Film Forum's 'Five Japanese Divas' Series Highlights Acts of Goddesses

Rarefied Ozu, bold Kurosawa, saturnine Naruse, magisterial Mizoguchi. The Great Men are here, and then some, but Film Forum’s 23-feature series foregrounds other names in the credits: Yamada, Kyo, Tanaka, Hara, Takamine—the women of Japanese cinema’s ridiculously fecund postwar Golden Age, when on-screen drama addressed an upended social reality for a national audience that suddenly included many females cashing their first paychecks.

Mizoguchi’s 1936 Sisters of the Gion is the rare prewar pick, with Isuzu Yamada playing the clear-eyed opportunist moga (modern girl) in a duo of sister geishas. The character recurs in Mizoguchi’s last film, Street of Shame (1956), set in the Dreamland brothel during the last legal days of prostitution, soliciting alongside Machiko Kyo’s Mickey, a GI doll who cribs her come-on from Marilyn Monroe. In both films, screen actresses play everyday actresses—that is, women. Basic human wants poking out from behind the scrims of proscribed roles is what to watch for, witnessed in Yamada’s practiced shift from coquettish flattery to no-nonsense materialism, in the juggled identities of Dreamland’s women, in the myriad motives hidden behind diverted eyes and gracious smiles.

Daughter, mother, wife, concubine, whore—Kinuyo Tanaka played each for Mizoguchi, and that just in the series’ opening heartbreaker, The Life of Oharu (1952), a shogunate Moll Flanders that posits existence as suffering at best, a common theme. “Isn’t life disappointing?” someone asks Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story (1953), who replies, smiling, “Yes, it is.” Born Masae Aida, Hara was the very image of ravishing fortitude; the actress met the head-on gaze of Ozu’s camera with her headlamp eyes in six films, made four with Naruse, and played against type in the bad-girl Anastassya role in Kurosawa’s 1951 The Idiot, a problematic production that nevertheless gets the note of provincial burlesque in Dostoyevsky.

Contrary emotions competing for control: Takamine, left, in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Courtesy Janus Films
Contrary emotions competing for control: Takamine, left, in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

At 43, Hara retired at the height of her stardom, shortly after Ozu’s death in 1963. (She lives still; extraordinary longevity is common for these actresses, as opposed to their directors.) Before lapsing into media silence, Hara intimated she’d been forced by familial economic necessity into a career she never loved, mirroring her screen persona of quiet self-sacrifice and Confucian fealty to one’s kin.

Hara’s endurance breaks in Repast (1951), the first of Naruse’s adaptations of author Fumiko Hayashi’s work; the director would return time and again to her novels (and would gain additional feminine perspective on other projects from scriptwriters Sumie Tanaka and Yoko Mizuki). Hara plays a housewife who flees home to Mother from a quietly smothering marriage before finally resigning herself to compromised life with her husband. Repast’s resolution is more banal and discreetly crushing than the gauntlets Tanaka ran for Mizoguchi; Naruse’s films, as further evident in Hideko Takamine’s white-flag smile at the end of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), leave you less with catharsis than the sense of life going on and on and on.

Takamine was Naruse’s other great collaborator. Her worrying hands, reproaching voice, and round, open face—an arena where contrary emotions compete for control—were fixtures of his shomin-geki (working-class dramas). Takamine died in late December last year. Like Hara, Takamine supported her family, beginning as a child star in the ’30s. But throughout her adult career, she defied convention, breaking with her studio to go freelance in 1950 after an unheard-of solo sojourn in Paris, continuing to work after her 1955 marriage, and publishing a well-regarded memoir in which she recalled Haruko Sugimura’s back-to-the-camera performance in 1940’s Small Island Springtime as a revelation of what true acting could be.

Which begs mention: The series neglects a sixth diva—Sugimura, her generation’s most acclaimed theater actress and Nippon’s first Blanche DuBois. She’s the ingrate daughter unflatteringly contrasted to Hara in Tokyo Story and the interfering Auntie in Ozu’s quite perfect 1949 Late Spring; her homely, jeering, overbitten smile appears in a number of Film Forum’s other selections, never failing to leave an impression. Character actors need love, too.

 
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