Tag Archives: Tanaka Kinuyo

Mizoguchi’s Masterpiece: “Sanshô, the Bailiff”


Although I was reassured by finding “Ugetsu” visually dazzling upon seeing it again, I approached the DVD of Mizoguchi’s “Sanshô Dayu” (Sanshô, the Bailiff, 1954)  ( with some trepidation that it would not live up to my memories of it as a great film, memories dating from when I had seen hardly any of the Japanese film masterpieces.

I was relieved to find that I still  found the film, aided by the typically superb Criterion transfer, visually ravishing (Miyagawa Kazuo was a great cinematographer). Titles at the beginning announce that the film is telling a story of grief that came down in oral performance from the Heian era. As seems to be true of all Mizoguchi films, there is a lot of suffering, though, compared to “The Life of Oharu,” “Sanshô ” is upbeat.

As with many Japanese historical movies, there are scenes in “Sanshô ” that go on far longer than they would in American movies. In the appreciation of the film and the film-maker, Japanese film critic Sato Tadao relates the holding of a position (/composition) to the kabuki (etc.) tradition. There is no lack of movement—camera’s or character’s—in “Sanshô” and other Japanese film masterpieces, but it is not just that one could extract artistic stills, but that Japanese performing traditions in general and the films of masters like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu et al. value immobility. (Perhaps the most incredible example of this is Nakadai’s immobility through something like three-quarters of “Seppuku,” after which the fury burning in his eyes is unleashed in a sword-fighting orgy of blood—though even the sword fights in samurai films have something of stop and go action with a brief pause between delivering a lethal blow and the dead man falling or spurting blood Nakadai also provided the prototype of this at the end of “Samurai Rebellion.”



Tanaka Kinuyo was, if not Mizoguchi’s muse, his recurrent embodiment of the Japanese woman sacrificing herself for family (generally sons). She was Oharu in the harrowing “Life of Oharu.” Tanaka was a strong woman, who became the first female Japanese film director. She generally played women of great inner strength and determination foiled by the status of women in Japanese society (usually in films set in the past, including “The Ballad of Narayama,” “Red Beard; and Mizoguchi’s ” “Ugetsu,” “Lady Oyu,” “Flame of My Love,” “Women of the Night,” and “The Crucified Lovers”), as she does in “Sanshô.” She has major histrionics to undertake in her fall from being a noblewoman to an enslaved prostitute to a blind old woman in “Sanshô .” Although top-billed, she is in relatively few scenes.

As Anju, Kagawa Kyôko is in more scenes and is even more the woman sacrificing everything for her brother. She went on to appear in Kurosawa movies (High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, The Lower Depths) culminating in an award-winning turn as the wife in his last movie, “Madadayo,” as well as in Mizoguchi’s “Crucified Woman” and “Crucified Lovers.” (She was also the daughter in Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.”


Although Mizoguchi’s great theme was the oppression of women, what I’d say is the main part in “Sanshô ” is that of Zushiô. IMO the most outstanding performance in the film is that of Masahiko Kato as the ten-year-old Zushiô. Like Christian Bale decades later in “Empire of the Sun,” he has to go from a cocky, arrogant youth of high social standing to desperate circumstances. Like Bale, Kato was totally convincing in both.

As Zushiô ten years later Hanayagi Yoshiaki has to make the transition in the opposite direction, and is also totally convincing both as the brutalized (and brutalizing) slave and in his father’s old position as governor of a province (after a harrowing escape and an almost equally harrowing attempt to speak to the primary advisor of the emperor). Hanayagi was chunky and bow-legged, not at all movie-star handsome, but once in governor robes managed to look elegant as well as determined to right the wrong of slavery, starting with Sanshô (an un-nuanced role performed by Shindô Eitarô, who had played a supporting role to some acclaim in Mizoguchi’s “Gion bayashi” (released as “A Geisha” and as “Gion Music Festival” in English) and would also return in “Crucified Woman,” “Crucified Lovers”, and “Empress Yank Kwei Fei.”). I think that Hanayagi is particularly good as seeming to have forgotten his father and adjusted to the brutality of a trusted servant of Sancho, which makes the return of the repressed compassion for others all the more impressive.

Why Sanshô is the title character puzzles me. Perhaps because Anju and Zushiô are known by different names through most of the film? Anyway, neither Kato nor Hanayagi went on to other notable performances.

Shimizu Masao is impressive as the compassionate governor Masauji Taira, whose exile for protecting starving peasants from tax increases and military drafting set the catastrophes that befall his family in motion. His nobility is manifest, but very costly for those he loves and inculcates with his vision of mercy (appropriately enough, it is an image of the bodhisattva of mercy, Kannon (Guan-yin in Chinese) that is Zushiô’s only possession, as well as being the key to identifying him twice within the film). (His three maxims, which he has his son repeat before Masauiji rides off into exile are: (1) Without mercy, a man is not a human being; (2) Be hard on yourself but merciful to others (3) Men are created equal and everyone is entitled to happiness.” The last is a very utopian and not represented by anyone in any of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen or read about!)


In bonus features on the Criterion edition, Sato Tadao and the film’s assistant director Tanaka Tokuzo make very clear that Mizoguchi focused on the actors (in the generic—more on the actresses than the actors). They recall that Mizoguchi did not tell the actors what to do, how to play their part. He constantly urged them to “Reflect!” by which he meant to play their scenes reacting to the other characters (who generally were in the same frame). Like William Wyler, Mizoguchi seems to have been largely unable to articulate what he wanted, but more than able to reject what he didn’t want.

The long takes (though not with the fixed camera set-up for which Ozu was famous) flowed from his demand for playing the scenes to the hilt (or, IMO, sometimes beyond it!). He had a penchant for crane shots, but trembled with emotion so much that the great cameraman Miyagawa Kazuo banned him from the crane.

The bonus features make very clear that with Mizoguchi focused on the performances, the look of “Sanshô ” should be credited to Miyagawa (1908-1999). Having just watched a bonus feature about Miyagawa on the Criterion “Rashômon” disc, and aware that Miyagawa shot the legendarily beautifully composed Mizoguchi films of the 1950s (Lady Oyû:, Ugestsu, Crucified Woman, Crucified Lovers, Gion bayashi, Legend of the Taira Clan, Street of Shame) as well as Kurosawa’s 1950 “Rashômon” (a revolutionary film both in narrative structure and in black-and-white cinematography) and “Yojimbo” (1961), along with Ozu’s “Floating Weeds” and Ichikawa’s “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” and “Ototo,” and working on Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad” and Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” (and earning his rice on a series of Zatôichi movies; Miyagawa also lensed a series of films for Yoshimura Kozaburo, Shinoda Masahiro, and Mori Kazuo that are unavailable here, alas), I am quite ready to credit Miyagawa for much of the greatness in this and other Mizoguchi films of the 1950s.

Planning and executing the famous panning shots (the most famous of which occur at the beginning and at the end of the very long and unshowily intense final scene) were Miyagawa’s job. And the opening “through the woods they go” that resonates with the through the woods the woodcutter [Shimura Takashi] goes” opening of Rashômon is the work of the same master cinematographer.

(Mizoguchi is clearly an “auteur” for thematic continuities, but the visual grandeur for which he has been widely lauded are not his. He did not plan the shots (storyboard them) as Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock did. Films have multiple authors. One for “Sanshô” whom I have not mentioned is novelist Mori Ogai, whose telling of the ancient tale was the basis for the screenplay.)

The sound and picture quality of the transfer is outstanding. I’m sure I have much to learn from the commentary track of Jeffrey Angles when I am prepared to play “Sanshô” again (I have no doubt that it is a great movie, but it is a grueling experience—a film that one venerates rather than “likes.” As I began by saying, I was “knocked out” by my initial viewing of the film. ) I found the bonus features very insightful, not just about the film but about Japanese performance aesthetics. Both the film and the DVD deserve five-star ratings.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A good woman redeeming more people in Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl”

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“Hijôsen no onna” (1933), available in a set of Ozu silent “crime movies” as “Dragnet Girl” is similar to “Walk Cheerfully” in portraying redemption of a hoodlum/thief (mugging rather than picking pockets) by a woman. This time, instead of spurning his moll companion, Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo, who would later become the muse of Mizoguchi Kenji and directed some films herself), the boxer turned robber, Jyoji (Oka Jôji) agrees to surrender to the police at the behest of the moll, who has been transformed by the Victor record-store clerk), Kazuko (Mizukubo Sumiko) who has also moved her man. Hiroshi (Mitsui Kôji), Kazuko’s school-skipping brother is training to be a boxer (as Jyoji has), at the gym where Jyoji still hangs out, but wants to be a thug and presents himself to Jyoji as an admiring disciple, though, as Jyoji tells him, Jyoji does not have a gang and is a small-time hoodlum.


Kazuko twice goes to Jyoji to beg him to release her high-school student brother, which Jyoji twice does. Tokiko is initially jealous of Kazuko, whose humbleness and virtuousness has impressed her man. When Tokiko goes to confront Kazuko, she is also impressed by Kazuko’s demure goodness. This inspires her to turn over a new leaf. To do so requires being punished (imprisoned) first, a path of which Jyoji is very dubious.

There is a ludicrous “one last job” (could that not already have been a cliché in 1933?), a holdup of her boss (who has wanted to make her his mistress) at gunpoint. Obviously, the robbed man knows her and can aim the police at where she lives with Jyoji. The ending in which Tokiko convinces Jyoji to surrender to the police is very, very protracted.

There are many scenes like those of Ozu sound pictures in which the camera is fixed and people and/or things move through the frame. And many of the frames have the camera about a meter above the floor (eye level for adults kneeling on the floor). There are two incongruous pans around a coffee pot (shots of objects with no people: “pillow shots”), and some tracking shots in addition to those of people walking through the frame.

I don’t recall any signs in Japanese. The office of the boss has “PRIVATE” on its door, the boxing gym has Roman letters for its name, the boxing posters (including one featuring Jack Dempsey) are in English, and there is a poster (in French) for “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Kazuko is the only character who wears Japanese garb (kimonos), and the visuals look American (like Sternberg’s “Underworld” more than like Warner Brother gangster movies). Tokiko appropriates a pistol, albeit one significantly less long-barreled than the one that Jyoji uses in their final robbery. In 1933 I doubt anyone would guess that Ozu would later be considered “the most Japanese” of Japanese film-makers. At the time, he was fascinated by American technology, by German and American movies.

And there are no parents in either of the two Ozu movies about redeeming criminals (willing to pay for their crimes with imprisonment). Kazuko is something of a mother surrogate for Hiroshi and foreshadows the dutiful daughters of later Ozu movies, but she is his sister, not his mother. The focus is on the two women. Ryû Chishû was on hand already, but only as an unnamed policeman.

I guess there is a dragnet in the last part. The Japanese title refers to the yarn with which Tokiko starts to knit socks for Jyoji. After the two of them surrender, the incomplete first sock is tossed up on a wire by one policeman, and the movie closes with a shot of the ball of yarn back in the apartment. I have no idea why Ozu focused on that barely-begun domestic production.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Naruse’s 1952 “Mother”/”Okasan”


Life was hard for the widowed, self-sacrificing titular mother in Naruse’s 1952 film (Okasan), though the commemoration through an affectionate daughter’s voiceover verges on sentimentality (in contrast to Kinoshita’s (1953) “A Japanese Tragedy”). Tanaka Kinuyo (Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu) is the somewhat sentimentalized mother, Fukuhara Masako, seen from the perspective of her older daughter Toshiko (Kagawa Kyôko who played Mifune’s wife in “High and Low” and the second female lead in “Sansho, the Bailiff”). The patient husband/father Ryosuke (Mishima Masao) waited for the property (laundry/dyeing establishment) on a main street that the wartime government expropriated to be returned, but dies before that happens. Their adult son, Susumu (Katayama Akihiko) has to go off to a sanitarium (presumably tuberculosis, though some work-related lung condition may be the reason). The Fukuharas’ life is no picnic, though a picnic relieves the struggle for survival shown in most of the movie. (There’s also a carnival interlude.)

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I find it hard to understand why Masako allows her younger daughter (Chako) to be adopted while continuing to raise the younger boy child (Tetsuo) of her sister Noriko (Nakakita Chieko) who is studying hairdressing, then beginning work as a beautician. I was interested to see the young Okada Eiji (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as Shinjiro, a baker hoping to marry Toshiko. He provides much of the comedy, romantic and other, including singing and coping with a date for which Toshiko shows up with her younger sister and de facto younger brother.

©2015, Stephen O. Murray











“Ornamental Hairpin” (Kanzashi)


In 1941 Japan’s total mobilization for war was still in the future, though its incursions on the mainland (first Manchuria) had already been going on for a decade. There is mention of food shortages in “Ornamental Hairpin” (Kanzashi) directed by Shimizu Hiroshi from a story by Ibuse Masuji, but the movie set in a riverfront spa at which a handful of people were spending the summer, as large groups came for single nights or weekends, irritating Professor Katae (Saitô Tatsuo [who had appeared in various Ozu films, and would go on to “Carmen Falls in Love” and “Lord Jim”). Ryû Chishû was playing his age (36) or someone less than his age, the soldier on leave, a soldier named  Osamura. He steps on the titular ornamental hairpin in an outdoor hot spring pool and hobbles through the rest of the summer.

The woman who lost it, geisha Eni (Tanaka Kinuyo) who had been part of one of the groups swiftly passing through, comes back to apologize and cheer Osamura on, along with the two youngsters.


The viewer knows that the Tokyo to which most of the characters are returning is going to be firebombed. Osamura knows he is going off to military service and does not even think of wedding Emi, who clearly loves him (his part is even more underdeveloped than hers or the stock figures of the other guests).

The music (composed by Asai Takaaki, who would do “Morning for the Osone Family” before Kinoshita turned to his brother-in-law for music) is obnoxious (not the group singing in the outdoor bathing pool, though I don’t like it either). The cinematography (of Inokai Suketarô [who shot “Flunky, Work Hard” and other 1930s Naruse films]) is undistinguished. I much prefer the 1936 Shimizu  Ibuse adaptation “Mr. Thank You,” which also has a group thrown together. Both are in the Criterion Eclipse (barebone) Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu set.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


“Phoenix” (Fushichô, 1947)



Although running only 82 minutes, the three-hankie weepie (josei eiga) “Phoenix” (Fushichô, 1947) seems even more padded than it is overwrought. There are three songs, one sung by children accompanied by the evacuated Sayoko (then-38-year-old Tanaka Kinuyo, who would eventually play the 70-year-old eager to be carried out and exposed to die in “The Ballad of Narayama” eleven years later), two by the lover of her life, and very briefly her husband, Shinichi (Sada Keiji in his first movie). Most of the movie is Sayoko remembering the brief happiness of their honeymoon while he was on leave before returning to the war to die or his father’s opposition to a marriage not arranged by himself (Kosuji Isamu with a Tojo mustache).

I couldn’t tell when Sayoko went into the army. The present-day with Sayoko the honored widow has a fourth birthday party for her son with Shinichi, so he was probably conceived in 1943, born in 1944. The Tokyo in the flashbacks to the time of Shinichi going off the first time do not seem to show the dire straits of the city, and both families seem well off both during and immediately after the war. (The heavy B-29 firebombing was in 1944-45, continuing on the night before surrender documents were scheduled by be signed.)

Watching Tanaka suffer, I reflected that some of the sentimentality rightly identified in many Kinoshita Keisuke films comes from the music his brother Chûji supplied (here supplemented by Chopin and some folk songs).

Some more comes from the idealistic and ultra-supportive brothers of both lovers, the tubercular Hiroshi (Kawasaki Tamotsu) Sayoko’s, and the earnest Yûji (Yamanouchi Akira) Shinichi’s.

The movie is very talky and the visual setups are nearly as static as those in Ozu films, though the shots are well-composed. And I have to say that I find the 1947 Tanaka Kinuyo herein rather homely.