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Born in 1909, Tanaka made her debut aged just 15 for Shochiku, which she would work with until she became a free agent after a trip to the US more than two decades later.
At a festival talk show to introduce the screenings, Mika Tomita of the National Film Archive of Japan noted that Tanaka was, “…so popular as an actress that her films were presented under her name, like Chaplin’s were.”
Her most notable collaborations an actress were with legendary director Kenji Mizoguchi, appearing in 15 of his films, including classics such as Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954).
Mizoguchi had mentored Japan’s first female director Tazuko Sakane, who made her debut in 1936. But despite casting Tanaka as a champion of women’s rights in Flame of My Love (1949) and other films, the director opposed her career behind the camera, for which she forgave him.
All six of her productions have been digitally remastered and are being released theatrically in France this year, after screenings at Cannes and Lyon festivals, according to Christian Jeune, director of the film department at Cannes.
“I knew her as an actress of course. But to discover the films she had directed was a big artistic surprise,” said Jeune. I find it hard to understand why these six films have not received more attention – they are part of cinematic history. Is it because she was a woman? I hope these films will be shown in Japan theatrically, on a big screen as they were meant to be seen.”
“In the 1950s, she was talking about difficult issues like women’s rights and in The Eternal Breasts, which deals with breast cancer in a very direct way – nobody in the world, not just in Japan, was tackling this,” added Jeune.
Tanaka also made and acted in films about prostitution and other controversial issues.
Director Mika Yukiko spoke of the importance of Tanaka for female filmmaking in Japan, saying, “I think her experiences as a woman and an actress were reflected in her directing.”
Tomita pointed out that, “After Tanaka stopped shooting films in the 1960s, no other major female directors emerged for decades in Japan, and it is only relatively recently that women making films has become normal.”
Tanaka carried on acting in films and on television until 1976, a year before she died.
The Tokyo festival is screening 4K digital remasters of The Moon Has Risen (1955), The Wandering Princess (1960), Love Under the Crucifix (1962) and The Eternal Breasts/ Forever a Woman (1955).
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