by Chris MaGee
We all know that Japanese film history has a whole pantheon of iconic female stars - Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, Machiko Kyo, Meiko Kaji, Yoshiko Kuga, Keiko Matsuzaka and Rinko Kikuchi to name only a few. All these actresses have given life to female characters who have inspired us with their resilience and hope in the face of adversity, their good humour and their deceptively fragile femininity. Their performances have inspired women in Japan and around the world, but this month we wanted to turn our attention from the women in front of the camera to the women behind the camera and give you our list of the top ten most influential women in Japanese film. There will probably be a few names that you don;t recognize on this list, but without their contributions to Japanese film we not only wouldn't have the successes of the actresses listed above, but we also wouldn't have been able to enjoy some of our most beloved classic films or the work of a whole new generation of female directors. So, read on and hopefully you'll learn a few things you didn't know about the pioneering women of Japanese film.
10) Takiko Mizunoe (1915 - 2009)
The name Takiko Mizunoe may not leap to mind, but we are certain that these film titles will - "Crazed Fruit", "I Am Waiting", "Branded to Kill", "Rusty Knife". These Nikkatsu releases were some of the most representative films of the 1960's and Mizunoe was responsible for bringing them to the screen. Mizunoe was born Ume Miura in 1915 in the northern Hokkaido city of Otaru, but as a young woman she moved to Tokyo and began her career as a member of the SKD, the Shochiku Kagekidan, a popular opera and theatre company operated by Shochiku. In 1933 she led a strike of female performers of the company and during the war she helped manage the troupe. It was in 1955 that she joined Nikkatsu, which had only recently started film production again since the war. It was here that she shifted gears from performer to producer, one of the first female producers working at a major studio. During her 15-year tenure at Nikkatsu Mizunoe was responsible for the production of 76 films, including the groundbreaking films above. Leaving Nikkatsu in 1970 she would go on to star in Kei Kumai's "Sandakan 8" and produce a musical about her life in the Shochiku Kagekidan, but her greatest contribution to Japanese film is bringing us some of the most exciting films of the 60's.
9) Sachi Hamano (1948 - )
The world of pink films seems to breed prolific directors whose output includes dozens of provocative titles such as "Rope and Breasts", "Widow's Perverted Hell" and "Subway Serial Rape: Lover Hunting". With those kind of titles you would think that the world of pink film would be the last place where you'd find not only one of the most prolific female pink film-makers, but undoubtedly the most prolific female film-maker in Japanese cinema. Born Sachiko Suzuki in Tokushima Prefecture Hamano originally studied broadcasting at the Tokyo Photo Professional School, but dropped out in 1968 after discovering the films of Koji Wakamatsu. Hamano would work as an assistant director at Wakamatsu Productions before heading out on her own in 1972, making her directorial debut with "17-Year-Old Free Love Tribe". Honing her film-making skills throughout the 70's Hamano eventually founded her own independent film company, Tantansha, in 1984. Throughout her 40-year career Hamano has directed and produced over 300 films, from straight ahead pink fare such as "Heaven Tease: Horny Married Women" to the still sensual comedy drama "The Lily Festival" about the reignited passions of residents of a retirement home. Hamano has been honoured with Japan's 4th Women's Culture Prize in 2000, made a film on the life of Midori Osaki by getting financial backing from women around Japan and is currently working on a biopic of Japanese feminist activist Yuriko Miyamoto.
8) Natto Wada (1920 - 1983)
What's that often repeated adage about "Behind every great man there's a great woman?" Well, it's so often repeated because it so often ends up being true. There are two examples of this one our list, with the first being Natto Wada, the screenwriter of 37 of the films of director Kon Ichikawa... and Mrs. Ichikawa as well. Born Yumiko Mogi in 1920 in Himeji, Wada would study English Literature at Tokyo Woman's Christian University and eventually land a job at Toho working as a translator. It was here that she met Ichikawa, who was at that point working on his feature directorial debut "A Thousand and One Nights with Toho". The two married on April 10th, 1948 and Ichikawa knew almost immediately that his new bride was a lot more than just a housewife. "Natto has such an ear for dialogue," Ichikawa said, and Mogi, working under her new pen name of Natto Wada, was soon either co-writing screenplays or single-handedly writing screenplays for the majority of her husband's projects. These included such representative Ichikawa films as "Fires on the Plain" and "Odd Obsession", both of which won Wada Best Screenplay honours at the 1960 Kinema Jumpo Awards. After Ichikawa's 1965 documentary "Tokyo Olympiad" Wada retired from screenwriting, but she would help her husband one last time, writing the end of his 1983 screen adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki's "The Makioka Sisters". Shortly thereafter Wada would die of breast cancer.
7) Sumiko Haneda (1926 - )
One area of Japanese cinema that is not well known in North America is documentary film-making. So very few of the landmarks of Japanese documentary are available in the U.S. and Canada so that names like Shinsuke Ogawa, Noriaki Tsuchimoto and Shoichiro Sasaki are little known beyond a group of small documentary film experts. One name that is finally being known in North America is one the most important documentary film-makers from Japan in the past 30 years, Sumiko Haneda. Born in 1926, Haneda would begin her career in the early 1950's working as an assistant director and writer on a number of industrial training films. These films laid the foundations for Haneda who then took her film-making skills in an entirely new direction, making her directorial debut in 1957 with the documentary "Women's College in the Village". Since then Haneda has made over 90 films dealing with a variety of subjects - Japanese folk dance ("Ode to Mt. Hayachine") and modern dance ("Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer "), old age care ("How to Care for the Senile") and four-century old emaki picture scrolls ("Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa"). Haneda's six-part 1994 documentary series on the revered kabuki actor Kataoka Nizaemon titled "Kabuki Actor Nizaemon" has won her special acclaim at home in Japan, but it was the inclusion of a number of her films in the 2008 touring programme of Japanese films, "Cinema Japan: A Wreath for Madame Kawakita" that made stops across the U.S. and Canada that has gained Sumiko Haneda a whole new crop of admirers overseas.
6) Teruyo Nogami (1927 - )
Here is our second example of the old adage "Behind every great man there's a great woman", but in this case it doesn't refer to a married couple. Akira Kurosawa has to be the most recognized Japanese film-maker in the world. His films "Rashomon", "Ikiru", "Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo" have been many people's first contact with Japanese cinema, but many do not know that there was a very special woman beside Kurosawa during the production of these and so many of his best known works. That woman was Kurosawa's long-time script supervisor Teruyo Nogami. Born in 1927 in Tokyo, the daughter of a Professor of German Literature, Nogami got her start at Daiei Studios in 1949 working as a clerk. She had just been on the job for three months when she was given the chance to work as a script supervisor on a strange film that Akira Kurosawa was shooting in the woods called "Rashomon". This film introduced Japanese cinema to the world and it marked the beginning of a 30-year collaboration that saw Nogami become one of Kurosawa's most trusted confidants, so much so that she is listed on the credits of Kurosawa's 1975 film "Dersu Uzala" as an associate director. Many today will known Nogami from her memoir of those years working with Kurosawa, "Waiting on the Weather", but many more will know about her hard upbringing through her autobiography "Kabei: Our Mother" which was adapted to the screen in by Yoji Yamada in 2008.
5) Takako Irie (1911 - 1995)
Very few women in the Japanese film industry wield the kind of power that actress Takako Irie did, and even fewer do so at such a young age. Born in 1911 in Shinjuku into the noble Higahshibojo family that traced its lineage all the way back to the Muromachi Period, Irie attended Tokyo's prestigious Bunka Gakuin. It wasn't her aristocratic background that ultimately led to her power though, it was her talent as an actress. Irie's brother Yasunaga Higashibojo had been working at Nikkatsu as a director and screenwriter and he convinced the studio execs to give his sister a shot in front of the cameras. Irie's acting talents immediately shone through and through the next five years she would star in a series of successful pictures for Nikkatsu that earned her the nickname "Miss Nippon". By 1932 Irie's film's had brought her such wealth, prestige and influence that, at the tender of age of only 21, she founded her own production company, Irie Productions. It would be one of the first independent production companies and the very first production company to be founded by a woman. Irie Productions would give the young Kenji Mizoguchi a huge break when Irie personally selected him to direct her in the 1933 silent classic "The Water Magician", but years later he would not extend to her the same courtesy. Mizoguchi had originally cast Irie in his 1955 film "Princess Yang Kwei Fei", but he unceremoniously dropped her from the production. Irie would then go on to star in a number of roles in the "Ghost Cat" horror films being produced by Daiei. These small roles and ill health would have Irie become a shadow of her former greatness by the time of her death in 1995.
4) Tatsuko Sakane (1904 - 1975)
Mizoguchi may not have treated Takako Irie very well in the 1950's, but the film master worked remarkably well with Tatsuko Sakane. Born in 1904 Sakane began her career at Nikkatsu in 1929 and very soon began to work as an editor under Kenji Mizoguchi. Sakane would edit 15 of Mizoguchi's films, including "Osaka Elegy" and "The Water Magician", employing the rough-and-ready method of measuring film along her forearm and then actually cutting the negative, something unheard of today. She would go on to play a much more important role behind the camera though. Sakane would act as assistant director under Mizoguchi on some of his best known films including "The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums", "Aa, Furusato" and "Gion Matsuri". Sakane would finally be given the chance to direct by Mizoguchi in 1936 with the film "Hatsusugata". Mizoguchi is credited as "guidance director" on the film, but it is Sakane who was calling the shots. Unfortunately Sakane's claim to being the first female director in Japanese film history has often been overshadowed by actress Kinuyo Tanaka (more on that in a bit), and Sakane's legacy as the right hand woman to one of Japanese film's greatest masters is in danger of being forgotten.
3) Harumi Hanayagi (1896 - 1962)
Prior to 1919 all female roles in films were performed by men. It sounds strange, but these onnagata, or men playing women, was a hold over from the days of kabuki theatre, a major influence on the very first films shot in Japan. Motion pictures had been a part of the lives of Many Japanese since the beginning of the 20th-century, but women, growing more and more sophisticated in such city centers as Tokyo and Osaka, could not see themselves represented on screen. For that they would have to go to the theatre, especially the left-leaning, progressive shingeki or "new theatre". Here women starred alongside men in productions of plays by Anton Chekov and Maxim Gorki. One film-maker< style="font-style: italic;">shingeki's honesty and purity to the screen. He did this with his 1919 film "Glow of Life" which featured 23-year-old shingeki theatre actress Harumi Hanayagi in the lead female role, the very first time a real woman appeared on the Japanese screen. She would also star in another Kaeriyama film from that same year, "Maid of the Deep Mountains". Hanayagi's career was not a long one, and by the late 1920's she had returned to the theatre and eventually would leave acting entirely to marry businessman Eiji Takita. Still it's her roles in Kaeriyama's two films that changed Japanese film forever.
2) Kashiko Kawakita (1908 - 1993)
So many of the classic films that we hold dear may never have come to our attention or to our shores if it wasn't for the tireless work of one woman, Kashiko Kawakita. Born in Osaka in 1908 the young Kawakita would study English at the Ferris Girls' School in Yokohama. After losing her businessman father in the Great Kanto Earthquake Kawakita would join the Towa Trading Company run by Nagamasa Kawakita, who would eventually be Kashiko's husband. Towa's job was to import films from Europe into Japan and Kashiko would accompany her husband on his frequent trips abroad. For many years the masterworks of European cinema made their way to Japanese audiences via Nagamasa and Kashiko Kawakita, but in 1955 Kashiko began to make frequent trips to the Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute and found that there was a desire to have Japanese films screen in France and Britain. To facilitate this Kashiko Kawakita helped establish the The Japan Film Library Council that would house and make available prints of Japanese films for screening overseas. Kashiko Kawakita would also be instrumentalk in founding the Art Theater Guild which at first held screenings of European art house films in Japan and then began to produce films by a whole new generation of film-makers such as Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda and Shuji Terayama. After Nagamasa's death in 1982 Kashiko doubled her efforts and founded the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute which would tour retrospectives of Japanese films around the globe, creating news audiences and new fans wherever they would screen.
1) Kinuyo Tanaka (1909 - 1977)
We've introduced you to some truly pioneering women thus far, but one woman in the Japanese film industry stands as a shining example, both in front of the camera, but most importantly for this list, behind the camera as well. That is Kinuyo Tanaka. Tanaka was born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1909 and joined Shochiku Studios at the young age of 15. During her early years on screen Tanaka would work with some of Japan's most legendary directors - Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Hiroshi Shimizu and Heinosuke Gosho who directed Tanaka in Japan's very first "talkie", 1931's "My Neighbor's Wife and Mine". One director that Tanaka would have a special collaboration with was Kenji Mizoguchi. Tanaka became the embodiment of the quintessential downtrodden Mizoguchi woman in films such as "Utamaro and His Five Women", "Women of the Night", "The Life of Oharu" and "Sansho the Bailiff"; but by the 1950's Tanaka was becoming her own woman with influence and talent. Tanaka was named the first post-war Japanese Good Will Ambassador to the United States in 1950, plus she would travel to Italy and France with Mizoguchi in 1953 as he attended a number of international film festivals. This period opened Tanaka's eyes and she very quickly shifted her focus from acting to directing. She made her directorial debut in 1953 with "Love Letter". There is some controversy as to who is the first female director in Japanese film history. While in terms of date that honour goes to Tatsuko Sakane, but in terms of a woman making multiple films many side with Tanaka. Tanaka would go on to direct five more films between 1953 and 1962. Tanaka made an even greater contribution to the world of Japanese film when she helped found Tokyo National Film Center, and donated many rare films and pieces of memorabilia to its collection. Although Tanaka passed away in 1977 her influence lives on at the National Film Center and through the Tanaka Kinuyo Prize which honours the best female performances annually as part of the Mainichi Film Concours.