The 100th birthday of Kinuyo Tanaka, the legendary Japanese star, invites reconsideration of a career whose significance—not only cinematic but also cultural—is little recognized in the West and perhaps has yet to be fully explored in Japan. Outside her native country, she is still best known for her appearances in three Kenji Mizoguchi films—The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954)—that were part of the first wave of the Western discovery of Japanese cinema. Oharu, in particular, is the apotheosis of the Tanaka figure: the Japanese woman as noble lady, lover, mother, geisha, middle-class wife, prostitute, and pilgrim, all encompassed in a single film by the sweep and curl of Mizoguchi’s crane. But Oharu did not come out of nowhere, and our understanding of it is deepened by knowing something of what framed it in Tanaka’s life: a personally momentous trip to America two years earlier and her success, the following year, in embarking on a new career as a director.
Tanaka, who started in films at age 14, was a big star for more than 20 years before Oharu. The least that can be said of the Japanese studio system is that it kept its people busy; it should also be said that, during its golden age (or ages—before and after the war), it sustained some great directors. Tanaka acted for many of them. Apart from her long relationship with Mizoguchi (15 films together), she worked repeatedly with Hiroshi Shimizu (19 films), Yasujiro Shimazu (18), Heinosuke Gosho (20), Yasujiro Ozu (10), Mikio Naruse (6), and Keisuke Kinoshita (9), and made one or two films each with Kon Ichikawa, Akira Kurosawa, Masahiro Makino, Daisuke Ito, and Tomu Uchida.
Her films of the early 1930s present a studio-crafted feminine image demure almost to insipidity, through which shines Tanaka’s obviously genuine niceness and her increasing performance skill, not just with melodrama but with comedy, in her marvelous work with Gosho. Through films such as Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931), Ozu’s Dragnet Girl (1933), and Gosho’s Song of the Flower Basket (1937), Tanaka’s subtle, lively responsiveness of face and gesture creates miniature pools of movement within frames static and formalized (Ozu) or crowded and deceptively lackadaisical (Gosho).
By the end of the 1930s, Tanaka became firmly established as a great star, especially in suffering roles, which could have become daunting to the spirit, but in Mother and Child (1938, Minoru Shibuya) and Shimizu’s Ornamental Hairpin (1941) she refrains from imposing herself, choosing to exercise her stardom through an erasure of peak moments and bravura effects. Even though Kinoshita’s Phoenix (1947) pulls out all the stops during an overdramatic confrontation between Tanaka’s character and her boyfriend’s unsympathetic father, the film is largely structured around Tanaka’s fixed stares offscreen: calm, brooding, or sorrowful, in any case delicate. Her work with Mizoguchi, especially in Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) and The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947), extended her range, and in 1948 she gave indelible contrasting back-to-back performances as women forced into prostitution in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night and Ozu’s Hen in the Wind.
In October 1949, Tanaka embarked on a three-month tour of Hawaii, California, and points east in the United States as a cultural goodwill ambassador. This trip would be a turning point in her life. Through extensive film footage (recently discovered), her journey is documented in Kinuyo Tanaka’s New Departure, a fascinating 2009 film by Koko Kajiyama, which will run continuously (starting October 31) on a video monitor as part of an exhibition at the National Film Center in Tokyo (concurrent with a complete retrospective of Tanaka’s extant films). We see her laying flowers and praying at war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s grave in Honolulu, visiting a women’s association, sharing a drink with a group of women at a pineapple-canning factory, posing with sailors who are all a head taller than her. Then it’s on to Hollywood, where she gives a kimono to Bette Davis (who has the graciousness to announce, since Tanaka has been billed in the press for the tour as “the Japanese Bette Davis,” that she will now become the American Kinuyo Tanaka), is feted by Joe Pasternak at MGM, and poses with John Wayne (who is about a head and a half taller). She gives stage performances and appears at Japanese-American functions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Fresno (did my grandparents, who lived near there, go see her? Alas, they are not in the film). In all the footage, Tanaka never acts like a star: she seems humble and appears to be really enjoying herself.
Her friend Hideko Takamine thought Tanaka, like many Japanese after the war, longed for (and believed in the official promises of) change, and she thought that Tanaka saw her trip as an opportunity to remake herself. The change was, in part, external. In New Departure we see Tanaka have her hair restyled, submit to a Max Factor makeover, and, on the eve of her return to Japan, get her hair cut short. Her new image met with bitter rejection back home. The film shows Tanaka’s soon-to-be-notorious arrival at Haneda Airport on January 19, 1950, wearing dark sunglasses, black gloves, and her leis from Honolulu; then her appearance in an open car, blowing a kiss to her massed admirers. (She blew a kiss on arriving in Honolulu three months earlier, but then she did it a bit awkwardly, her hand and her mouth not quite coordinated; in Tokyo she is perfect.) In Kinoshita’s Phoenix, her passionate kiss with Keiji Sada had been much noted, and, though controversial, that sign of a changing Japan met with general acceptance and even praise. But the Tanaka who wore sunglasses and blew kisses from a moving car had crossed a line in a Japan that was inwardly seething under the occupation. The press attacked this new Tanaka with a torrent of harsh criticism that spilled over into the reviews of her next films, to devastating effect on her spirits. When they acted together in The Munekata Sisters (1950), Takamine saw in her co-star (who had just turned 40) a depression and a lack of self-confidence that irritated their director, Ozu. During the shoot, Tanaka told Takamine that she often felt the urge to jump off the cliff beside her house in Kamakurayama.
Force of will pulled her out of her slump and brought her to a new phase that made it apparent how much she had indeed reinvented herself. Naruse’s Ginza Cosmetics (1951), which recapitulates some of Tanaka’s glorious performances from the 1940s only to shove her into a new era of aging, uncertainty, and compromise, marked the official comeback. It was followed by Mizoguchi’s Miss Oyu (1951) and the string of Mizoguchi masterpieces that ended with Woman of Rumor (1954), the most dejected and down-to-earth of their films together, and the most underrated.
Among the souvenirs she kept of her American trip (about which, stunned by her treatment on her return, she later refused to speak) were signed 8-by-10s of Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Janet Leigh, Cary Grant, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Irene Dunne, and Maureen O’Hara. No evidence has yet turned up that she also met Ida Lupino, who, earlier in that same year of 1949, had made the switch from acting to directing with the excellent Not Wanted. It would have been a logical and prophetic meeting. Just as it was prophetic when, at her welcoming party in Honolulu, Tanaka was presented with a 16mm camera and some Kodachrome stock. Of her work as a director, many have spoken highly (including William Johnson in a fine essay in the January 1994 Film Comment). I’ve seen only three of her six films, and perhaps not the three best, so all I should say right now is that Love Letters (1953) is touchingly acted; The Moon Has Risen (1955), from a script by Ozu and Ryosuke Saito, has a funny scene in which the heroine (Mie Kitahara) “directs” Tanaka (in a very small role as a maid); and the discreet but pronounced eroticism of Love Under the Crucifix (1962) is linked closely to a claustrophobic sense of oppression. It is a feeling she knew well how to bring out and that in some way she was familiar with.
That was the last of Tanaka’s films as director; she kept on acting. Her most famous later role, as a prostitute again (now retired) in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 (1974), is still remembered in Japan, in much the same way as late in his life, Chishu Ryu (Wim Wenders tells us in Tokyo-ga) was better known for appearing on TV than for his performances for Ozu. On her 100th birthday let’s raise a glass to Kinuyo Tanaka and remember how much still has to be learned about, and from, this remarkable woman.