.A Woman’s View: The work of legendary actor-director Tanaka Kinuyo lights up BAMPFA

Admirers of classical Japanese cinema are undoubtedly well aware of actor Tanaka Kinuyo (we’ll follow the Japanese style, family name first, for all proper names). The dignified, durable leading lady is probably best known for her work with director Mizoguchi Kenji. 

Who will ever forget Tanaka’s performance as the pitiable enslaved mother, separated from her children by kidnappers, in Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff? Or her equally heart-rending role as the unfortunate cast-off daughter/wife in the same director’s The Life of Oharu? Or as yet another wronged Mizoguchi female, the ghostly Miyagi in Ugetsu

Tanaka (1909-1977), who also performed for such filmmakers as Ozu Yasujiro, Kurosawa Akira, Naruse Mikio and Kinoshita Keisuke in a 50-year-plus career, was a major matinee idol in Japan, beginning with Ozu’s I Graduated, But… (1929). However, there’s one important aspect of Tanaka’s world-famous career that may come as a surprise. From 1953 to 1962, she directed a remarkable slate of films devoted to telling the stories of women in a variety of situations, most of them stressful. 

All six of Tanaka’s directorial efforts are on display in “Forever Kinuyo Tanaka,” a concise but rewarding retrospective series at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive—conceived by guest programmer Lili Hinstin with BAMPFA associate film curator Kate MacKay—which also includes a well chosen half-dozen examples of her work as an actor for other directors. The series runs July 8-Aug. 28. 

Love Letter (Koibumi), Tanaka’s 1953 debut in the director’s chair, looks at women’s lives in post-WWII Japan from an unusual perspective. A former naval officer named Reikichi (Mori Masayuki) doubles down on his search for his long-lost wartime sweetheart by taking a job writing letters for women communicating with their American ex-servicemen boyfriends. Neither Reikichi nor most of his male friends particularly understand or sympathize with these “loose” women. In a society in which everyone is just barely getting by, ex-GI-girlfriends seeking money from foreigners are socially stigmatized. And yet, through a sympathetic character, Tanaka’s film achieves a hopeful tone in the midst of despair, with scenes of heartfelt sentiment reminiscent of Ozu, who encouraged his former player’s ambitions behind the camera as well as in front of it. Love Letter shows Friday, July 8.

By the time The Wandering Princess was released in 1960, Tanaka’s directing career was in full flower. This wartime drama tells the story of nobleperson Saga Hiro (played by Kyo Machiko), who is chosen to become the bride of Prince Pujie (Funakoshi Eiji), the brother of Chinese Emperor Pu Yi, puppet monarch of Japanese-occupied Manchuria—an honor that compels Saga to relocate to that dangerous territory. She eventually grows to admire China’s culture and people, but that doesn’t save her from hardship and strife when the tide turns against Japan at the end of the war. Filmed in widescreen color, it’s a thoughtful combination of drawing-room situations and harrowing political violence. Screening Aug. 14. 

The Moon Has Risen (1955), directed by Tanaka from a screenplay by her mentor Ozu, creates a subdued, slightly dreamy atmosphere for the story of Setsuko (Kitahara Mie), the strong-willed youngest sister of a middle-class family in Nara. This cast of characters would fit neatly into a Jane Austen novel—talkative Setsuko spends her time matchmaking for her older sister, while the family’s wise and patient servant (Tanaka) smoothes the awkward moments. Note the Ozu-style procession of domestic establishing shots. It plays July 28. 

Also recommended: Gosho Heinosuke’s Where Chimneys Are Seen (1953), with Tanaka and Uehara Ken as salt-of-the-earth residents of a poor Tokyo neighborhood in which you can hear everything through the thin paper walls (July10); Dragnet Girl, Ozu’s early (1933) crime story, featuring Tanaka as the world’s most demure gangster’s moll, which screens July 16; and Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, starring Tanaka as the epitome of a luckless fallen woman (July 23 and Aug. 11).

For the full schedule, visit: BAMPFA.org. 

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