by Chris MaGee
If you've seen Kenji Mizoguchi's films "The Life of Oharu" and "Sansho the Bailiff" then you know Kinuyo Tanaka. In both films she portrayed women from noble backgrounds who fall from grace and are forced to suffer every injustice, from prostitution in the former and exile in the latter, in their long journey to whatever sliver of redemption awaited them at their ends. Her heartbreaking performances in these films alone would have sealed Tanaka's place in Japanese cinema history, but she was a woman whose talents and influence couldn't be limited to only two albeit brilliant films.
Tanaka's early life mirrored her later tragic screen personas. Born in 1910 in the southern coastal city of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture Tanaka's father was a wealthy landowner and businessman, but after his death in 1912 her family's fortune began to dwindle. Unable to pay for young Kinuyo's elementary school education in Shimonoseki her mother moved the family to Osaka in 1918 where she could find work and send in her daughter to school. A a teenager Tanaka performed in the stage productions of a musical troupe, often playing the biwa, or Japanese lute, and it was through her stage appearances, and through her older brother's connections at the Osaka branch office of Shochiku Studios, that she made the move into films.
While she is best known for roles in the aforementioned Mizoguchi films Tanaka got her big break in motion pictures starring in Yasujiro Ozu's 1929 silent film "I Graduated, But..." This lead to further roles as a moga or "modern girl," the epitome of the young cosmopolitan woman adored by female fans, in films by Yoshinobu Ikeda, Kiyohiko Ushihara and Heinosuke Gosho. It was through Gosha's 1931 comedy and first ever "talkie" in Japan "The Neighbor's Wife and Mine" that Tanaka would first have her name included in footnotes of Japanese cinema history; but her most important contribution to Japanese cinema was still a couple of decades off.
After "The Neighbor's Wife and Mine" Tanaka starred in over 70 films directed by such luminaries as Yasujiro Shimazu, Keisuke Kinoshita, Masahiro Makino (and of course Mizoguchi), acted opposite Chishu Ryu, Haruko Sugimura, Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo and even made a diplomatic trip to the United States in the late 1940s as the first public relations delegate appointed by the Japanese government. In 1953, though, moved from in front of the camera to behind it directing an adaptation of Fumio Niwa's novel "Koibumi (Love Letter)" scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita. The film about a soldier returning to Japan after the war to find that his fiancé is now a foreign officer's mistress, marked the first time a woman had directed a feature film in Japanese history.
Tanaka would go on to direct five more feature films between giving award-winning performances in Miyoji Ieki's Ibo kyoudai (1957), Kon Ichikawa's "Ototo" (1960) and Kei Kumai's "Brothel No. 8" 1974. Tragically she passed away in 1977 at the age of 67 of a brain tumor, but through her groundbreaking work she made it possible for directors like Sumiko Haneda, Naomi Kawase, Mika inagawa, Mai Tominaga and Tomoko Masnashi to make women's voices heard as part of the history of Japanese cinema.