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Tanaka Kinuyo: in a (wo)man’s world

Irene González-López, Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, writes about Tanaka Kinuyo, a groundbreaking Japanese director in a studio system that actively discouraged female directors.

By Irene González-López25 October 2022

Fumiko is fighting with breast cancer and has recently undergone a mastectomy. Feeling trapped in hospital, she flees to visit her friend Kinuko and asks to take a bath. The two friends chat while Kinuko squats outside the bath cabin adding wood to the boiler.

still from Forever a Woman (Chibusa yo eien nare, Tanaka Kinuyo, JP 1955)

A small translucent window connects the two spaces. From behind Fumiko, the camera shows Kinuko who innocently peeks in the window and is struck by the sight of her friend’s wounded breast; a sight we, the audience, are protected from witnessing.

Both characters withdraw in synchrony: Fumiko impulsively submerges her head in the water and Kinuko grimaces and bends down as she slams the window shut. The camera cuts to a close-up, frontal shot of Fumiko, staring with a suggestive look directly into the camera as she demands, ‘Please look at my scars’. Kinuko refuses and Fumiko retaliates with a defying smile, ‘I always wanted to bathe where your husband did. I think that is why I became so sick’ — she says while caressing her body and the bathtub. The camera is then placed outside the cabin and as Fumiko opens the little window again, both women turn their backs to the camera with Kinuko facing the wall in distress. This creates a beautiful composition of a frame within a frame where the two women cast their heads down with their bodies slightly tilted to the left. Then Fumiko turns around once again and approaches the camera to close the window with a cold expression on her face, a mixture of disdain and satisfaction. However, after the bath, Fumiko feels dizzy and cuddles in Kinuko’s lap, who soothes her as if speaking to a child.

This incredibly complex and exquisitely orchestrated sequence is the now famous bath scene of Forever a Woman (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955), the third film by star-turned-director Tanaka Kinuyo. Between 1953 and 1962, Tanaka directed six films but for decades her fame as an actor seemed to have eclipsed her trailblazing career as director. The retrospective on Tanaka as part of the Restored & Unseen programme at Eye Filmmuseum is a wonderful opportunity to discover her cinema, but also to reflect on why it has taken so many years to acknowledge the immense value of her work.

The bath scene bears witness to the aesthetic and technical quality of the films directed by Tanaka, who worked from her debut with top crew members due to her privileged status within the industry. I have watched it dozens of times, and each time I still discover new details about how skillfully it is choreographed and edited. The use of mirrors in the film also exhibits Tanaka’s mastery of classical melodramatic techniques, playing with desire, expectations and self-restraint while allowing for highly stylized frame compositions. But this bath sequence is also fascinating because it is full of references, surprises, and contradictions that are very telling of Tanaka’s approach to cinema and to the representation of women.

Fumiko is not a passive object. She is, rather, a subject who demands to be looked at and who, by closing the window of the cabin, demonstrates her control over the gaze directed at her. But there are two gazes involved: Kinuko’s and ours. Unlike Kinuko, we are not shown Fumiko’s scarred breast. Instead, we are delighted with her exhibition of sensual beauty, which is out of Kinuko’s sight. While Fumiko can control the gaze within the story, she is rendered, to a certain extent, an object of visual pleasure for us. The fact that Fumiko was performed by Tsukioka Yumeji, famous for her exuberant gaze and at the time Nikkatsu Studios’ new top star, seems to underscore this approach to women as spectacle. Legend has it that many Japanese women who sought cosmetic surgery at the time asked to have Tsukioka’s eyes. The bath scene is certainly the most suggestive scene in the film and Tsukioka’s gaze is central to its eroticism. But it is interesting that the recipient of all this seduction and violence would be a woman and a close friend. Fumiko begins by expressing her love and gratitude to Kinuko, then plays sadistic games on her — perhaps hiding her vulnerability, envy, or homoerotic desire — and yet Kuniko empathises with Fumiko and seems to read through her scornful attitude and her affectionate cuddles.

Tanaka claimed to want ‘to depict women from a woman’s perspective’; but she did not think of herself as a feminist — whatever this label might mean for a Japanese filmmaker in the 1950s. I don’t think we should project a feminist consciousness on all her work, nor evaluate her cinema exclusively in these terms. Tanaka made fabulous films; that is what counts the most. But the presence of strong female characters who fight against adversity is noteworthy across her filmography; they may not always succeed, but they are never impotent victims. Similarly to Fumiko and Kuniko’s relationship in Forever a Woman, in Tanaka’s cinema we often encounter profound, and at times ambiguous, relationships among women; from family ties, romantic interest and mentor-disciple relationships, to violent confrontations and sexual exploitation. Tanaka’s desire to portray complex female characters and confront women’s concerns is undeniable, and her increasing interest in working with other women creators is also very revealing.

Forever a Woman, often regarded as the pinnacle of her directorial work, provides a trailblazing depiction of breast cancer, not only for its explicitness, but also for how it intertwines the physical, social, and emotional challenges that the disease triggers, as well as the impact of stereotypes and toxic narratives — reflected in this scene when Fumiko speaks of cancer as punishment for her unrestrained sexual desire. The story is inspired by the poetry of Nakajo Fumiko (who died of breast cancer in 1954 at the age of 32) and scripted by Tanaka Sumie, who later also wrote the script of Girls of Dark (Onna bakari no yoru, 1961), Tanaka’s fifth film. This collaboration with female writers marks an important shift in Tanaka Kinuyo’s career because she distanced herself from the renowned male directors who had meticulously supported her first two directed films (Naruse Mikio, Kinoshita Keisuke, Ozu Yasujirō) and began to seek inspiration in female historical figures and collaborations with female authors, scriptwriters, and producers.

Forever a Woman offers an uncompromising depiction of female desire. The fact that Fumiko is also a mother makes this portrayal of agency and sexuality even more refreshing, because the trope of the mother in Japan (and elsewhere) was associated with an asexual and sacrificing figure. Other of her films also contribute daring reworkings of female archetypes. For instance, the sex workers depicted in Love Letter (Koibumi, 1953) and Girls of Dark challenge stereotypes found in contemporaneous Japanese films and address difficult questions about autonomy, freedom, and responsibility. The Wandering Princess (Ruten no ōhi, 1960) and Love under the Crucifix (Oginsama, 1962) rework the melodramatic trope of the wife and the lover to highlight the heroines’ agency despite being rendered objects of male exchange. On the other hand, it is also true that The Moon has Risen (Tsuki wa noborinu, 1955) offers quite a conservative depiction of romantic relationships and The Wandering Princess idealises the figure of the suffering woman without challenging the ideological implications this has for a film depicting Japan’s colonial history.

still from Girls of Dark (Onna baraki no yoru, Kinuyo Tanaka, JP 1961)
still from The Wandering Princess (Kinuyo Tanaka, JP 1960)
still from The Wandering Princess (Kinuyo Tanaka, JP 1960)

As a director, Tanaka explored the potential of melodrama, in all its excess and contradictions, without radically rejecting dominant gender ideologies but incorporating subversive elements. It is within this tension that I read insights into her own contradictory life experiences and into a Japan that was rapidly changing throughout the 1950s. Tanaka was born in 1909 and debuted as an actor at the age of 14, soon becoming one of Japan’s top stars under the direction of the ‘masters of Japanese cinema’ such as Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Naruse. She survived the transition from silent cinema to talkies, the propagandistic use of cinema under the Japanese empire and later under the Allied Occupation (1945-1952), and fought against the industry’s ageism. Her decision in the early 1950s to become a film director at the age of 43 caused quite a splash in the industry and the press, but came at a time when Japanese women, recently enfranchised after World War II, were venturing into traditionally male-dominated spaces. Just as her career is in some ways symptomatic of the changes occurring in Japanese society and the cinema industry, her films portray women in specific historical contexts, highlighting the conflict between trying to live according to one’s own ideas and the social expectations around women’s roles. For instance, The Moon has Risen, despite its conservative depiction of romance, provides an engaging portrayal of three close generations of women in the early 1950s. In the way each of the protagonists sees their role in the family and romantic relationships the film reveals the old and new conceptions of the individual that co-existed in a Japan in flux.

At the time of her directorial debut in 1953, the Japanese press enthusiastically covered Tanaka’s venture and her debut film, Love Letter, was screened at Cannes International Film Festival. However, later her filmography remained difficult to access and rarely discussed until in recent years, when her films have been remastered in 4K and screened at Cannes, Tokyo International Film Festival, and festivals around the world. Tanaka’s bold treatment of taboo subjects such as breast cancer, her strong female characters, her collaboration with other women creators and, of course, the extraordinary historical conjunction of having such an emblematic star becoming the first woman to regularly direct feature fiction films in Japan make her an ideal vehicle through which to write female directors and other forgotten voices back into the history of cinema.

Kinuyo Tanaka at work as a director
Kinuyo Tanaka at work as a director

About the author

Irene González-López is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research spans Japanese creative industries, with a special focus on postwar cinema and issues related to gender and sexuality, both in front and behind the camera. She is the co-editor (together with Michael Smith) of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).