According to the literary circle that housewife Fumiko attends, her poems are a bit exaggerated. Her tankas are autobiographical testimonies to her unhappy life. Her husband drinks and cheats on her, depreciated by her creative ambitions.
Shortly after the divorce comes the next shock. Fumiko develops breast cancer and has to undergo a mastectomy. At the same time, she is known as a poet beyond the borders of Hokkaido.
In her cinematic approach to the Japanese poet Fumiko Nakajo, director Kinuyo Tanaka is similarly bold. “Forever a Woman” (1955) – the original Japanese title is taken from the poem “The Eternal Breasts” – tells how illness, liberation and the development of one’s own artistic voice are mutually dependent. The passion story, which is there in the beginning, is constantly being crushed and momentarily blown open by the unpredictable protagonist.
Once, of all places, Fumiko bares her upper body in the bathtub of a secretly desired man who has since passed away – and enjoys the shock that her sight triggers in his widow.
When actress Kinuyo Tanaka decided to work behind the camera at the age of 42, she had appeared in more than 200 films, including works by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse.
There was a role model for the role of the director in Japan’s patriarchal film industry. Before Tanaka, only one woman had directed a Japanese feature film, Tazuko Sakana.
The six films that Tanaka made between 1953 and 1962 can now be seen in a retrospective at the Arsenal cinema in Berlin. Comedic tones (in 1955’s The Moon Has Risen, based on an Ozu screenplay) sit alongside melodramas, the no-frills drama alongside the gorgeous 1960 Cinemascope periodical The Wandering Princess.
Even if their work doesn’t necessarily appear coherent: What Tanaka’s films have in common is the focus on socio-political issues and on female characters who do not conform to the given social roles. “Love Letter” (1953) deals with relationships between Japanese women and American soldiers and the associated ostracism, “Girls of the Night” (1961) deals with prostitution and the state integration programs for sex workers. In Love Under the Crucifix (1962), Tanaka’s final directorial work, a devout Christian takes her destiny into her own hands for her love for a samurai.
Language is an essential medium for the heroines – be it in frank confessions, in poems or letters. In Love Letter, Tanaka’s only film with a male protagonist, real and fabricated feelings are inseparable.
The marine veteran Reikichi lives entirely in the memory of his childhood sweetheart Michiko, who is initially only present as a voice. His unfulfilled longing finds expression in his work as a ghostwriter of love letters to GIs formerly stationed in Japan. When “Mitchy” appears among the clients at some point, Reikichi faces a long learning process.
Despite all the limitations that society throws at them, the women in Tanaka’s films have always progressed. They are very clear about their feelings.