This dazzlingly deluxe, thirty-film salute to the legendary leading ladies of classic Japanese cinema features masterworks by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, Ichikawa and more.
The definition of sublime, this vast, classic-packed survey of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema (and after) includes films by an octet of Japan's greatest directors: Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Yasuzo Masumura, all of whom (save Kinoshita) have been the subject of previous retrospectives at TIFF Cinematheque. A richer introduction to this most important period of Japanese cinema is unimaginable.
"Diva," with its aura of grandiosity and histrionics, is not a word one normally associates with Japanese actresses, especially when one thinks of the understated delicacy of Setsuko Hara or the interior intensity of Hideko Takamine. Yet as this survey of the work of six eiga superstars proves, "diva" is an entirely appropriate appellation in light of these actresses' formidable ability to command the screen. That an unknown Machiko Kyo could hold her own, and then some, against a rampant Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's epochal Rashomon demonstrates how daunting these actresses could be: not to be outdone by Typhoon Mifune, former dancer Kyo combines simpering servility and fierce vengefulness in her portrait of an aristocratic lady who may or may not be telling the truth about what happened to her in the forest. That role landed Kyo on the cover of Life Magazine, and after becoming a pin-up icon and flirting with Hollywood in The Teahouse of the August Moon, she returned home, bestowing her ripe sensuality on such roles as the brash, gum-smacking Mickey in Mizoguchi's Street of Shame and the seemingly meek and obedient wife in Ichikawa's Odd Obsession. The similarly luscious Ayako Wakao was contracted as part of a "New Face" contingent of young actresses, but quickly graduated from ingénue roles to portray streetwalkers and tipsy geishas in films by Mizoguchi, Ichikawa and Ozu, before becoming the unabashed empress of eroticism in her many films for Yasuzo Masumura (our candidate for the most underrated director in Japanese cinema).
Isuzu Yamada's fearsome embodiment of Lady Macbeth in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood readily deserves the "diva" designation, as do her powerful performances as a moga (modern girl) unwilling to accept her unfortunate fate in Mizoguchi's twin masterpieces Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. And Mizoguchi's cinema is unthinkable without his frequent star and muse Kinuyo Tanaka, who blazed through more than a dozen of his films as suffering concubines, mothers and prostitutes. (One of Mizoguchi's greatest admirers, Andrew Sarris, rather ungallantly commented: "The perennial mystery of Mizoguchi's films is his revelation of Tanaka's iron will and transcendental appeal behind her not very pleasing oval face and weak, receding chin.") Beginning her career in silent films by Ozu (one of which, the deviously titled Dragnet Girl, we include in the retrospective), Tanaka proved equally brilliant in comedy or tragedy, whether as the enterprising okasan of Naruse's Mother or the martyred matriarch in Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff.
Similar only in their inwardness (and in having New Yorker profiles dedicated to them!), Hideko Takamine and Setsuko Hara also became associated with the universe of a particular director — that of Naruse and Ozu, respectively — despite working with other auteurs and in various genres. In a career that spanned more than eight decades, Takamine began as a child actress (when she was known as Japan's Shirley Temple), became the country's top star after starring in Keisuke Kinoshita's Twenty-Four Eyes and Carmen Comes Home, and appeared in a dozen films for Naruse in which she played a series of put-upon women — widow, bar hostess, emotionally deprived daughter — often struggling with familial tradition. If Takamine's open face registered contradictory emotions with unguarded honesty, the expression of Hara as she suffered life's disappointments in the exquisite films of Ozu remained ineffable; her graceful, smiling demeanour seemed to mask a profound sense of disillusionment and regret. (Indeed, the legendarily reclusive "Eternal Virgin" retired at age forty-three shortly after Ozu's death, admitting that she had been forced into her acting career by financial necessity.)
Made two decades apart, Ichikawa's Ten Dark Women and his lavish epic The Makioka Sisters not only reveal the talents of the redoubtable Keiko Kishi, but also suggest in their impressive ensembles that diva-dom comes naturally to many Japanese actresses, even when exerting command through reserve. And not to be overlooked, the homely character actress Haruko Sugimura steals the screen in any scene she appears in, whether as the domineering hairdresser daughter in Ozu's Tokyo Story, the interfering aunt in his Late Spring, or the aging geisha in Naruse's Flowing, where she forms part of an impeccable ensemble that includes Takamine, Tanaka and Yamada. Mistress of the scowl, the unglamorous Sugimura offers wonderful proof that not every Japanese diva was a leading lady.
This series is an extended and revised version of a series presented by Film Forum, New York and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley. We are most grateful to The Japan Foundation for their support of this programme.
Thanks to Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Kate Scullin, The Japan Foundation, Toronto; Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum; Kadokawa Pictures; Shochiku Co., Ltd.