Imagine one of the world’s most famous actors, at the pinnacle of her fame globally and synonymous with a nation’s cinema during that industry’s golden age, directing a half dozen films—and half a century later, they were all but forgotten.
Astoundingly, that’s exactly what happened with the six films helmed by renowned Japanese actor Kinuyo Tanaka between 1953 and 1962—and it’s something a new retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center is attempting to rectify.
This series marks the first time the films Tanaka directed have been shown theatrically in the United States, and it’s a moment at least a decade in the making. A 2012 University of Leeds symposium on her career was followed by the first English-language book on the topic in 2018 and an outpouring of enthusiasm for the remastered films at screenings last year at the Cannes Film Festival and in Lyon, France. (The series will also play in April, at L.A.’s new Academy Museum.)
Born in 1909, Tanaka began acting at age 14 and appeared in more than 250 films before her death in 1977; in the early 1930s she performed in as many as seven or eight films a year. She regularly collaborated with masters like Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi (appearing in 15 of his films, including the celebrated Ugetsu), and Mikio Naruse (whose 1952 film, Mother, brought her international acclaim), becoming one of the most famous actors of Japanese cinema—so popular that her movies were presented under her name, like Charlie Chaplin’s were.
“She was arguably one of the greatest stars of Japanese cinema, acting in hundreds of films, many of them masterpieces,” says Tyler Wilson, who organized the series with Lili Hinstin. Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, and John Wayne were among the Hollywood A-list who clamored to meet her during a postwar goodwill tour of the United States. Dubbed the Bette Davis of Japan, Tanaka had Davis tell her, “I’m the Kinuyo Tanaka of America.”
But her work as a director, undertaken at the peak of her popularity, is far less known. “Launching into a second career, she was able to direct six films whose intelligence and beauty have not yet been properly appreciated nor researched,” the Austrian Film Museum declared in 2014. “One half century after she made her last film…the directorial work of Kinuyo Tanaka is still one of the best-kept secrets of Japanese cinema.” At a Tokyo International Film Festival event this past November, Christian Jeune, director of the Cannes Film Festival’s film department, called her filmmaking “a major discovery” and its erasure “quite unique in the history of cinema.” “They’re not just films—they could be landmarks,” he effused. “I wouldn’t just say Tanaka is a woman director—she’s a major director.”
After Sakane Tazuko (who was bullied and ignored by an all-male crew on her first and only feature), Tanaka was Japan’s second woman director, stepping behind the camera during the second golden age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s, following the industry’s first efflorescence before World War II. “It was a boom,” says London-based Japanese film scholar Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández. “Not only in the West, because it was the time in which [Akira] Kurosawa was discovered in Venice and then Cannes had Mizoguchi and other directors, but in Japan. Mainstream cinema in Japan in the late ’50s was extremely popular in terms of the number of films made and the audience. So I was really surprised that no one knows about Tanaka’s films today, even though she managed to make six films with big studios. Her work as a director has been completely forgotten.”