JAPAN 2021

Love Letter

Japan 1953, 97 mins
Director: Kinuyo Tanaka

Love Letter is the first film of legendary actor turned director Kinuyo Tanaka. The man writes love letters to make a living. One of the women who asks him to do so is someone he’s been searching for. He pursues her, almost like James Stewart pursues Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Here they are chess pieces. Their sadness is the sadness of post-war Japan. The geometry of Tanaka’s staging is masterful.

Camera positions and eyelines capture the mood, poetry, expectation and uncertainty of the story. Tanaka had worked with the greatest Japanese directors, but her style was less reserved than Ozu, less heroic than Kurosawa. She was closer to Michael Curtiz, perhaps, in her depictions of love and heartache, her brilliant scene breakdowns and her total control.
Mark Cousins, Sight & Sound, May 2020

Kinuyo Tanaka is rightly renowned as one of the greatest actors in the history of Japanese cinema. However, her prestige as an actor has overshadowed her parallel career as a film director, and most of the films she directed are hard to track down.

Tanaka was the second female director in Japan, after the wartime filmmaker Tazuko Sakane, but she was the first to develop a significant career in mainstream cinema. Working within the studio system, Tanaka directed six features between 1953 and 1962, and was the only female director active during the golden age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s.

Japanese actresses of the period typically retired young, when they got married, but Tanaka – who entered the film world in the 1920s in her teens – never married or had children. She often said that she chose instead to marry cinema. In 1953, the year she made her debut as a director with Love Letter, Tanaka was 43 years old and facing the quandary of what to do in the face of competition from so many middle-aged Japanese actresses, with ever fewer opportunities to play interesting parts. Her move to the director’s chair should be seen in that context, but it was also inspired and made possible by the transformations that had occurred in Japanese society after World War II. Changes such as women being granted the right to vote, and the provision in the post-war constitution for legal equality of the sexes particularly affected the social position of women in Japan. ‘After the war, the advancement of women became evident in every aspect of [Japanese] society, including the entrance of women in parliament,’ Tanaka said in 1975. ‘I too felt like trying to do something new by working as a female director.’

Tanaka’s star status and her contacts in the industry played in her favour, allowing her to direct films with different studios and to collaborate with a wide range of stars, and technical and artistic staff. Her ties with the great directors of the period also proved important (even if her great collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi was vocally resistant to her move to directing): Mikio Naruse employed her as his assistant for two months during the shooting of his Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953), and Keisuke Kinoshita and Yasujiro Ozu, respectively, wrote the scripts of her first two films, Love Letter and The Moon Has Risen (1955).

The six films Tanaka directed, while moving broadly within the conventions of the romantic melodrama with which she was mostly associated as an actress, disrupted the dominant representations of women in Japanese cinema of the time. In two of her films, Tanaka looks at the ubiquitous figure of the prostitute. In Love Letter, the national (male) trauma of the war defeat is represented through the story of a returning Japanese soldier who discovers that his beloved girlfriend had a relationship with an American official after the war, and dismisses her as a ‘panpan’ (streetwalker prostitute). In her fifth film, Girl of Dark (1961), Tanaka explored the issue from another angle, depicting the struggle of a former prostitute to change her life after the enforcement of the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956. Her most celebrated film, The Eternal Breasts (1955), portrayed the tragic fight of a female poet against breast cancer – not in terms of victimhood, but as the emergence of an audacious female subject able to express and reclaim her sexual desires and subjectivity.

The central place of female characters and women’s issues in Tanaka’s filmography was in part a reflection of the wider Japanese cinema of the time, but it also reveals a deliberate approach on her part. Tanaka was acutely conscious that she was a rare anomaly as a female director, and deliberately constructed spaces to allow for other female authorship and subjectivity. She worked with female scriptwriters such as Sumie Tanaka on The Eternal Breasts and Girl of Dark, and Natto Wada in The Wandering Princess (1960) – all films adapted from biographical accounts or novels by female authors, and focused on the multifaceted experiences of female protagonists, who in turn were played by charismatic stars such as Yumeji Tsukioka or Machiko Kyo. Her last film, and the only jidaigeki (period drama) of her career, Love under the Crucifix (1962), was produced by Ninjin Kurabu, a film company founded by three actresses –Yoshiko Kuga, Keiko Kishi and Ineko Arima (who also starred in the film). The idea behind the project also came through a woman, executive producer Hisako Nagashima. It’s high time that Tanaka’s achievements as a director were more widely appreciated – and seen – alongside her unassailable position as one of Japanese cinema’s greatest actors.
Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández, Sight & Sound, November 2017

Director: Kinuyo Tanaka
Production Company: Shintoho
Producer: Ichiro Nagashima
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Based on the novel by: Fumio Niwa
Photography: Hiroshi Suzuki
Editor: Toshio Gotô
Art Director: Seigo Shindô
Music: Ichirô Saitô
Sound: Yûji Dôgen

Masayuki Mori (Reikichi Mayumi)
Yoshiko Kuga (Michiko Kubota)
Jûkichi Uno (Naoto Yamaji)
Jûzô Dôsan (Hiroshi)
Chieko Seki (office lady)
Shizue Natsukawa (Reikichi’s mother)

Japan 1953
97 mins

Print courtesy National Film Archive of Japan

The screening on Sun 21 Nov will be introduced by Irene González-López, co-editor of ‘Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity’

JAPAN 2021
Early Summer (Bakushû)
Mon 18 Oct 14:30; Tue 19 Oct 20:35; Wed 20 Oct 17:50; Thu 18 Nov 20:20 (+ intro by Professor Alastair Phillips, University of Warwick); Sun 21 Nov 11:30
The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (Ochazuke no aji)
Mon 18 Oct 18:10; Wed 20 Oct 20:40; Thu 21 Oct 14:40; Mon 8 Nov 14:30; Tue 23 Nov 14:40
Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari)
Mon 18 Oct 20:20; Thu 21 Oct 14:30; Sat 13 Nov 14:10; Tue 30 Nov 14:00
Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jô)
Tue 19 Oct 18:10; Thu 21 Oct 20:35 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa); Wed 27 Oct 20:30; Tue 9 Nov 20:40; Fri 12 Nov 14:15 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa); Sat 27 Nov 20:50
Early Spring (Sôshun)
Tue 19 Oct 14:30; Wed 20 Oct 20:15; Thu 21 Oct 17:30; Sat 20 Nov 14:50; Tue 23 Nov 17:40
Tue 19 Oct 20:55; Thu 21 Oct 17:55; Fri 19 Nov 14:30 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa); Fri 26 Nov 18:10; Sun 28 Nov 12:00 15 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa)
An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojô henge)
Wed 20 Oct 14:15; Mon 1 Nov 14:30; Thu 11 Nov 20:40 (+ intro by Jennifer Coates, The University of Sheffield); Sat 20 Nov 12:15
Souls on the Road (Rojô no reikion)
Fri 22 Oct 18:00; Sat 30 Oct 15:30
A Page of Madness (Kurutta ichipeiji)
Sat 23 Oct 13:00; Mon 15 Nov 20:50
Silent Cinema presents: I Was Born, But… (Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo)
Sat 23 Oct 15:00; Sun 28 Nov 14:45 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive curator)
Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (Tonari no Yae-chan)
Sun 24 Oct 12:40; Mon 1 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by season co-programmer Alexander Jacoby)
Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjô kami fûsen)
Sun 24 Oct 15:00; Tue 2 Nov 20:45
Talk: A Time of Change and How Japanese Film Bore Witness to It
Mon 25 Oct 18:20
Children of the Beehive (Hachi no su no kodomotachi)
Mon 25 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by season co-programmer Alexander Jacoby); Mon 8 Nov 18:20
The Life of Matsu the Untamed (aka The Rickshaw Man) (Muhomatsu no issho)
Tue 26 Oct 20:40; Sun 7 Nov 11:40
Fallen Blossoms (aka Flowers Have Fallen) (Hana chirinu)
Sun 31 Oct 13:00; Wed 3 Nov 18:20 (+ intro by Japanese film scholar Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández)
My Love Has Been Burning (aka Flame of My Love) (Waga koi wa moenu)
Fri 5 Nov 18:30; Mon 15 Nov 17:40
Love Letter (Koibumi)
Sat 6 Nov 12:30; Sun 21 Nov 14:40 (+ intro by Irene González-López, co-editor of ‘Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity’)
An Inn at Osaka (Ôsaka no yado)
Sat 6 Nov 15:30; Sun 21 Nov 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Professor Hiroshi Kitamura, College of William & Mary)
Godzilla (Gojira)
Sun 7 Nov 15:50; Tue 23 Nov 20:40
Marital Relations (Meoto zenzai)
Sun 7 Nov 18:20; Thu 25 Nov 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Professor Hideaki Fujiki, Nagoya University)
Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu)
Mon 8 Nov 20:40; Sun 28 Nov 18:20
She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (Nogiku no gotoki kimi nariki)
Tue 9 Nov 18:20; Tue 30 Nov 20:40
Harakiri (Seppuku)
Wed 10 Nov 18:00; Tue 16 Nov 20:25
Night Drum (Yoru no tsuzumi)
Wed 10 Nov 20:50; Tue 16 Nov 18:15
Talk: Female Archetypes in Classical Japanese Cinema
Thu 11 Nov 18:10
Yearning (Midareru)
Fri 12 Nov 18:20; Fri 26 Nov 21:00
Elegant Beast (aka The Graceful Brute) (Shitoyakana kedamono)
Wed 17 Nov 20:50; Sat 27 Nov 18:30 (+ pre-recorded intro by Professor Yuka Kanno, Doshisha University)
Talk: The Family and Home in the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema
Thu 18 Nov 18:00
Fri 19 Nov 20:50; Tue 30 Nov 17:50
Tokyo Olympiad (Tôkyô orinpikku)
Sat 20 Nov 16:40; Wed 24 Nov 18:40

Supported by

In partnership wtih

With special thanks to

With the kind support of:
Janus Films/The Criterion Collection, Kadokawa Corporation, Kawakita Memorial Film Institute, Kokusai Hoei Co. Ltd, Nikkatsu Corporation, Toei Co. Ltd

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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