Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity

Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity
edited by Irene González-López and Michael Smith
Edinburgh University Press (2018)
ISBN-13: 978-1474409698

Review by Kate Taylor-Jones
Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield

One of the first Japanese films I ever saw as a young teenager was Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952). I was fascinated by the film but more specifically the lead actor – the luminous and highly talented Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka is, of course, one of the most well-known Japanese female actors of all time but, to date, English language scholarship has been somewhat neglectful in considering her extensive contribution to the history of Japanese cinema. This collected edition by Irene González-López and Michael Smith is a timely and important addition to the field of study. In Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity, the editors have bought together a series of scholars who all seek to explore different aspects of Tanaka’s life and career.

The need for such a book can be found the three main areas that the book contributes to – star studies, authorship studies and of course, the much wider field of Japanese Film Studies. Working in the film industry from 1929 to the mid-1970s, Tanaka made films with all the great directors of the era including Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio, Kinoshita Keisuke, Kurosawa Akira and Ichikawa Kon. She was the star of many of the most notable Japanese films ever made including Woman of Tokyo (Tokyo no Onna, 1933), Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954), The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama-bushi Ko, 1958) and Red Beard (Aka-hige, 1965). She was also notable for being one of Japan’s first women directors, making six features film between 1953-1962. The aims and objectives of this book are lofty but admirable, ‘to make a case for her to be recognised as a pioneer both for her work as an actress and for her trailblazing oeuvre as a filmmaker’ (1). To answer this aim, the book is divided into seven chapters, the first half exploring Tanaka as an actress and the second her filmmaking career.

The book begins with a slightly stilted opening by Furukawa Kaoru, the honorary president of the Tanaka Kinuyu Memorial Hall. Following on from this, the first two chapters by Lauri Kitsnik and Alexander Jacoby explore how Tanaka’s star images intersected both with contemporary debates on femininity and Tanaka’s own developing star image. Kitsnik’s exploration of Tanaka’s early work is based around the employed neologism of idiogest – a focus on the repertoire of performance signs, character types and images that surround a star body. As Kitsnik concludes, Tanaka’s early roles were far more contradictory and complex than her mature adult star images would suggest. From troubled young mother to modern girl to tomboy, Tanaka’s early films refuse to confine her to one specific role or category and speak to the wider debates on femininity taking place in Japan during this period.

Jacoby’s chapter focuses on the more well-known stage of Tanaka’s career, the 1940s-1950s that would see her star in films such as Army (Rikugun, 1944) Life of Oharu and Ugetsu (1953). In these film, Tanaka most often plays a self-sacrificial mother but as Jacoby argues, a focus on specific aspects of the film, in this case, the endings of the films of this period reveal the ability that “the star as auteur” has to challenge and alter meanings. Following on from this, Michael Smith focuses specifically on one film My Love has been Burning (Waga koi wa moenu, 1949). Tanaka’s longstanding creative partnership with Mizoguchi would often reflect on the gender politics of the period. As Smith argues, a close reading of Tanaka in My Love has been Burning allows a disruption of the mainstream reading of Tanaka’s later roles as a personification of the traditional conservative femininity or Yamato Nadeshiko.

For me, the second half of the book is the most interesting. The lack of output of female directors in East Asian means any scholarship as women as filmmakers is to be welcomed. Irene González-López and Ashida Mayu’s chapter explores Tanaka’s directorial film outputs, not via a focus on debates of the auteur but rather to explore her films as commercial vehicles that were enmeshed in the social, cultural and structural film system of the time. Focusing on Love Letter (Koibumi, 1953), her most well-known and successful film, González-López and Mayu explore how the film text operated, both on and off the screen, as a vehicle for the negotiation of the post-war social experience.

This multi-layered approach is then continued in Ayako Saito’s fascinating chapter on the relationship between Tanaka and Tanaka Sumie, the female screenwriter who worked with Tanaka on two of her films, The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955) and Girls of Dark (Onna bakari no yoru, 1961). Saito’s chapter seeks to firstly provide a critical evaluation of Tanaka’s films in the context of the broader debate on Women’s Cinema in the post-war period. Secondly, via a study of both texts and modes of production to suggest that Tanaka, far from confirming patriarchal narratives, in fact, sought to challenge and debate female representation on the screen. The chapter offers insight into the relationship between the two Tanaka’s via an examination of both the scripts and the end film product that resulted.

Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández chapter focuses on Tanaka’s 1960 film The Wandering Princess (Ruten no ohi, 1960) and locates this film within the broader context of 1960s Japanese cinema. The Wandering Princess focused on the life of Saga Hiro who entered into an arranged marriage with Puije, the young brother of the last Emperor of China, Puyi. Puyi of course for most of his reign was nothing more than a puppet of the Japanese Imperial forces and The Wandering Princess, as Armendáriz-Hernández notes, is located as part of the post-war reflections on the imperial past. These reflections were dominated by ‘narratives of suffering, war guilt and colonial nostalgia’ (165) and, due to the desire to reconfiguration reconfirm Japanese masculinity after both defeat and occupation, focused on the male experience. Tanaka’s film not only focused on a female narrative but as Armendáriz-Hernández explored contained female input at all levels of production. The end film product may not have challenged post-war memories in any radical way, and certainly did not offer any atonement for Japan’s imperial past, but what makes it valuable to scholars is the attempt to provide a ‘genuine female subjectivity in the post-war Japanese cinema’ (180).

This focus on the female subject is continued with Yuka Kano’s final chapter on Girls of Dark. Kano’s study of lesbian images and desire in Girls of Dark yields a fascinating exploration of the potential women’s communities and spaces that Tanaka’s film present. As the chapter explores, both the films narrative and visuals offer the potential for both female desire and subjectivity, not only at the level of text but once again via Tanaka’s working relationships with other women, namely the original novel writer Yana Masako and screenwriter Tanaka Sumie. With the interplay of both text and context, Kano places the film inside wider debates on Women’s Cinema, and she concludes that ‘in the connecting and negotiating with different women’(200), Girls of Dark becomes an important addition to wider debates on diversity and gender in Japanese cinema.

With a focus on questions of gender, production and authorship, this collected edition will make a fascinating read for several interlinked areas of film studies outside of a focus on Japanese film. The book serves to situate Tanaka not only in her own career and life but as part of a wider debate on women in Japanese cinema. Furukawa’s few opening pages’ hint at, but never elaborate on, several elements of Tanaka’s childhood and early start in the industry. If I have one main criticism of this book is my wish that this section had more information and detail to it. I can appreciate the need to include someone who is so intimately involved with the preservation of Tanaka’s history in this study, but as an opening chapter it presents more issues than it answers and I would have liked to seen this contextualised and discussed more. The later chapters, with a focus on other women who worked with Tanaka, are, for me, the big draw and opens up several avenues of research that I hope other future scholars will follow. As with all collected editions, some chapters are stronger than others but all play a vital role in bringing new insights to the career of Tanaka and the films she both made and starred in.


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