Kinuyo Tanaka is the first woman in Japan to have forged a career as a director. Her 1953 debut Love Letter was well-received, and the novelty of a female director was not lost on critics of the time. In 1955, she released her second film The Moon Has Risen. The script had been gifted to her by Tokyo Story director Yasujirō Ozu, who had written it with Saitō Ryōsuke back in 1947. However, the project became embroiled in industry politics. A scheduled release date of April 1954 was pushed back to the following year and a sponsorship deal with the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation had been reduced from seven million yen to three million yen (this is why characters discuss microwaves and telephone lines a lot in the film). Among these issues, the drama with the Directors Guild is most intriguing and most troubling for Tanaka.
The chair of the guild was Kenji Mizoguchi. Today, he is known among Western cinephiles for the supposedly protofeminist outlook of his films and is considered one of the big three Japanese directors alongside Akira Kurosawa and Ozu. His most well-regarded work often stars Tanaka, and she is frequently regarded as his muse. Their 1952 film together, The Life of Oharu won the International Prize at Venice in 1952. While many in the industry supported Tanaka as a director, Mizoguchi was not one of them. He is rumoured to have said ‘Kinuyo does not have enough brains to be a director.’ This, according to Professor Ayako Saito, ‘seems to have set the standard for assessments of Kinuyo as a director.’ The relationship between Mizoguchi and Tanaka ended when Mizoguchi had tried to use his position as Chair of the Directors Guild to block Tanaka from directing The Moon Has Risen. Tanaka would never work with him again.
In marked contrast to its troubled development, The Moon Has Risen is a laid-back romantic drama set in the tranquil city of Nara and revolves around the lives of the Asai family: three adult sisters living a middle-class life with their father Mokichi (played by Ozu favourite Chishū Ryū). Much of the film is dedicated to the youngest sister Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) playing secret matchmaker for middle-child Ayakao (Yōko Sugi) and a visiting former classmate Amamiya (Kō Mishima) with their mutual friend Shōji (Shōji Yasui) acting as Setsuko’s accomplice/confidante. Once Ayako and Amamiya have been brought together, the final third of the film shifts to Setsuko and Shōji’s relationship. Setsuko slowly realises that despite her foresight with Ayako and Amamiya, she herself was blind to the spark between her and Shōji. The film ends with a scene between Mokichi and his eldest daughter Chizuru (Hisako Yamane), shortly after the young lovers have left for bustling Tokyo. Throughout the main action of the film these older characters have been relegated to the periphery. Chizuru, whose husband died in the war before the events of the film is urged by Mokichi to remarry. It’s a sobering, quietly hopeful conclusion that brings the film back into a contemplative mode, reminding the audience that love is not just for the young, but rather a perpetually spinning wheel of life, as inevitable as the lunar cycle. The title of the film comes from the two climactic scenes, where the couples come to accept their mutual attraction during a moonlit walk.
Part of the reason why The Moon Has Risen isn’t as celebrated in Tanaka’s already understudied filmography is because it doesn’t explicitly tackle feminist issues. The Eternal Breasts, her most well-known work as a director, deals with breast cancer, while Love Letter is partly about attitudes to prostitution. The Moon Has Risen lacks that topical edge, and at the time of its release, critics and audiences felt that the portrayal of gender relations were old-fashioned. A scene between Setsuko and Shōji towards the end where he says to her “I will pet you” was particularly contentious. In his review of the film at the time of its release, Futaba Jūzaburō asked ‘What young man with a certain education would nowadays use such an expression… towards a woman?’ This sentiment was apparently shared among audience members as well: the scene ‘set my teeth on edge’ a twenty-something man was quoted as saying in a 1955 issue of the film magazine Kinema junpō.
I wouldn’t refute these points, but I think these microwaveable hot takes from the 1950s neglect the excellent character work done by both Tanaka as a director and Mie Kitahara as an actor. Kitahara’s role as Setsuko grabs your attention immediately because of her physical dynamism. Establishing shots of Nara at the beginning of the film, and Setsuko’s own comparisons to Tokyo paint this setting as a quiet, perhaps even dull locale. This backdrop is ideal for mid-to-late career Ozu film and enables Kitahara to stand out. She is first seen in the film running into the room, from the background of the shot to the foreground. Although she is far from a caricature, Kitahara gives a light comedic touch to her performance. Setsuko pouts, she trips up on occasion, and puts on a deep male voice to impersonate Amamiya. Tanaka emphasises the physical comedy and its disruptiveness. For instance, when Shōji nonchalantly throws some dirty laundry at Setsuko, Tanaka cuts to a medium shot of the young woman, so that the laundry appears to fly in from off-camera and hit her square in the face. Tanaka amplifies the kinetic energy Kitahara draws to this otherwise sedate film, and there is a pleasingly palpable artistic tug-and-pull between the two women.
This is best illustrated in Tanaka’s own cameo appearance. She plays a somewhat slow maid named Yoneya, who Setsuko ropes into being a go-between for the unsuspecting Ayako and Amamiya. Setsuko had originally been looking for Fumiya, another, presumably more reliable, maid. The younger woman tasks Yoneya with impersonating Ayako on the phone to Amamiya and arrange a meeting between the two. It’s a playful bit of meta-commentary on the relationship between director and actor. Setsuko gets Yoneya to mime holding a phone as they rehearse the conversation she will make. An out-of-her-depth Yoneya forgets she is pretending to be Ayako, and Setsuko scolds her.
The viewer in that issue of Kinema junpō didn’t like this scene, saying that Setsuko treats Yoneya like a slave. However, I feel that such a reading doesn’t consider the irony inherent in the director of the film consciously switching her real-life role with that of her star. Tanaka had spent the last twenty-years acting in films and so would likely have been directed in this manner by men like Mizoguchi and Ozu; “act more embarrassed and younger” Setsuko says to Yoneya. One wonders whether Tanaka had received similar directions in the past from her colleagues. In the years leading up to her directorial the now middle-aged Tanaka was ridiculed for being a romantic lead, sometimes being paired with a far younger male co-star.
I don’t necessarily see this scene as a critique of the director-muse dynamic, rather it exhibits a humility on Tanaka’s part as an artist. Within the hierarchy of the Japanese studio system of the time, directors stood above actors, an attitude that also remains entrenched in Western film criticism and marketing to this day. By bringing herself on-screen as a maid in her own film, Tanaka not only toys with her public image, but also offers an alternative view to the prevailing myth of the director as an imperious auteur. Instead, by playing a maid directed by her own star, Tanaka positions herself as a fellow collaborator of equal standing with her cast and crew.Such an approach even calls into question my centring of Tanaka in this essay, though I would argue that I am attempting to create a discursive space for her after contemporary reviews of The Moon Has Risen relegated her to Ozu’s co-author. This applies more broadly to Tanaka’s entire career as an artist, since she is mostly seen in the West as Mizoguchi’s muse. I see in The Moon Has Risen, a largely forgotten film from 1955, the quiet yet powerful voice of a woman devoted to film, who could see supreme value in its ability to be a communal experience, whether that was in the process of making it, or in being part of an audience.
by Cathy Brennan
Cathy is a transgender critic and self-proclaimed Queen of Simpsons Memes. She has written about film for the BFI, Sight &Sound and TimeOut.
Categories: Women Film-makers