by Viknesh Kobinathan, AFA Programmer
Despite her illustrious and diverse trajectory as an actress from the late-1920s to the mid-1970s, Kinuyo Tanaka is not an instantly recognisable name to many contemporary audiences outside of Japan, although some would recognise her in the handful of prominent roles she played, especially in the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. Her ground-breaking oeuvre as a director, while highly celebrated at the time—not least of which was due to her being the only female filmmaker during Japan’s golden age of cinema—has not been seen or written about much by the wider world. However, thanks to recent restoration efforts, we can now witness these films in their entirety, for the first time in decades.
With the generous support of the Japan Foundation and in collaboration with Japanese Film Festival Singapore, the Asian Film Archive presents Retrospective: Kinuyo Tanaka. This programme contains all six of Tanaka’s directorial works, along with a selection of highlights from her acting career.
For those who are unsure how to navigate this 11-film programme, here’s a guide to four films to get you started on understanding the fascinating career of this underappreciated icon.
The oldest film in the programme lineup, Yasujirō Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is a throwback to the Depression-era gangster flicks of 1920s Hollywood. Tanaka plays a typist who leads a double life as a girlfriend of a mobster, and gets caught between a life of crime and her desire to pursue a path of morality.
A great example of the films from the pre-war era, when she was already a popular star in Japan, young Tanaka displays a more vivacious and expressive style of acting, characteristic of her earlier period.
Furthermore, this silent classic will only be screened twice together with a specially-commissioned live score, which makes this one event not to be missed!
Jumping forward by almost two decades, we arrive in the 1950s with Kenji Mizoguchi’s seminal drama Life of Oharu, where Tanaka performs as a 17th-century courtesan who falls from grace. Cycling through the entirety of Oharu’s life from a coquettish young lady to a downtrodden older woman, the film is a condensation of Tanaka’s consummate range as an actress.
Look out for Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, who plays a supporting role in the film!
Tanaka’s third film as a director is often regarded as her greatest. The narrative is based on the final days of a famed Japanese poet who before succumbing to cancer, forms an intimate bond with a young journalist. An honest dedication to a woman’s exploration of desire, Tanaka commands stunning performances and sensitive cinematography that brings forth a story that is both erotic and poignant.
Moving from her more personal works of the 50s, Tanaka shifts into the realm of the epic in the 60s, with Wandering Princess. Here, she gracefully melds Japanese colonial politics with sweeping melodrama and cross-cultural romance.
Praised by critics and audiences in Japan at the time, the film was unfortunately largely sidelined in the following decades. It is a particularly rare treat to experience this film on the big screen, especially with its beautiful colour and widescreen cinematography.
Experiencing Kinuyo Tanaka’s life in cinema, both onscreen and behind-the-camera, is to hold space for the contributions of women filmmakers of the past. Their work is now being re-centred and rediscovered, in an act of disrupting male-driven canonical readings of film history. We hope that this guide coaxes your curiosity and invites you to explore with us, the wondrous and multifarious voices that make up the rich history of Asian cinema!