While Kinuyo Tanaka is one of the most celebrated figures of Japanese cinema in the west, her role has only been represented to us as a performer. Her tragedies with Kenji Mizoguchi, such as Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu, are well-regarded as classics, but they only represent a small part of her career. The “Bette Davis of Japan” had been working since as an actress in the 1930s, and she wasn’t always tasked with playing the sacrificing maternal figures that Mizoguchi saw of her. In the 1950s, she began her career as a director herself. A Keisuke Kinoshita screenplay certainly isn’t the most promising element for a film, but Tanaka brilliantly underscores his usually schmaltzy currents. The result is one of the most brilliant debuts in all of cinema and unfortunately, its mostly forgotten.
Still feelings the affects of the war and the American occupation, Reikichi Mayumi struggles to make ends meet. He picks up a job writing love letters, a large majority of his customers are Japanese sex workers, trying to contact the American men who loved them during the occupation. Reikichi’s experience with translation makes him a perfect fit for the job, but one day, he comes in to contact with Michiko, the woman he loved before he was sent off to war. The war years were not particularly kind to her either, and the feelings the two once shared for each other seem to cause nothing but problems.
The screenplay here comes from the pen of one Keisuke Kinoshita. A filmmaker who, if you’ve paid any attention to this blog, I am not particularly fond of. Kinoshita’s films are beautiful, yet stupid, and hopelessly maudlin. The same kind of impulse works its way in here, but it is probably worth noting that Kinoshita’s screenplay is based on a Fumio Niwa novel. I’ve not read any of Niwa’s work, but the films that came from his work, Battle of Roses and The Angry Street seem to be in made in the same spirit as Kinoshita’s work, and both of those films were directed by otherwise masterful Mikio Naruse. Taking all of this into account, Tanaka carried a heavy load on this, her very first film. There’s an undeniable mopey, “sadboy” quality to the film’s protagonist, Reikichi, but even as Tanaka observes and registers his sadness, she does not make it the central point in her film.
Reikichi’s profession, a love letter writer, may remind one of the lead protagonist’s occupation in Spike Jonze’s Her. At the risk of being harsh, I’ll also be brief but Jonze’s film uses that setup for his one simplistic, male-driven, self-inflicted “heartbreak” fantasy. Tanaka’s film, which I think is important to note as “forgotten” does indulge in the male character’s sadness but the film does not meander it through it like thick, gooey emotional honey. Instead, she cuts through it and focuses on something far more interesting and heartbreaking: the status of Japanese women and their bodies during the American occupation. Sure, Reikichi being single but writing love letters for other people is ironic and heartbreaking, but not nearly as much as writing English love letters as a Japanese woman to an American soldier.
The relationship between the Americans and Japanese during the occupation is one that has yet to be explored in film, at least to my knowledge, but Tanaka’s film begins to chip away at the power structure that it erected. She wasn’t the only Japanese filmmaker in the 1950s to depict sex work, but importantly, she was the only woman. I’ll celebrate someone like Naruse for having the most fair and respectful portrait of such a profession, but his male status does mean that he himself never suffered from the power dynamic that is involved in such work. Tanaka’s tenderness to her women rivals Naruse’s, and is of course levels beyond what Mizoguchi was depicting at the same time. A film like The Life of Oharu examines the oppression involved in a patriarchial society, but it does so exclusively through sex work. This isolating insists that such an oppression might be tied to women’s voluntary involvement in the profession. Tanaka’s film illuminates us to oppression, but she does not see this gendered power dynamic as being informed by sex work. Instead, the existence of sex work being influenced by the power structure. To say this in a less complicated way, Mizoguchi tortures his characters and makes them martyrs, Tanaka allows them space to roam, to discover this restriction of spaces on their own.
Late in the film, Reikichi scolds Michiko for both her upper-class status and her lack of class consciousness. In this sequence, another tool of oppression in a capitalist society is given attention. The film later reveals that this image of Michiko as an upper-class woman is false and following the war, she too did sex work. The conversation is interesting because it is the only one that positions Reikichi as the oppressed. The fact that this is not the reality should say something about the other tools of oppression, the fact that they’re all linked even when one’s identity doesn’t reflect all of them. Reikichi is an honorable character but again, Tanaka does not afford him any easy pass. His profession as a love letter is founded on the need for (presumably impoverished) sex workers to make contact with the Americans who left him. His wistfulness and fantasies about Michiko could not even exist without this setup. Their romance, indeed a failed and tragic one, is only lived on the backs of laborers. He can take his own sermon on class to heart, he makes money from those “beneath him.”
The political potential in Tanaka’s debut is staggering, but it isn’t the end of the film’s merits. Its parallel on colonialism and sexism is relevant, even today, and is enough to make the film required viewing. Interwoven with all of this is a heartache of a melodrama. Sure, Reikichi and Michiko’s lost love is contextualized by the structures briefly touched on above, but it does not dilute their sadness. If anything, they work together in providing the dissolving factor in their relationship. Like her countrymen, Ozu and Naruse, Tanaka has made a film that is political because it is personal and vice versa. What it says about life is not restricted to “traditional Japanese society” (an Orientalist construct), it resonates in contemporary, western society as well.