Tazuko Sakane & Kinuyo Tanaka — The First Two Female Directors in Japan
When I was thinking about my next blog post, a lot of western filmmakers came to mind. Actually, not a lot, but enough. In case you don’t know this, I lived in South East Asia for 6 years, so I decided to dive into Asian filmmakers instead. I chose Japan, simply because I really enjoy the works of Akira Kurosawa.
What surprised me is that when finding the works of the earliest Japanese female directors, I could really connect! Japan has another culture, another language, but still, when looking at the topics the female filmmakers chose as the foundation of their work, it connects deeply with issues we have all over the globe, then and today.
Tazuko Sakane (1904–1975) was Japan’s first female director. Her first and only feature film New Clothing (初姿 Hatsu Sugata), 1936 was unfortunately lost in time. All her works after that were nonfiction. She emerged out of the environment of Kenji Mizoguchi, whose films centred around heroines. His films about suffering women connect with discussions we know all too well today from the current movie landscape, themes about feminine qualities, patriarchy, and women directors. He enabled a few women directors to emerge in Japan.
Sakane herself — often facing misogyny in her job — decided to cut her hair short in a man’s fashion to blend into the male dominated movie industry. After the war, Sakane’s status as director was put to question on the ground that she had no college degree as director. She was forced at forty-two to return to the position as script girl, the end of her directing career.
The second female Japanese director was Kinuyo Tanaka (1909–1977) who started as actress and became a director later in her career. Before the second world war, she became so popular that films used her real name to lure in audiences, for example The Kinuyo Story in 1930, or Doctor Kinuyo in 1937. She too emerged from the working environment around Kenji Mizoguchi.
Tanaka’s first film as director was Love Letter (恋文 Koibumi) in 1953, which was entered as a contestant in the Cannes Film Festival in 1954. The banner at the top of this post shows Tanaka behind the scenes on the set of her debut film. She went on to direct six feature films altogether, films which dealt with post war subjects, as well as tragic love.
Kinuyo Tanaka will still mainly be remembered by her achievements as actress, having starred in more than 200 films, she won the Best Actress Award for her performance as an ageing prostitute in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan N° 8 at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival in 1975. However I definitely think her directing work is equally worth checking out.
When searching for her films she directed online, I found a subtitled copy of The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれChibusayo eien nare) from 1955. The film itself touches upon multiple layers of the life of the female protagonist Fumiko, who is torn between being a good and faithful wife and mother, and her inner desire to write poems. IMDB reads “Fumiko, mother of two children and wife of an unfaithful man who shows a low self esteem, shares her family life with her asleep vocation as a poetess. The beginning of her successful literary career coincides with her divorce and the development of a serious illness: a breast cancer, which leads her to lose her breasts.” If you say that sounds like a lot of drama, I won’t deny it.
Watching the film however, I found myself deeply rooting for Fumiko, finding some of my own struggles mirrored in her life, like finding a balance between family and doing my thing. Tanaka uses close ups sparingly, but very effectively and I love when the action is happening in the background of her scene, while we get dragged deeply into the conflicting emotions.
Having lived in Asia for six years, I’d say the Japanese culture is definitely one which is very different from Western cultures, and yet, this female director created a film in 1953 which still seems very relevant today, and most of all, touches audiences on an emotional level across continents and languages.
If you want to take a ride into the Japan of the 50s from the perspective of a female filmmaker, here’s your chance. Enjoy!
Originally published at https://theheroinevoice.com on May 14, 2020.