Kinuyo Tanaka, much more than a star of Japanese cinema

Thanks to Alejandra Armendariz, specialist in film and Japanese culture, better known as the importance filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka (Shimonoseki, Japan, 1909-1977), a star of Japanese cinema from the 30s whose pioneering work as a director is, instead, very unknown. Tanaka was able to direct six films in commercial cinema of the 50s and 60s, working with major studios and making very significant level of production, critics and public works. Alejandra says, it takes several years between Europe and Japan investigating this author for his doctoral thesis, “his career in the direction demonstrates his passion for film and his personal ambition as a woman and as a filmmaker.” “Studying Tanaka as author becomes an instrument to make visible their presence as a woman and to question the dominant representations” says Navarre researcher.

Feminismo.- How did your interest in Kinuyo Tanaka?

Alejandra Armendáriz.- When I started studying film and Japanese culture, I began to realize that although the female figure prominently in the Japanese cultural performances place, this figure seemed built exclusively by filmmakers, writers, artists … male. But actually, as I was researching more, I found that there have been many women who have made films in front of and behind the camera and have also participated in other cultural events. There were many interesting studies on this contribution, especially in the literary field, but curiously in researching Japanese cinema, inside and outside Japan, very few works delve into the subject of filmmakers beyond names, titles and dates women. So I got to figure Tanaka, to my surprise, not yet I had a thorough study of his work as a director, probably because of the difficulty to access their films and the fact that his fame as an actress overshadows almost completely his career behind the camera.

F. Was the first film directing in your country?

A. A. Tanaka is often misidentified as the first Japanese director forgetting the pioneering work of Sakane Tazuko before the war. Sakane debuted in fiction in 1936 with Hatsusugata unfortunately lost and continued as director in non-fiction documentaries filmed propaganda early 40s in Manchuria occupied by imperial Japan.

F. What other Japanese directors you’ve discovered in your research and are awaiting recognition?

A.A.- Part of my research covers contemporary Japanese cinema, where there are many directors working today, Naomi Kawase beyond that as Japanese director seems to monopolize both festivals and distribution circuits as film festivals by women. Fortunately, the study of contemporary cinema is relatively easy to access, at least in Japan, works of directors like Yuki Tanada, Yokohama Satoko, Mai Tominaga, Yang Yong-hi, Momoko Ando, ​​…

I also think it is important to open the filmmaker concept to include not only the directors but also screenwriters, producers, critics or women in the distribution and exhibition. Thus, doing archeology from Tanaka, include the producer and actress Irie Takako, a documentary filmmaker, critic and translator Taka Atsugi, the programmer and distributor Kawakita Kashiko or filmmakers emerging in the First World War as writers Mizuki Yoko Tanaka Sumie, Natto Wada, Kusuda Yoshiko or documentarians Haneda Sumiko, Tokieda Toshie, etc. in Iwanami producer. The list is huge and the work to be done well.

F.- From Europe, we tend to say that Japanese society is very macho. Is that your film?

AA- Well, patriarchal structures can not be seen in isolation from other forms of political, economic or cultural oppression and in the case of Japanese women, the Eurocentric view of Japan as a sexist society is often closely linked to budgets and Orientalists colonial that essentialize the “Other”, almost always feminizándolo and creating stereotypes. That is, the sexualized figure of the geisha or the idea of ​​the submissive and resigned Japanese women are patriarchal idealizations and Orientalists created from the West, but if we take them for good and uncritically say that Japan is a macho society, we turn Japanese women in “victims” white and Western feminism must “liberate” falling back into an attitude of cultural superiority.

With this in mind, society and Japanese women are complex realities where there is gender discrimination and patriarchal structures and heteronormative, as elsewhere. Japan has its own specifics in this regard, but also in common with the situation of other women and other categories of discrimination.

In the case of film, Japan shares with other societies the low number of women filmmakers behind the camera, indicating structural discrimination that prevent or hinder access of women to these professions. But, for example, women, especially younger women, are very important in terms of viewers and that influences and affects production and film market. It also highlights the female presence in sectors such as advertising or distribution of film and other media and arts as manga comics or television in Japan are closely related to the cinema. Social, industrial and technological changes of recent decades have improved the situation of the filmmakers regarding the time when Kinuyo Tanaka worked.

F. How did the Japanese film industry at the time of Kinuyo Tanaka?

A.A.- Then there was a very hierarchical system production largely dominated by the major studios imposing conditions of access and working within the industry. A filmmaker entered training from below and over the years was climbing rungs from being the last to become assistant principal screenwriter, cinematographer, director, etc. So basically if studies did not hire women (and could legally do so) to get started in the profession, it was almost impossible to be a director or screenwriter, at least in large numbers. Still, in the immediate postwar period it can be said that there was a small group of female filmmakers who, along with Tanaka, also worked within the studio system.

F.- What breaks stereotypes of women Tanaka in his films?

Tanaka AA- primarily directed melodramas in which the presence of female characters is particularly noteworthy and those addressed for quite some original perspectives for the period, related to women such as prostitution, breast cancer, divorce issues, abortion, female sexual desire, lesbianism, etc. In particular, his last four films belong to the genre of Josei eiga or films aimed at a female audience and players have four women who go beyond the ideal of “mother and wife” or passive victim. Tanaka represents emphasizing the visual and narrative subjectivity and agency as women. These four works also are the result of collaboration of Tanaka with other female filmmakers from scriptwriters to producers or actresses, which, given the limited presence of women in films of the period, be considered itself as a critical practice female authorship.

F. Is a recognized sufficiently director in your country? And outside of Japan?

In Japan, it remains one of the great actresses of film history, remembered and celebrated regularly and a museum dedicated to her in her hometown of Shimonoseki. But his role as director general is quite unknown to the general public and only one of his films has been released on DVD. Outside Japan, Tanaka is mainly known for his films with director Kenji Mizoguchi because the works were participated and won awards at the Venice Film Festival and other film festivals of the time. However, his collaboration with Mizoguchi often overshadows the rest of the race Tanaka as an actress, regardless that it was already a big star before collaborating with director and that he made only 14 films from more than 250 works in which he acted.

The six films directed by Tanaka have been screened at festivals and film libraries outside Japan on several occasions. For example, the Spanish Film Library project in Madrid in 1990 in a series organized by the French Cinémathèque, and Japan Foundation recently made several sessions of his third film that breasts are eternal in several Spanish cities. But unfortunately not outside Japan there are issues in commercial formats.

F. What do you think of all the current recovery of cinema with gender and especially, the work of professionals?

AA- retrieve, analyze and teach film and general visual culture from a gender perspective is fascinating and necessary and for my part I see it as part of a theoretical and practical questioning of categories, such as “woman” or “female” but also “man”, “masculine”, “gay”, “lesbian”, on which hierarchies and power systems are structured. just not say “in the 50s, there was a woman who made cinema”, nor is create a parallel canon of women authors but the interesting thing is to deepen and examine gender categories in film as historical buildings in relation to others such as race, class, sexuality, .., and also in relation to ideologies and social discourses , political and economic. I find it very interesting that these issues at academic and theoretical level, but sometimes they work myself included, I wish there were more connections and less rigid boundaries with practice and activism, and also with the general public.

(You can see the path Alejandra Armendariz in his professional page and follow through Twitter: @aarmher).