see at its most visceral the horrors she faces and how her history molded her to isolate herself. Nothing about prostitution is romanticized in this film. Kinuyo Tanaka simultaneously calls out the hypocrisy of demonizing sex work in a capitalist society while exploring the damage and exploitation that comes with the life. All the ideas and themes of the film are carried by Hara’s compelling performance, whose growth throughout the film and desire to reclaim her inner peace is a marvel to behold. Girls of the Night is a brilliant film worth revisiting many times over, and is chillingly relevant to this day.
Forever a Woman
My personal favorite of Kinuyo Tanaka’s work, Forever a Woman, is a beautiful and tragic tale of maintaining strength and dignity during adversity. Following Fumiko Nakajo (Yumeji Tsukioka), a poet diagnosed with breast cancer, Kinuyo Tanaka and Sumie Tanaka express Fumiko’s vulnerability with care and consideration. Throughout the film, the press, her friends, and her ex-husband assign labels to Fumiko, based on her work or as a victim of her diagnosis.. But Kinuyo Tanaka makes her character’s focus clear, maintaining her sense of self through her troubling ordeals. During the early pains of her cancer, she focuses ons keeping her son and daughter together during her divorce. When her poetry gets published, she’s aggravated the newspaper mentioned her cancer diagnosis. Even after amputating her breasts, she sings topless in a spa. Like many of Tanaka’s characters, Fumiko’s goal is maintaining her personhood, not letting the world’s hardships destroy her. Tanaka allows us to empathize and relate to Fumiko without pitying her, making Forever a Women an astounding experience.
A Hen in the Wind
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu, A Hen in the Wind is a devastating look at a broken Japanese family in a post-war, broken Japanese city. Following Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), a mother trying to take care of her child while waiting on her husband’s repatriation from World War II, the film is a testament to the abandonment of working-class communities during wartime. Ozu masterly captures the rundown buildings and junkyards surrounding Tokiko, visually highlighting her desperation. Tanaka’s performance is heartbreaking, as she perfectly conveys her desire for a normal life with family, but beaten down by the harshness of her city. While some characters definitely act more aggressive than I’m comfortable with, this isn’t a story with villains. Everyone in this film is a victim of the world around them, of circumstances they have no control over. A Hen in the Wind is a deeply emotional and powerful film that I’m sure many military families can relate to.
You can find more information about the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective here