Arguably the leading Japanese film actress of the 20th century, Kinuyo Tanaka began working in that medium early—in 1924, when just barely a teenager—and continued nearly until her death over half a century later. Utterly devoted to her craft, she also blazed a trail as that nation’s first woman director of note.
Her six feature films behind the camera, all recently restored, plus a representative selection of her starring vehicles are showcased in “Forever Kinuyo Tanaka,” a series at Berkeley’s BAMPFA running Fri/8 through August 28. Stretching from the silent era to the mid-’70s, 12 selections offer a tip-of-the-iceberg sampler (she made close to 300 films), but pay testament to a versatile, unshowy, thoughtful performer who fully carried those qualities into her own directorial efforts.
Born the youngest of nine children in 1910 to a once-prosperous Shimonoseki family fallen on hard times, Tanaka was soon earning her keep as a child musician and actor. She had a professional and personal relationship with prolific director Hiroshi Shimizu (who made his first feature the same year she entered films) for several years, continuing to work with him occasionally even after they ceased to be a couple. She was well-established enough by 1931 to star in Japan’s first all-talking feature, though silents continued being made there for some time. Her first film in the PFA series, 1933’s Dragnet Girl, is a visually impressionistic drama in which she’s the initially cynical girlfriend of a small-time gangster whom she eventually tries to reform, along with herself.
It was an early effort for the great Yasujiro Ozu, for whom she had already acted several times. A much later collaboration also being shown here is 1948’s A Hen in the Wind, made just before his breakthrough Late Spring. It has Tanaka as a wife whose returned-soldier husband cannot forgive what she was forced to do to survive during his wartime absence—a frequent theme in her movies, and Japanese cinema in general, at the time. Working with many of the era’s leading directors, she also made several with Mikio Naruse, with series inclusions Ginza Cosmetics (1951) and Flowing (1956) offering very different perspectives on the business of being a geisha.
But Tanaka’s most important such association was with Kenji Mizoguchi, for whom she starred in such classics as Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. The PFA is showing their 1952 The Life of Oharu, a 17th-century tragedy the director considered his best film. She plays the titular imperial court woman who runs away with a lowly retainer (Toshiro Mifune), the resulting scandal leading to his execution, her family’s exile, and an endless descent from one degradation to another.
Despite Mizoguchi’s frequent such sympathetic portrayal of female protagonists, he apparently did not think women belonged in the director’s chair—perhaps he’d been prejudiced by the relative failure in that regard of his frequent assistant Tazuko Sakane, Japan’s sole prior example. In any case, as President of the Director’s Guild in the early 1950s, he actively opposed Tanaka’s aspirations, a personal betrayal that ended their long affiliation.
Nonetheless, she did begin directing, for a decade beginning in 1953 with Love Letter—another film about men trying to forgive women for surviving WW2 as best they could. Her other features were all woman-driven narratives, running a gamut from a lighthearted matchmaking seriocomedy (The Moon Has Risen) to a long-suffering terminal illness drama (Forever a Woman aka The Eternal Breasts) and an indictment of prejudice against former sex workers (Girls of the Night). She also made two widescreen color opuses, bestselling memoir-based The Wandering Princess and 16th-century saga Love Under the Crucifix.
It’s notable that unlike many other actors-turned-directors, Tanaka wasn’t interested in creating vehicles for herself. She gave the juicy lead roles to other actresses, at most playing a token, non-flashy support role to lend some of her star power at the box office. While her films were not outstanding commercial or critical successes at the time, they hold up well, and now are being re-evaluated for their solid craftsmanship and sometimes dated but still admirable critique of gender role traps.
When that new career ground to a halt, Tanaka scarcely slowed her pace, even if advancing age now meant the better roles offered her were often on TV. Before dying of a brain tumor in 1977 at age 66, she had a last big-screen starring role in 1975’s Let’s Go, Grandma!, as a wealthy widow dismayed to realize that all the adult offspring clamoring to care for her in old age are only after her bank account. With its antic freeze-frames, soundtracked “acid guitar,” and final line “Groovy!,” this sentimental farce has dated far worse than any of the older films on the schedule.
Yet as she did with all her prior parts, from court lady to middle-class wife to streetwalker, Tanaka keeps things grounded—her dignified grandma, too polite to show either bemusement or offense, operates from a levelheaded perspective that elevates the lowbrow film as a whole. As ever, we believe in her chosen reality, just as Tanaka (not a flamboyant performer or a stereotypical beauty) had previously convinced us that she might be the most desired, brittle or soft-hearted character onscreen.
Forever Kinuyo Tanaka plays BAMPFA Fri/8-August 28. For full program, schedule and ticket info, go here.
Two new films already playing local theaters offer very different international-cinema pleasures:
Thomas Daneskov’s comedy at first appears to be a parody of reactionary “men’s rights” movements, with its protagonist frantic to discover his inner he-man—but it turns out to have considerably more than that up its sleeve. Hirsute, heavy-set Martin (Rasmus Bjerg) is introduced roaming the mountains with bow and arrow, clad in fur skins, looking as if he’d stepped out of some rugged barbarian past. But as it turns out, he’s only stepped out of Danish suburbia, an apparent mid-life crisis leading him to run from wife and children to the Norwegian wilderness. “Reverting to nature,” he’s determined to live off the land… until, addled by hunger, the land he chooses to live off is a gas-station convenience store. Where his attempt to trade a hand-made axe for junk food and booze is ill-received.
Meanwhile, three shady characters crash into a moose on a road nearby, wounded Musa (Zaki Youssef) fleeing with their ill-gotten loot while the other two are unconscious. He ends up being found by Martin, who’s a little too thrilled to have company, and who assumes the police on Musa’s tail are actually seeking him for his recent Quickie Mart misadventure. The two fugitives bond, more or less, as the bungling, occasionally bloody criminal, domestic, and law-enforcement doings around them look more and more like Fargo—albeit in a comedic mode not quite so black, with more warmth mixed into absurdist and thriller elements.
The spectacular outdoor settings a trial to protagonists ill-equipped to handle them (despite all their nostalgia towards “Viking” ways), Wild Men is a handsome-looking movie with playfully barbed character writing, clever twists, and a forgiving heart. It is quite funny, yet even as we laugh at these figures, we sigh a bit, knowing that they are doing their best. This isn’t quite a great movie, but it’s a very enjoyable one. It’s currently playing the Smith Rafael Film Center (more info here).
The quest for a “simpler” life that waylays misguided Martin is nowhere on the minds of the jaded rich in this latest film by John Michael McDonagh. Arriving by yacht in Tangiers, David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) are the kind of pampered purebreds whose A-list marriage has curdled into brittle loathing—of one another, and just about everything else.
Driving to a weekend fete at the gated Sahara oasis of her friends (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones as old-school decadent, sneering homosexuals), the disharmonious couple manage to accidentally run down a boy on the remote road at night. This ultimately results in eye-rolling David having to reluctantly do the honorable thing by traveling yet deeper into the desert, to bury the lad in the company of his father (Ismael Kanater as Abdellah)—a journey he’s not entirely sure he’ll return alive from. Meanwhile Jo, none too concerned, dallies with a handsome party guest (Christopher Abbott).
Not to be confused with his playwright brother Martin (who’s also made films), John Michael McDonagh impressed to a degree with two terrifically self-conscious if also forceful vehicles for Brendan Gleeson, The Guard and Calvary. But here he’s adapting a novel by Lawrence Osborne, and the indictment of soulless moneyed Westerners—empty, acerbic, shrilly eccentric, drunken, racist—as opposed to Morocco’s soulful poor feels
trite, as well as old hat.
While the story might work quite well as literature, as a film it feels like something modish that could have been made 60 years ago, when everyone was imitating Fellini and Antonioni’s indictments of la dolce vita. Even if his character eventually acquires some depth, I didn’t need to see the great Fiennes observe the stunning landscape and sulk “Very picturesque I suppose in a banal sort of way”… between cocktails of course, as Muslim servants cluck in silent disapproval.
Despite the powerhouse cast and assured craftsmanship, this never quite transcends being a heavy-handed portrait of stereotypical injustice, with elements of familiar angsty-soap-opera potboiler. For whom would The Forgiven be penetrating? Other people who shop in Dubai and Paris, the sort we used to call jet-setters? Maybe McDonagh travels in those circles, but they’re not relatable to the rest of us. Exposing the obvious cracks in their moral fiber is a redundancy this arch, finger-waggling movie is too superficial to make seem new, or important. It’s currently playing at Bay Area theaters including the Metreon and Elmwood.