Kinuyo Tanaka is the actress and one of the directors in focus in this season's Japanese Film Festival, but alas my work schedule had prevented me from watching a lot more of her works, be it those that she directed, or those she starred in. I have to admit though that those I did manage to catch, didn't really excite me, and I honestly thought her roles were rather pedestrian. I guess I have a lot of catching up to do, in order to understand what she's often heralded as one of the greatest Japanese actress there was.
And I left it to this 1987 movie directed by maestro Kon Ichikawa, to show me what I've been missing, in a dramatization of her life from her early days as an actress in the 20s, and ending quite abruptly in the 50s with her working with director Kenji Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). Whilst she had worked with some of the masters in Japanese Cinema, from Yasujiro Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) to Akira Kurosawa, it took another Japanese master in Ichikawa to have opened my eyes to the actress's body of works, and allowed me to understand a little bit more about her, and a whole lot more on the history of Japanese Cinema in general.
Actress is not just the story that charts the rise of Kinuyo Tanaka, played brilliantly by Sayuri Yoshinaga, who mesmerized and illuminated the screen with her charismatic performance of a legend, from her naively youthful days in pigtails, to coiffed professional veteran of the industry. We see how she started off in the studio system being one of many potential talents available, having her family's economical hopes all pinned on her, and down to having a sugar daddy of sorts in Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe) looking over her shoulder, whom she would get into and out of an unhappy secret marriage. Sayuri Yoshinaga provided that spark to endear herself to the audience, and needless to say, made me sit up and wonder just how the real actress was like in person, with her steely guts and perseverance in an industry that saw its brightest and darkest days during militarism and WWII.
The movie turned out also to have almost half the time spent as a pseudo-documentary of early Japanese cinema, tracking how moving pictures were imported to the country, and spawned an industry. Filled with plenty of recognizable characters as directors and stars from an era long gone, it also had actual film clips spliced into the movie, as well as some recreation of scenes, especially those starring Kinuyo Tanaka. From silent movies, to talkies, and to the advent of colour, it's almost Japanese film history 101, and I guess you'd come to appreciate little nuggets of information such as the studio system, and how cinema as a whole, had come to being from the early days. However, the lack of subtitles translating some of the movie stills was somewhat of a pity, as those who aren't familiar with films from that era (like ahem, me) may find yourself a bit lost. However, do pay attention to the dialogue though, because sometimes the narrative decides to super-summarize timelines, and have films, and eventful historical events, come through in dialogues between characters, which sometimes seemed rather artificial, as you surely don't expect anyone to converse in lecture style.
The last third of the movie was a little peculiar too, with a detailed focus on Kinuyo Tanaka's professional relationship with director Mizoguchi, where she clearly, in confidence, cannot fathom the director's rigid style and methods, and perhaps the unorthodox ways that he works, while he, in all his pomp, while acknowledging that the actress's suggestions and exasperation might have their merits, refuse to bow to professional pressure due to pride. They collaborated a number of times in their careers (which was also given the super-summary treatment), but had 2 key collaborations extrapolated for a detailed examination, and they made for engaging drama. One had to try and rein in her passion and keep within her boundaries, while the other had to try and open up to new ideas and suggestions.
So in essence, Actress had a bit of everything, despite being made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Kinuyo Tanaka's death. From being a showcase of Kinuyo Tanaka's early life and career, to being Japanese Cinema 101, I for one wished that this movie could go on further, despite its 130 minutes runtime, to show a lot more when Tanaka goes behind the camera and tries her hand at directing. But I guess to experience that, what more than to do so first hand with films having her at the helm?