Photo of Kinuyo Tanaka behind the camera

Sunday Spotlight: Directed by Kinuyo Tanaka

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Kinuyo Tanaka is Japanese film history. A leading lady of silent cinema, Tanaka starred in Japan’s first talkie, and worked with the most prominent directors of the pre-war period (Yasujirō Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, Gosho Heinosuke). She also became the face of many post-war Golden Age classics by Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse, and Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu). More than a face though, Tanaka embodied the contradictions of a society in transition, playing both doting wife and gangster moll, the maternal and the modern.

And then, in the 1950s, at the height of her international fame, Tanaka wanted to direct. Only one woman had directed a film in Japan prior (Tazuko Sakane for the 1936 New Clothing), and while Ozu and Kinoshita supported her aspirations, much of the Japanese film industry did not. Most notoriously, Mizoguchi himself, as chair of the Directors Guild, blocked Tanaka’s directorial assignments and allegedly claimed that Tanaka “does not have enough brains to be a film director.”

Tanaka proved otherwise, severing her relationship with Mizoguchi and directing six powerful, utterly unique features between 1953 and 1962, insisting on working with female screenwriters for half of them, and bringing a woman’s perspective to issues of prostitution, breast cancer, and sexual desire across national and cultural lines. These films captured Japan emerging from a tragic war, and a cinema trying out ‘Scope compositions and color palettes. One of the few women directing mainstream films anywhere in the world in the 1950s, Tanaka worked with the majors (Toho, Shochiku, Nikkatsu), studios that even today rarely give opportunities to women directors. Tanaka was not only ahead of her time, but continues to imagine what the future of cinema can be.

This year’s Spring Showcase Sunday Spotlight is “Directed by Kinuyo Tanaka,” a presentation of four of Tanaka’s pioneering features, all in new 4K restorations.

Brian Hu

Join us from 6:00–8:00PM at UltraStar Cinemas for a special reception celebrating Sunday Spotlight: Directed by Kinuyo Tanaka, with bites catered by Zen Modern Asian and drinks hosted by Stella Artois.

FREE for passholders and Sunday Spotlight ticket holders.