Tears and laughter: 10 female stars of Golden Age Japanese cinema

Many of the greatest Japanese films made in the early decades after World War II explore the everyday experiences of women struggling to find their place in a conservative culture during an era of rapid social and technological change. As a result, the films owe much of their power and sophistication to their leading ladies – actresses such as Tanaka Kinuyo, Hara Setsuko, Takamine Hideko and Kyo Machiko – who were often as instrumental in shaping the meaning of their directors’ films as their directors were in shaping their performances.


from our November 2017 issue

Tokyo story: Wakao Ayako in Masumura Yasuko’s The Blue Sky Maiden (Aozora musume, 1957)

Tokyo story: Wakao Ayako in Masumura Yasuko’s The Blue Sky Maiden (Aozora musume, 1957)

“If you want to say something about Japan,” declared actress Hidari Sachiko in the 1970s, “you have to focus on women.” Many of the canonical Japanese films are studies of female experience, and in the early post-war decades especially, the subtlety and power of Japanese film was in large part due to its many great actresses, whose rich, nuanced performances helped to dramatise what it meant to live as a woman during the dramatic social transformations affecting the country in the 20th century.

A woman whose adult life spanned the long Showa era (1926-89) would have witnessed and participated in a series of unprecedented changes. She would have been born in the early years of the 20th century in a rapidly developing country, where feudal ideas jostled with modernity and where indigenous and Western values were in perpetual tension. The regime of the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912) had promoted the conservative notion of ryosai kenbo (‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’) as a female ideal, yet women were central to the burgeoning Japanese economy, particularly in the crucial textile industry. In the early Showa period, while some women dressed traditionally in kimono, others adopted Western clothes, hairstyles and demeanour as so-called ‘modern girls’ or moga. But most still found husbands through omiai – not quite an arranged marriage, but a guided process of matchmaking. And the average woman bore four or five children; pro-natalist policies were favoured by the militarist government of the 1930s and 1940s.

The end of World War II had a transformative effect on the situation of Japanese women. Women gained the vote, and, in 1946, 39 female candidates were elected to parliament. The American-influenced 1947 constitution incorporated several provisions for women’s rights, including a clause of sexual equality and a guarantee of the freedom to choose a spouse; in the same year, the Labour Standards Act established protections for female workers. Increasingly visible Western models shaped the behaviour and appearance of many women.

Arima Ineko and Hara Setsuko in Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957)

Arima Ineko and Hara Setsuko in Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957)

At the same time, social mores remained in some ways relatively conservative through the later Showa era. The parliamentary breakthrough of 1946 proved a false dawn; late 20th-century politics was overwhelmingly male-dominated. Wages for female workers were considerably lower than for male ones, and many women worked in part-time or temporary jobs. Women tended to retire on marriage; the Western-style nuclear family, with one male breadwinner, had become standard. There were very few births out of wedlock, and divorce rates were exceptionally low. In some ways, the values of ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ were still an everyday reality.

The film industry had been a wholly male arena in the earliest years of Japanese cinema; until the early 1920s, female roles were played by male actors, as in the kabuki theatre. But by the post-war era, the cinema was, in part, a refuge for women who did not want to follow the standard life path: actresses often made choices that were not readily available to ordinary Japanese women. At a time when a single, lifelong marriage was overwhelmingly the norm, Hara Setsuko remained unmarried throughout her long life, while Yamada Isuzu had four husbands, as well as a significant non-marital relationship with director Kinugasa Teinosuke. Above all, though, the tensions surrounding women in Japanese society were artistically reflected in the nation’s cinema, which over the decades dramatised female experience with complexity, precision and power.

The Japanese cinema of the mid-20th century was, like the Hollywood of the same period, a flourishing studio system. Both production and exhibition were dominated by the major studios (Shochiku, Daiei and Toho, to be joined during the 1950s by Toei and the revived Nikkatsu), for whom directors and stars worked under contract.

Tanaka Kinuyo in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948)

Tanaka Kinuyo in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948)

As in Hollywood, actors and actresses established clearly defined yet flexible star personae. Just as Barbara Stanwyck could be comedienne and femme fatale, self-sacrificing mother and career woman, so Tanaka Kinuyo could be wife and mother, gangster’s moll and artist’s model, geisha and actress, peasant and aristocrat. But the different roles were united by what Kinoshita Chika has identified as the “crucial properties of Tanaka’s acting”, such as “her smooth, prompt and light way of walking; fluid but restless gestures; inclination to avoid eye contact; and ambiguity in facial expressions”.

Among the studios, Shochiku had deliberately targeted female audiences since the silent era. The studio’s formidable boss, Kido Shiro, observed that “the fact the old moralistic ideas have a repressive stranglehold on women” furnished dramatic material; but he also had an eye on commercial prospects, believing that women were more likely to bring friends, family or boyfriends with them to the cinema. Indeed, the Shochiku-produced women’s melodrama What Is Your Name? (Kimi no na wa, 1953), focusing on a couple who meet during a wartime air raid but lose each other after failing to exchange names, became the biggest box-office hit of its time. In the 1950s, other studios also made efforts to court the female market: Daiei made a considerable number of melodramas centred on mothers or working women, while Naruse Mikio directed women’s films at Toho.

The Japanese cinema, claim film historians Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie, is “a director’s cinema”, but the films of the great Japanese directors are vitally defined by the personae and presence of their actresses. It is impossible to think of Ozu Yasujiro without recalling the smiling serenity of Hara, or of Naruse without remembering the tender determination of Takamine Hideko.

Takamine Jideko in Naruse Mikio’s Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955)

Takamine Jideko in Naruse Mikio’s Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955)

Both those women have been credited with an intuitive understanding of the kind of performances their respective directors wanted; years after Naruse’s death, Takamine said that if she were called on to appear in a Naruse film she would still know exactly how to act. Yet the great actresses of the Japanese cinema were often as instrumental in shaping the meaning of their directors’ films as their directors were in shaping their performances; they were creators as well as interpreters. Speaking of his two most regular actresses, Yamada and Tanaka, even as controlling a director as Mizoguchi Kenji was obliged to admit, “There was no point in making minute directions in their roles. All I could do is bend with their styles and find the right rhythm for their movements.”

The older generation of Japanese stars active in the post-war era included many who had started their careers before the war. Tanaka (born in 1909) was acting in films by the late 1920s; Yamada (born in 1917) was a star by the mid-1930s; Hara (born in 1920) played major roles from 1937.


1. Yamada Isuzu

In her controversial collaborations with director Mizoguchi Kenji, Osaka Elegy (Naniwa ereji) and Sisters of Gion (Gion no kyodai), both released in 1936, Yamada exemplified the pre-war ‘modern girl’: career-oriented, commercially minded and sexually available.

In the former, she plays a switchboard operator who descends into delinquency as she embarks on an illicit affair. Associated with technology and communication, her profession is the archetypal symbol of modernity.

The heroine of Sisters of Gion, by contrast, is a geisha, yet here Yamada’s character rejects the traditions of her profession, dressing in Western costume when not on duty, and rejecting the expectation of fidelity to a male patron.

Yamada’s post-war work too was to sustain this penchant for transgressive female characterisations: in Ozu’s most melodramatic film, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957), she is a mother who has abandoned her children; in Kurosawa Akira’s The Lower Depths (Donzoko, 1957), she is an exploitative and spiteful landlady; in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo, 1957), she is the Lady Macbeth character. The latter role demonstrated her versatility; as Yamada enacts the character’s mental breakdown, an eerie, controlled stasis gives way to sudden, rapid, agitated movements.

In 1947, Yamada starred in Kinugasa’s Actress (Joyu), the biopic of the leading early 20th-century stage actress, Matsui Sumako, who made a name for herself in the role of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – a crucial proto-feminist play – only to commit suicide in 1919 after the death of her lover and director, Shimamura Hogetsu.


2. Tanaka Kinuyo

In competition with Kinugasa’s Actress, Mizoguchi directed his own version of the story, The Love of Actress Sumako (Joyu Sumako no koi), with Matsui played by Tanaka Kinuyo, who by this time had become Mizoguchi’s favourite actress, and who was his key collaborator in the last decade of his career.

In the late 1940s, they worked together on a sequence of feminist melodramas. In Victory of Women (Josei no shori, 1946), Tanaka played a lawyer defending a female client accused of murdering her child; in Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948), she was a prostitute in the inhospitable environment of war-damaged Osaka.

In My Love Has Been Burning (Waga koi wa moenu, 1949), a masterpiece of feminist melodrama, she played the wife of a 19th-century liberal politician whose enlightened values do not extend into his own home. Mizoguchi and Tanaka jointly produced one of the cinema’s most radical feminist statements – going far beyond the liberal expectations of the American occupiers. Yet Tanaka’s simultaneous air of vulnerability and resilience also made her indelible as the wise, tolerant, understanding and suffering heroines of Ugetsu monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho dayu, 1954).

In fact, Tanaka gave outstanding performances for almost all of the great Japanese directors. Her range is typified by her collaborations with Kinoshita Keisuke: at the beginning of the 1950s, in Wedding Ring (Konyaku yubiwa, 1950), she was still able to play a sensual romantic lead, falling in love with the doctor (played by Mifune Toshiro) treating her ailing husband; by 1958, she was totally convincing as the old woman preparing for death in Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama bushiko). To bring verisimilitude to the harrowing scene in which she bashes out her teeth with a stone, the actress famously had several of her own teeth removed. Tanaka also became Japan’s first successful female director, realising an impressive series of feminist melodramas in the 1950s and 1960s.


3. Hara Setsuko

Beside these assertive stars, Hara Setsuko may seem a gentler, softer presence. She is famous for a persona which appears, on the surface, untroubled and accepting, exemplified by the radiant smile with which she answers “Yes” to the question “Isn’t life disappointing?” in Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953). Japanese audiences thought of her as an “eternal virgin”.

But this is a sentimentalisation of an actress more appropriately defined by what the critic Robin Wood calls “resistance to definition”. In Ozu’s famous ‘Noriko trilogy’ – Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951) and Tokyo Story – she plays, respectively, two young women reluctant to marry in accordance with social expectations, and a widow with no desire to remarry.

In other films, her characterisations were still more subversive. In Naruse’s Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, 1954), she has an abortion rather than be trapped in a loveless marriage. And she is seen again – opposite Yamada Isuzu in the clip above – in flight from a loveless marriage in Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight, in which she plays a much darker character than Noriko.


4. Takamine Hideko

Though a few years younger than the three actresses mentioned above, Takamine Hideko was not a new face on screen, having been a popular child star by around 1930 and a teenage idol during the war. But it was in the 1950s and 1960s that she made her greatest impact, and her star persona – gently forceful, active, determined and aspirational – is of a piece with the post-war mood.

Takamine’s talents were displayed above all in her many collaborations with Naruse. The most famous of these, and the most respected by Japanese critics, is Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955), based, like many of Naruse’s films, on a novel by the important female author Hayashi Fumiko. This tale of obsessive love is certainly Naruse’s most melodramatic film, and in some respects uncharacteristic. But the sheer tenacity and passion of the character played by Takamine sheds light on the determination and strength of the bar hostess she played in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki, 1960) or the emotional depth of the widowed shopkeeper discomfited by the advances of her brother-in-law in Yearning (Midareru, 1964).

Takamine too made a major impact in films by other directors. For Toyoda Shiro, in Wild Geese (Gan, aka The Mistress; 1953), she movingly played a moneylender’s unhappy mistress drawn to a goodhearted student. Her subtlety as a performer helped imbue this sad story with a hint of redemption: at the climax of the film, Donald Richie writes, “Toyoda’s camera turns to catch her face, and finds hope.”

As with Tanaka, Takamine’s versatility can be indicated by two famous roles for Kinoshita Keisuke: in Japan’s first commercial full-length feature film in colour, Carmen Comes Home (Karumen kokyo ni kaeru, 1951), she displayed an impeccable comic timing as the stripper scandalising her conservative hometown in rural Nagano prefecture; in the great melodrama Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi no hitomi, 1954), she acted with delicate pathos as the island schoolteacher whose pupils grow to adulthood in time to suffer the trauma of World War II.


5. Kyo Machiko

Also personifying the tough, active post-war woman was Kyo Machiko. Ironically, her most famous role in the West is one of her more limited: the ambiguous heroine of Kurosawa’s fable of inaccessible truth, Rashomon (1950), may have been a victim or may have been a femme fatale, but neither characterisation is sketched in particular depth.

Much richer was her performance the following year in Yoshimura Kozaburo’s outstanding Clothes of Deception (Itsuwareru seiso, 1951), in which she plays a geisha in the Gion District of Kyoto. Trapped by both Japan’s ancient capital and her profession, she nevertheless marshals her commercial acumen and streetwise outlook to protect her younger sister, who, in archetypically modern fashion, works for the tourist board, and who hopes to marry against her mother’s wishes.

Kyo was to go on to play the formidable ghost princess in Ugetsu monogatari and the delinquent elder sister in Naruse’s Older Brother, Younger Sister (Ani imoto, 1953). Many of the characterisations Kyo created are unsympathetic, but all are united by the confidence and sensuality which were her trademarks.

Still alive, as of this writing, aged 93, Kyo is one of the last links to the Japanese cinema’s early post-war Golden Age.


6. Wakao Ayako and Okada Mariko

The generation of actresses represented by Takamine and Kyo, who had reached adulthood around the end of World War II, played women who were both tough and vulnerable, who had been both battered and strengthened by the experience of war and deprivation. But by the end of the 1950s, a new generation of women was coming to the fore in Japan: still children during the war, they had come of age in the hopeful post-war dispensation. Stars such as Wakao Ayako and Okada Mariko (both born in 1933, nearly a decade after Takamine) personified a generation that possessed, perhaps for the first time in Japanese history, the confidence of affluence, and which was more likely to embrace novel modes of thought and ways of life.

Both established themselves with films for classical directors: Wakao came to critical notice as the rebellious younger geisha Eiko in Mizoguchi’s Gion Festival Music (Gion bayashi, 1953) and also played a leading role in the director’s last film, Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956). Okada appeared in Ozu’s Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962). But both were better suited to the new modes of Japanese filmmaking emerging at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s.

Wakao was to become particularly associated with Masumura Yasuzo, who brought a European-influenced freshness and flair to Japanese film, and to whose insistent modernity and scabrous social commentary Wakao was well suited. In his The Blue Sky Maiden (Aozora musume, 1957), she plays the illegitimate daughter of a businessman, and her arrival in her father’s Tokyo home exposes the tensions and hypocrisies underlying the order of Japanese society. Wakao’s startlingly liberated persona is highlighted when, to quote critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “she winds up denouncing [her father] in his sickbed and getting him to admit his errors, in a scene that must have shocked Japanese audiences at the time”. Later, she would play the nurse in Masumura’s grim war film The Red Angel (Akai tenshi, 1966), enduring sexual outrage on the Chinese front.

Okada’s liberated, active persona was strongly revealed in Yoshimura Kozaburo’s A Woman’s Uphill Slope (Onna no saka, 1960), in which she superbly played an assertive young businesswoman, running a traditional sweet-making firm, who finds fulfilment in work after disappointment in love.

She was to make her greatest impact, though, working with New Wave director Yoshida Kiju (aka Yoshida Yoshishige), who became her husband. Their first collaboration, An Affair at Akitsu (Akitsu onsen, 1962) seems like a summation of the traditions of Shochiku melodrama, but also a new departure, heralding the series of so-called ‘anti-melodramas’ on which they were to work after leaving the studio for independent production.


7. Sugimura Haruko, Awashima Chikage and Kuga Yoshiko

Beyond these representative figures, the post-war Japanese cinema was routinely enriched by the presence of a broader roster of outstanding actresses, each with her own distinct star persona that dramatised particular aspects of the changing personal and social realities of the time.

The cynical and formidable characterisations of Sugimura Haruko, an Ozu regular, seem to encapsulate the darker side of post-war capitalism: her appearance in Tokyo Story as Shige, the selfish proprietor of a beauty parlour, is indelible, as is her depiction of a wholly materialistic former geisha and moneylender in Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku, 1954).

Awashima Chikage’s star persona balanced cool irony and dogged perseverance, the former visible in her funny-sad performance in Toyoda’s Marital Relations (Meoto zenzai, 1955) as the geisha negotiating a complicated relationship with the heir to a respectable merchant family, the latter typified by the climax of Naruse’s Summer Clouds (Iwashigumo, 1958), in which she ploughs the fields in one of the Japanese cinema’s iconic depictions of female self-determination.

The subtle strength of Kuga Yoshiko is displayed in Gosho Heinosuke’s Elegy of the North (Banka, 1957), in which she gives a performance of sombre determination as a young woman in love with a married man.

All three of these actresses featured in An Inlet of Muddy Water (Nigorie, 1953). Directed by Imai Tadashi and based on the geisha stories of 19th-century female novelist Higuchi Ichiyo, this portmanteau film beat even Tokyo Story and Ugetsu to take the number one spot in the venerable Kinema Junpo film magazine annual critics’ poll. Whatever one thinks of that decision, the quality of the film owes much to the excellence of the actresses who brought the world of the geisha to life with such meticulous realism and detail.

In the post-war era, Japanese actresses both re-enacted traditional models and sketched out new modes of female conduct. Director Toyoda Shiro, asked by Donald Richie why Japan’s actresses were better than its actors, replied that Japanese women “have to practise acting all of their lives”. Yet at a time when women’s rights and women’s roles were more contested than ever before or (perhaps) since, the Japanese cinema, and its great actresses, not only played roles, but helped to script them.

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