The Review/ Short Read/

Kinuyo Tanaka: Fragility and Resilience

Perhaps the greatest actress in classic Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi’s muse was also one of the country’s only female directors

Life of Oharu 3
by Azadeh Jafari
Jul 25, 2018

The first in a series of profiles of the great actresses spotlighted in this season’s flagship TIFF Cinematheque programme Summer in Japan.

“Suffering has helped to turn you into a great woman,” a character says to Kinuyo Tanaka’s unhappily married Setsuko in Yasujiro Ozu’s The Munekata Sisters (1950) — a near-perfect summation of the legendary actress’ star persona in her prime period of the 1950s. Tanaka was a two-decade veteran of the industry by this point, appearing in many popular comedies and melodramas throughout the 1930s and securing her star status in the 1940s when she worked with such famous directors as Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Keisuke Kinoshita.


Tanaka (left) as the title character in Yasujiro Ozu's Dragnet Girl (1933)

But it was Tanaka’s collaboration with Kenji Mizoguchi, which included such masterpieces as The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), that truly transformed her formerly girlish image into that of a woman whose diminutive stature belies her majestic strength. Conversely, one could say that it was Tanaka who helped the director fully realize both his masterful mise en scène and his central subject of the unequal power relations between the sexes in both traditional and modern Japan. The partnership between Mizoguchi and Tanaka was both one of the most productive and one of the most mysterious instances of the male director/female star relationships: it is not easy to know who influenced whom, and the fact that Tanaka herself began directing in the 1950s (making her only the second woman in Japan to do so) invites intriguing speculation about the full extent of her creative contribution to her films with Mizoguchi.

In an early scene of The Life of Oharu, a messenger from a powerful feudal lord reads out the list of qualifications his master requires for the girl he is searching for to fill the role of concubine (a role that Tanaka’s Oharu will inevitably assume): perfect symmetry and proportions of the facial features, a long, thin neck, small hands, slender fingers, and feet no longer than eight inches. This dispassionate catalogue is at once Mizoguchi’s most brutally direct condemnations of the objectification of women in Japan, and also a (perhaps unconsciously?) reflexive commentary on his own incessant aestheticization of his star.

In many Tanaka-Mizoguchi collaborations, the actress’ characters are constantly praised for their unique beauty. In Utamaro and His Five Women, she plays one of the models (and muses) of the great woodblock artist of the title (whom James Quandt has identified as one of the most autobiographical characters in Mizoguchi’s cinema); in Miss Oyu (1951), she looks breathtaking in a succession of dazzling traditional kimonos.


Tanaka in Miss Oyu

Fragility is the other side of Tanaka’s beauty. As per the title of Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind (1948), the actress is frequently depicted as a delicate figure threatened by and struggling to resists the winds of destiny. Tanaka’s tiny body is consistently held, embraced, constrained, or carried by men in many of her films, whether affectionately or forcefully. When an ardent suitor offers to carry her on his back in Miss Oyu, he tells her that she is “as light as a cushion feather.” In a dark mirror of this sentiment at the end of Oharu, Tanaka’s now aged, abused and cast-out Oharu is grabbed and dragged away no less than three times by the palace guards as she repeatedly tries to walk towards the son whom she has been permitted to view only from a distance — a young nobleman who has never seen his real mother, and who could never imagine that the old crone calmly and defiantly slipping from the grip of her captors could have given birth to such as him.


Tanaka (left) in Utamaro and His Five Women

However, Tanaka is not merely a Bunraku puppet in these films. If her small body and delicate movements make it appear as if she may shatter at any moment, her unreadable face masks a fierce determination and devotion that endow her with a preternatural dignity and power. Tanaka’s remarkable control of gesture and posture makes her body a brilliant dramatic instrument: she can depict complex emotions by fiercely looking away, turning her head, or bending her beautiful long neck. In Utamaro, her open neckline in the scene where she confesses to the murder of her lover transforms her crime of passion into a transcendent act of love and self-affirmation. (It is no surprise that, as she leaves Utamaro to turn herself into the authorities and submit herself to their patriarchal “justice,” she emphatically covers her neck.) In the opening scenes of Sansho the Bailiff, her graceful, swaying movement of her upper body from right to left as she calls for her children leads her son to compare her voice to “the sound of waves” — an anticipation of the seashore that will see the heartbreaking reunion of mother and now-grown child many years later. And in her heart-wrenching death scene in Ugetsu, the way she clings to the spear piercing her chest makes it seem as if it is she who is willing this tragic act, rather than the cowardly bandit who grasps the other end.

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Tanaka (centre) in Ugetsu

While all these (and more) moments from Mizoguchi films are indelible, it was Ozu, in the comparatively lesser-known Hen in the Wind, who provided Tanaka with perhaps her apotheosis on screen. Tanaka plays a struggling mother during wartime who, at one point, sells her body to save her son. When her war veteran husband returns and eventually finds this out, he abuses her, slaps her, and finally (unintentionally), pushes her down to stairs. For several seconds, Tanaka lies motionless on the ground, as if she were dead; then she slowly, carefully gets up and begins to painfully climb back up the stairs. In this one moment, Tanaka demonstrates that no actress in classic Japanese cinema — not even her great contemporaries Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine — is her equal.

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