Eiga Stars III : Kinuyo Tanaka

Jason Sanders


Our Eiga Stars: Portraits of Japanese Divas in Fan Magazines of the 1950s series continues with a profile of Kinuyo Tanaka, Japan’s most popular actress of the thirties, and later its first-ever female director. Two Tanaka-starring films, The Life of Oharu and Sansho the Bailiff, screen this week, Thursday and Saturday!

TanakaCover_EigaStar_1950_06blook.jpg Eiga Star, June 1950

Over the course of her long career, Kinuyo Tanaka appeared in more than 240 films. Compared early on to Lillian Gish, she began acting in the silent era at age fourteen, and was a favorite actress for such legendary directors as Yasuziro Ozu (see July 10th’s Woman of Tokyo) and Heinosuke Gosha (The Dancing Girl of Izu). She starred in Japan’s first-ever talking picture, Gosha’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, and immediately laid to rest the notion that her “country accent” would prevent success in the sound era. Instead, audiences embraced her all the more as “the girl next door.”


Unfortunately, we do not have many fan magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, so have few images of Tanaka from that era. However, this Eiga Star article from 1950 offers many stills from her early career.


“Her films of the early thirties present a studio-crafted feminine image demure almost to insipidity, through which shines Tanaka’s obviously genuine niceness.” —Chris Fujiwara.

TanakaCover_NichibeiKinemablook.jpg Nichibei Kinema

“Classic Japanese cinema is crowded with suffering women, and as an actress Tanaka could hurt with the best of them.”—Manohla Dargis, Village Voice

In 1950 Tanaka re-entered the fan magazine consciousness with a bang, embarking on a well-publicized tour of Hawaii and the American mainland that caused some controversy. “A famous star who went abroad creating the image of an unsubmissive, non-conformist woman provided unhoped-for material for Japanese scandal newspapers,” recalled a 1977 CineJapan article, although many magazines took the occasion to honor her career, and turn her from “girl next door” to successful, modern, mature woman, a rare sight in a fan-magazine culture obsessed with youth.

Tanaka Color Foldout_Eiga_Star_1950_6blook.jpg Eiga Star, June 1950

Tanaka returning from the U.S., Eiga Fan, March 1950

TanakaCareerOverview_p5_EigaStar_1950_06cartoonblook.jpg Cartoon version of Tanaka’s travels, Eiga Star, June 1950

In 1953 Tanaka moved behind the camera, becoming the first Japanese woman ever to direct and release a feature film (in 1936 editor Tazuko Sakane directed a work that was never released). After she debuted with Love Letters, she would go on to direct three more films. Fan magazines were quick to celebrate her new role as director.

TanakaDirectorsChair_EigaFan_1954_01blook.jpg Eiga Fan, Jan 1954

“Skillfully using the experience and knowledge that she gained from working with some of the best directors of her time, Tanaka realized a long-held ambition to stand behind the camera herself and create art.”—Japan Society retrospective, 1993.

Tanaka_DirectorProfilep2_EigaFan_1954_01blook.jpg Eiga Fan, Jan 1954

In the early 1950s, as Tanaka enhanced her career with defining roles in such classics as Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu and Sansho the Bailiff (both onscreen this weekend, on June 30th and July 2nd), she returned as a fixture in fan magazines, functioning as both a respected “elder statesman” and a stabilizing presence in a realm of new, ever-changing faces.

Tanaka Touring_p1_Eiga_Fan_12blook.jpg Tanaka touring about, Eiga Fan

TanakaBanquet_EigaFan_1950_04blook.jpg A banquet for Tanaka, Eiga Fan, April 1950

TanakaKabuki_EigaStar_1950blook.jpg Attending a kabuki performance, Eiga Star, 1950

TanakaMifuneBall_ShochikuMag_1950blook.jpg Playing ball with Toshiro Mifune on the set of a new film, All Shochiku Magazine, 1950

Takamine Tanaka_Eiga_Star_1950_6blook.jpg Visiting with Ken Uehara and Hideko Takamine (for whom she was both a friend and mentor), Eiga Star, June 1950

Tanaka’s life was not without scandal—she married and quickly divorced director Hiroshi Shimizu, and was rumored to have had an affair with Kenji Mizoguchi (in fact, their long collaboration ended after she turned to directing)—but for over three decades she was one of Japanese cinema’s most beloved actresses. She passed away in 1977, and in the ensuing years has been honored with many retrospectives.


Eiga Fan, September 1950

“Like the great Hollywood stars, Tanaka rarely appears to be acting. But instead of presenting a fixed screen persona, she makes each of the disparate characters she embodies appear to be her natural self.”—William Johnson, Film Comment, Jan/Feb 1994.

Tanaka BW_Eiga_Fan_1955_5blook.jpg

Eiga Fan, May 1955