Penned by the legend himself, it’s tempting to think of Kinuyo Tanaka’s The Moon Has Risen as an honorary Yasujiro Ozu film. While it show signs of his very specific poetic flourishes (via pillow shots) and one of its chief concerns is generational conflict, I think it would be a bit reductive of Tanaka herself to say she’s simply made an Ozu film. Instead, she’s taken the best elements from Ozu’s script and paired it with her unique understanding of the world. Ozu’s fingerprints are all over the narratives and indeed, some of the stylistic choices, but Tanaka brings an energy to the film that is unmatched by any filmmaker in the 1950s. She has undone some of the threads woven by Ozu in a film like Late Spring, the father here is in the background, and our focus becomes squarely on the daughters. As Chishu Ryu fades into the background, Mie Kitahara and Yoko Sugi emerge to the front. Their sibling conflict seems flimsy and light, but Tanaka grants it a value and respect unequaled in cinema. Ozu made the quotidian dramas between generations both palpable and poignant, Tanaka has done the same for a drama within one generation.
Setsuko Asai is the youngest of three sisters. The women, along with their father, Mokiahi (Chishu Ryu, of course), live in the quiet and unassuming town of Nara. The tranquil location is best known for its deer, which is not the ideal attraction for someone in their twenties. Setsuko longs to return to Tokyo, the family’s home prior to the death of her mother. Mr. Amamiya, an engineer for Dai-Nihon Electricity arrives in Nara to investigate the town’s radio tower. Setsuko sees his presence as a chance to act as a matchmaker for her sister, Ayako. However, Ayako is resistant, and Setsuko continued focus on this coupling serves as a wedge between her and her boyfriend, Shoji.
Outside of Kinuyo Tanaka’s directorial chops, the nicest surprise in The Moon Has Risen is the presence of Mie Kitahara, who is otherwise known for her role in Kō Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit. She would go on to appear in a handful of noir films for Nikkatsu, as a dangerous siren. She’s given much more to operate with here, not reduced to the potential hazards of misguided male desire. If anything, male desire has little value to Tanaka. It is not difficult to imagine the same material in Ozu’s hands as spending more time with the family’s father. Instead, his sadness, which is respected, is concisely conveyed in two or three sequences. Kitahara drives the drama, especially in the film’s first half, where her desperate attempts at playing cupid fall comically flat.
Kitahara’s hijinx gives the film a lighter, fluffier tone, but there is something bubbling under her screwball-esque matchmaking. In one of the film’s most beautiful sequences, Setsuko and Shoji hide behind the pillars of a temple as they spy on Mr. Amamiya, who has been tricked into meeting Ayako. The problem, of course, is that Ayako is not actually ever going to show up. The “plans” were made by Setsuko herself, to see if Mr. Amamiya would be willing to meet up with Ayako in the first place. Dwarfed by the architecture of the place, Setsuko wonders out loud, “how long will he wait for her?” before hatching another scheme to inform him that Ayako isn’t coming. The moment is heavily reminiscent of a set piece by Michelangelo Antonioni and the question of “how long will her wait for her?” seems to be a different phrasing of the question posed at the end of L’Eclisse: “will the lovers ever find each other?”
Tanaka’s camera frequently finds the surrounding architecture as either harmonious to the bodies inhabiting it, or acting in complete interference with them. Sometimes this is brought up in the dialogue itself. Setsuko, wistfully clamoring for a return to Tokyo’s urban space tells her father that she’d love to see what the family’s old house looks like today. He, comfortable in the rural quiet of Nara, responds pragmatically “all covered in weeds.” Mokiahi brings up a similar thought towards the end of the film, when he wonders why “dusty and dirty” Tokyo is so appealing to the younger generation. This disconnect is mirrored by his absence in the film, although his loneliness and the melancholy brought on by time’s passing register to the audience, he isn’t given the slightest bit of authority over the lives of his daughters.
While it appears for no more than two or three scenes, the second half of the film does indeed feature a particularly fascinating dialogue on communication. Mr. Amamiya has returned to Tokyo, but he’s kept in touch with Ayako. Embarrassed by the potential for her family’s wandering eyes to lock on to their correspondences, Ayako communicates to Mr. Amamiya through Man’yōshū, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry that still remains. The family studies their love letters, but they fail to reach a conclusive reading. It sounds supremely corny, but their deeply visualized way of communication feels like a precursor to texting. One characters even asks, “Is it really old fashioned (referring to the Man’yōshū referenced in the letter) or really modern?” Ayako doesn’t say much throughout the film, yet she manages to convey something crucial in these letters? And yet, we don’t know what it exactly is.
This is the second film directed by Kinuyo Tanaka, and the second that I’ve managed to see. I hesitate to compare her to the male directors that made careers out of putting her in front of the camera because I find reductive. However, these were her filmmaking peers in the 1950s. Her understanding of design, both interior and exterior in relation to bodies is something that shows the influence of Naruse, but her own way of rendering this relationship is entirely unique and something that anticipate dominant trends in 1960s European arthouse films. The Moon Has Risen feels like the work of Ozu at times, but there are key moments that feel like something he couldn’t have done and I say that as someone who regards Ozu as the best ever. When Ayako and Mr. Amamiya walk along the garden, admiring the titular full moon, the camera follows them. They don’t do anything, but Tanaka’s observing of their bodies feel free and unforced. The performers, Ko Mishima and Yoko Sugi, have unlimited possibilities. Their slight hesitation is so simple, but it is so exciting.