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Sandakan No. 8
At the Walter Reade Theater, from March 18th to the 27th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a retrospective devoted to the great, extremely prolific actress—and one of only a handful of genuine Japanese female motion-picture stars like Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Setsuko Hara, and Ayako Wakao—Kinuyo Tanaka, who also directed six features, of some repute, which are all being screened in new digital “restorations”—I look forward to seeing these shown some day in their original format, i.e., 35-millimeter. Of likely much greater interest to serious local cinephiles, however, is the presentation, in 35-millimeter, of six classic films in which the actress only appeared. Remarkably, she collaborated with such notable Japanese directors as, for example, Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Ozu (one of his unused scripts was filmed as The Moon Has Risen in 1955, which was Tanaka’s second work as a director), Heinosuke Gosho, Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Shimazu, Keisuke Kinoshita, Daisuke Itō, Hiroshi Inagaki, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa—he also made a memorable, biographical film about her, Actress, in 1987—Kaneto Shindo, Yasuzo Masumura, and Kei Kumai, among others.
One of her most astonishing performances was in Ozu’s magnificent, profoundly moving A Hen in the Wind from 1948, about a wife and mother who resorts to prostitution to pay for the medical expenses incurred when her young son falls gravely ill. The film is unusual in the director’s œuvre for its melodramatic subject and the concomitant overt physical and emotional violence it depicts but it nonetheless conforms to the rigorous, idiosyncratic, mature style that Ozu pursued with exceptional single-mindedness for decades. A Hen in the Wind is also noteworthy for its relevance to Robin Wood’s powerful argument, in his brilliant essay—in his important book, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond—on what he calls Ozu’s “Noriko Trilogy” of masterpieces—the first film of which, Late Spring, was released the following year—that the director should be read as a feminist critic of the traditional Japanese family rather than as an upholder of that institution—I think the plangent ending of this work might well be read as ultimately affirmative. Tanaka receives excellent support here from several other actors who were associated with Ozu, such as Shuji Sano, Chishu Ryu and Takeshi Sakamoto.
Melodrama, although here in a period story—the setting is the feudal world of 17th century Japan—is a hallmark too of Mizoguchi’s incomparable The Life of Oharu, the sad tale of a lady at court who becomes a courtesan and falls into prostitution, the first in a series of films adapted from classics of Japanese literature—it is loosely based on Sailaku Ihara’s The Life of an Amorous Woman—that the director undertook with the intention of winning international prizes—and indeed he won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival three years in a row. (Mizoguchi, like Shimizu, was Tanaka’s lover and she made fifteen films with him; he subsequently opposed her decision to become a film director.) The bitter feminist critique throughout Mizoguchi’s work—which Wood also championed—and strongly visible in this film—which was co-scripted by his regular collaborator, Yoshikata Yoda—also invites comparison with A Hen in the Wind—Tanaka is here too an icon of victimhood—but the director’s approach to the material—with abundant long takes in depth and many elaborate tracking-shots—is formally very different, although the eminent critic Noël Burch famously contended that both filmmakers were paragons of a distinctively Japanese mode of representation—Roland Barthes defended a similar thesis in his book, Empire of Signs. Tanaka’s performance dominates The Life of Oharu but it is worth highlighting the compelling brief appearances of the Kurosawa regulars, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.
Kei Kumai’s absorbing Sandakan No. 8 from 1974, which he co-scripted, is an even harsher tale of exploitation, female suffering, and degradation, and also a work of feminist, sociopolitical critique, here again with a focus on prostitution—it tells the story of a pretty young journalist that befriends an elderly Japanese woman that was coerced into sex work in British Borneo in the 1910s and 1920s—but the technique here is less refined and more sensationalistic—the use of the zoom lens, for example, is not inexpressive but is nonetheless inelegant, however the film does feature some attractive color photography. Ozu and Mizoguchi, by contrast, despite their significant stylistic divergences, both proceed largely by indirection but Kumai’s more expressionistic approach does have its emotional rewards. Sandakan No. 8 is the least of the movies that Tanaka did not direct in this series but it is a worthwhile one, and Kumai is a filmmaker with an international reputation whose work regrettably is rarely shown. Tanaka won the Best Actress Award at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival for her extraordinarily poignant performance.
More impressive is another seldom screened title, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke from 1935 by Shimazu, from his own screenplay, an adaptation of a classic novella by Junichiro Tanizaki, A Portrait of Shunkin, which in 1961 was filmed in color by Teinosuke Kinugasa—he is especially known for works like a A Page of Madness and Gate of Hell—and recently effectively staged by Simon McBurney with the Théâtre de Complicité. The film, set during the Meiji era, tells the story of a beautiful blind koto player who inspires an overwhelmingly passionate devotion in her male servant and student. The now underappreciated Shimazu—his films are inordinately difficult to see in 35-millimeter and he directed more than 140—does not emphasize the source’s perverse, masochistic eroticism as McBurney did so memorably, but he does display considerable subtlety and a certain mastery of the main elements of the classical style—although this fine work does not evidence the enthralling formal eloquence of Ozu, Mizoguchi or Naruse—especially composition, editing, and abundant camera movement, but as in many Japanese studio films of the period, here there are many unorthodoxies in technique and scene construction of the kind that impelled Burch’s interesting perspective—indeed a sudden deployment of subjective, handheld camera very late in the film is almost avant-garde in its departure from established norms. Tanaka is again marvelous, here less characteristically cast in an imperious role, although ultimately she too becomes the object of shocking violence.
Several major Japanese filmmakers began their careers as Shimazu’s assistants, including Gosho, Shiro Toyoda, Kozaburo Yoshimura, and the undervalued Kinoshita—the latter was the subject of a terrific Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective in 2012, and he scripted Tanaka’s first work as a director, Love Letter from 1953. His early film, Army, from 1944—like Kinoshita’s others, is not often shown—is the multigenerational story of one family’s relationship to militarism, from the dawn of the Meiji era to the invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s; it demonstrates a similarly accomplished classical mise-en-scène to that of his master, with complex long takes and many compositions in depth, but this admirable work’s genuine originality and most unforgettable episode lies in its amazing, extended, final sequence—in which Tanaka’s character runs toward a procession of marching soldiers to see off her son who is departing for war—its strategic employment of arresting long-shots, use of a highly mobile camera, and intricate montage combine to stunning effect. This scene is also striking for its ambivalence, with Kinoshita’s ineradicable pacifism subverting the propagandistic nature of the story—it ended his career as a director until the close of the war. Tanaka’s inimitable performance is complemented by that of Ryu, who is also striking here.
Naruse’s supremely touching Mother of 1952—Tanaka is just tremendous as the eponymous heroine who struggles to sustain her family and her husband’s laundry business after both his death and her teenage son’s—was for many years the only film by this magisterial director available in the West although it is relatively atypical—despite its domestic tragedies, it lacks the fatalistic pessimism of a work like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs from 1960 and, with its comic elements, it has a lighter tone than any of the other titles under review—although some of the simplicity of his late style is already visible here and indeed there is something mysterious about how the exquisite mise-en-scène produces its unexpected emotional effects. The découpage of Mother is, like most of the other films in this series, broadly in accord with classical norms—Ozu is the director whose film is under review here that is most unorthodox in his approach to constructing a scene—but the narrative structure has affinities with neorealism—it is episodic rather than linear in its momentum, even if there is an exemplary economy in its conception and execution. This work is also notable for a charming early appearance of the handsome Eiji Okada, who later gained international fame for starring in Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais (1959) and Woman of the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigashara (1960).
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