Intriguing document of a Japanese film star's postwar visit to the U.S.
"Kinuyo Tanaka's New Departure" (2009) is a 31-minute compilation of film footage documenting Japanese film star Kinuyo Tanaka's goodwill tour of the U.S. in 1949. The film is found as a supplement on the Criterion Collection DVD edition of Kenji Mizoguchi's THE LIFE OF OHARU, which stars Kinuyo Tanaka, and is listed there as "The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka." Born in 1910, Tanaka had been a star in Japanese films since the 1920s and had worked with Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu both before the war and after, but is best known for her work with Mizoguchi. The film compiles 35mm black-and-white footage and 16mm Kodachrome color footage taken with a camera that was presented as a gift to Ms. Tanaka in Hawaii. Most of this footage was discovered by Tanaka's relatives long after she died (in 1977). There is some sound footage in both color and black-and-white, but most of it is silent and accompanied by narration recorded 50 years after the fact.
The film is worth seeing for the amazing footage of Ms. Tanaka on Hawaiian soil (before it was a state) and in Hollywood. Most of the running time is devoted to her Hawaiian tour, which included visits to the large Japanese-American community there. She performs on stage and shares traditional Japanese dances. She visits nursing homes and hospitals, meets the local politicians and pays respects at various cemeteries, including one where the victims of Pearl Harbor are buried. She is quite impressed with the female territorial senator from Hawaii, Thelma Akana. She changes from kimonos to local Hawaiian styles near the end of her visit.
For film buffs, the best footage involves her visit to Hollywood and her meetings with movie stars and executives. Having been called "Japan's Bette Davis," her first visit is to Bette Davis. Color film footage shows Ms. Davis on the lawn outside her home donning a kimono Ms. Tanaka has given her. Ms. Davis calls herself "the Kinuyo Tanaka of America." Ms. Tanaka is taken by producer Joe Pasternak on a tour of MGM, where she meets the head man, Louis B. Mayer himself, as well as such MGM stars as Janet Leigh, Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor, Ricardo Montalban, Mario Lanza, and Ann Blyth. Other stars she's photographed with are John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Carmen Miranda and Ronald Reagan and his future wife, Nancy Davis. Other than the Bette Davis footage, the rest of these shots are all b&w still photographs. I have to confess that I was very excited to see these pictures and learn of such a significant cross-cultural engagement so long ago. I wish I'd known of this sooner and wish I had more information about it. For instance, who arranged this visit and oversaw her introduction to the Hollywood film community? I wish these details had been included.
After Hollywood, Tanaka visited several other cities with Japanese-American populations. As a New Yorker, I was disappointed that the segment on her trip to New York lasted less than 30 seconds and consisted entirely of shaky, fuzzy shots of her walking down Broadway in Times Square. The narration tells us she went to see "South Pacific," the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical then in its original run on Broadway. I would like to have known her reaction to it. The film then takes her back to Hawaii where she spends a few more days before returning to Japan. There is a brief interview with her during the final swing through Hawaii and it comes at 28 minutes into the 31-minute film: it's the first and only time we actually hear her voice in the whole piece.
The narration at the beginning of the film begins with these lines: "Wearing sunglasses and a half coat of silver fox, on January 19th, Kinuyo Tanaka returned from America. She had set out dressed in impressive kimonos, but when she returned, her new look drew everyone's attention. It was 1949. Envy and jealousy besieged the popular actress who'd gone to America as a goodwill ambassador of the arts. In a Japan still under U.S. occupation, her sunglasses and blown kisses, meant to be an American-style performance, earned her a ferocious drubbing in the media. For a time thereafter, she was so depressed she even considered suicide. The significance of her trip to America was never properly recognized and has only been talked about in scandalous terms ever since."
The closing text tells us this: "With the support and encouragement of her friends, Kinuyo was able to bounce back. Three years after returning to Japan, she began directing her own films, drawing inspiration from the independent and creative female identity she witnessed in America. She directed six films in all. As an actress, she would spend the rest of her career setting an example for others with her unflinching portrayals of aging."
In between those opening and closing statements, nothing more is said on the subject of Ms. Tanaka's reception in Japan upon her return from the U.S. What was the nature of the "drubbing" she received in the Japanese media? They seemed to be upset at her adoption of American-style dress and mannerisms. Were they outraged by her seeming independence? Did anyone in Japan, e.g. Mizoguchi himself, come to her defense? What was the reaction of her female fans? How did Americans in Japan, e.g. the Occupation Authorities, react? What role did the U.S. State Department play in all this? I wonder if anything has been published in English on this. I was unable to find any reference to this trip in any of my books on Japanese cinema.
In any event, the footage should be of interest to anyone who's a fan of Kinuyo Tanaka, as well as anyone genuinely interested in cultural relations between Japan and the U.S. in the postwar era.
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