She was one of the true cinematic icons of mid-20th century Japan. But looking back at her legacy today, Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka had what amounts to a secret life: She was also an accomplished director.
Her on-screen work is unparalleled — from an ingenue in her twenties in the silent film era to a freewheeling grandmother in the 1970s, Tanaka has worked with several top directors, including Yasujiro Ozu (“Dragnet Girl “), Akira Kurosawa (“Red Beard”), Mikio Naruse (“Flowing”) and especially Kenji Mizoguchi (“Life of Oharu”, “Ugetsu” and many others), who considered her his muse.
Tanaka also had a strong international reputation. Because her specialty was the suffering of women, she was known as “Japan’s Bette Davis”. While on a goodwill tour of the United States in 1949, Tanaka met Davis, who in a press-covered meeting called herself “the Kinuyo Tanaka of Hollywood”. Respect!
Yet the six films she made as a director from 1953 to 1962—none of huge box office hits in Japan—had all but been forgotten. So far.
“Forever Kinuyo Tanaka,” an essential 12-film program at the Berkeley Art Museum’s Pacific Film Archive, highlights her six films as a director and six of her best as an actress. The 4K restorations of her films as a director – little if ever seen in the West – are a collaboration between Janus Films and various Japanese studios and debuted in March at Lincoln Center in New York.
Predictably, her films address the challenges of being a woman in a rapidly modernizing post-war patriarchal society against a backdrop of geopolitical change. Her directorial debut, 1953’s “Love Letter” (Friday, July 8 at 7 p.m.), cuts to the chase: a former naval officer searches for his first love in post-war Tokyo and needs the help from Japanese women who have American GI boyfriends. Suddenly, the desperation of women in times of war knocks at home.
Tanaka also addresses prostitution—particularly the rehabilitation of women, despite the lack of institutional support after Japan banned prostitution in 1956—in “Girls of the Night” (7 p.m. July 31 and 7 p.m. August 28); breast cancer and the life of an artist in her biopic about poet Fumiko Nakajo, “Forever a Woman” (7 p.m. July 30 and 7:30 p.m. August 18); politically arranged marriages in “The Wandering Princess” (7 p.m. Aug. 14) and religious freedom in the 16th century “Love Under the Crucifix” (7 p.m. Aug. 21).
Although problem-oriented, Tanaka’s films are never preachy. They are vibrant and absorbing, and come as a plea for understanding. She even directed a rom-com, the fabulously entertaining matchmaking comedy “The Moon Has Risen” (7 p.m. July 28), featuring a playful performance by a young Mie Kitahara, innocent here but soon to become a sex-girl. symbol among Japanese rock ‘n’ rock the youth with the 1956 cult classic “Crazed Fruit.”
What surprises in Tanaka’s films is the subtlety and depth of his characters and subjects. Kuniko (Chisako Hara), the ex-prostitute at the center of “Girls of the Night”, struggles to get straight due to the stigma of her past; maid and factory jobs are short-lived because of this. Yet Tanaka refuses to allow her to sink into self-pity, even allowing her to become nostalgic for a profession she was forced into because of poverty: Kuniko fondly remembers “the smell” of the men who treated her well.
In “The Wandering Princess”, real life Hiro Saga (the great Machiko Kyō) is a Japanese noblewoman forced to marry the heir to Manchukuo (formerly Manchuria) to solidify Sino-Japanese relations. The twist: she falls in love with her husband, even as her country is torn apart during World War II and she has had to put aside her own artistic ambitions.
The idea of perpetual female sacrifice is reinforced in the second half of the film, when the princess is on the run and Tanaka, working in color and on the big screen for the first time, achieves an epic sense of the collapse of dynasties that has preceded the epics of David Lean. Sequences from “The Wandering Princess” presage passages from Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago,” made four years later.
Tanaka is believed to be the second woman to direct films in the Japanese studio system. Few works survive from the first, Tazuko Sakane (1904-75), who burst into life with “New Clothing” (1936).
So it was a big deal when Tanaka decided to direct, and despite her stardom as an actress, she needed major support. She got it from Ozu, a longtime friend and collaborator (“Dragnet Girl” plays at 7 p.m. on July 16 in the BAMPFA series), and closed gay director Keisuke Kinoshita.
Not only did they push for his directing bid to be approved, but Kinoshita also wrote the script for “Love Letter” and Ozu co-wrote “The Moon Has Risen.”
Unfortunately, the other half of the most important partnership of her career, Mizoguchi, was against her directorial ambitions. They’ve done 15 movies together, and “Life of Oharu” (7 p.m. July 23 and 7 p.m. August 11) is his biggest performance. After he objected to her directing request, they never worked together again.
Tanaka did not perform after 1962, but she continued acting until shortly before her death at age 67 in 1977, and the BAMPFA series includes one of her warmest performances, in 1975’s “Let’s Go Grandma!” (7:30 p.m. on August 25). The goofy comedy is a remake of the classic Ozu drama “Tokyo Story,” in which Tanaka’s children suddenly become super-cute when they discover their potential legacy is bigger than they thought.
Although in this case it’s for the wrong reasons, Tanaka is where she should be: the center of attention.
Forever Kinuyo Tanaka: From Friday July 8 to August 28. $5 to $14 per program. Pacific Film Archive of the Berkeley Art Museum, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. 510-642-0808. bampfa.org