Kinuyo Tanaka (1910-1977) was one of the greatest actresses to ever face a camera. Sometimes called the Bette Davis of Japan, she was actually far more like Lillian Gish, a tiny woman of deceptively fragile appearance and awesome range. Like Gish, Tanaka was an actress of transcendent spirituality, and when she played a woman subjected to humiliation, as she so often did, her innate dignity was such that she seemed to be suffering a blow to the entire human race.
In "Actress" (at the Little Tokyo Cinema I, 333 S. Alameda St.) director Kon Ichikawa has made a handsome, revealing and moving film biography of Tanaka by taking a surprisingly conventional and straightforward approach, even including standard comic relief. However, he and his co-writer Kaneto Shindo, a noted veteran writer-director in his own right, trusted to the cumulative power of their insider's knowledge and aptly parallel the flowering and maturing of Tanaka's career with that of the Japanese cinema itself.
Tanaka worked with numerous major directors but she is most celebrated for her collaborations with Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the greatest directors of women. She had her finest role in Mizoguchi's "The Life of Oharu" (1952) and was the potter's wife in his renowned ghost story, "Ugetsu" (1953).
The film's growing impact even sustains an exceptionally heavy, albeit admittedly helpful, dose of expository dialogue translated into unusually substantial English subtitles. Sayuri Yoshinaga, who was one of "The Makioka Sisters" for Ichikawa and also the star of his superb "Ohan," is equal to the formidable challenge of playing Tanaka from the age of 17 through 41. Yoshinaga is prettier than Tanaka, who had apple cheeks and a small chin but who also had the power to make you believe she was beautiful.
Although there are numerous books on the Japanese cinema in English, there is little information available about the lives of its stars, which means that "Actress" is fascinating simply for the information and insights it offers to anyone who has ever admired Tanaka. How surprising it is to discover that the actress who played the most refined and tragic of aristocrats in Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" was born in poverty in Osaka, had a private life comparable to that of Mae West and in a fit of anger at a soon-discarded husband, urinated on his futon.
Tanaka's life seems to have been a rags-to-riches movie star story straight out of Photoplay, but she also possessed a burning passion to act. Ichikawa and Shindo suggest that Tanaka came of age as an actress when she started working (in 1940) with Mizoguchi (played by a dignified Bunta Sugiwara), a taskmaster even sterner than William Wyler, and that she truly became a woman when she and Mizoguchi, both in momentary career trouble, made "The Life of Oharu," a sublime period piece about a lady-in-waiting's gradual but remorseless descent to streetwalking. The point that "Actress" makes is that both Tanaka and Mizoguchi had become so self-absorbed in their work that they had lost touch with themselves as human beings--that they both had a need to become people first and artists second in order to recharge their careers.
Yoshinaga's portrayal of Tanaka's maturing both as an actress and as a woman comes from within, and daringly Ichikawa ends "Actress" (Times-rated Mature) with a stunning re-creation of one of Tanaka's finest moments in "The Life of Oharu." Now aged and heavily painted, Oharu is tricked into serving as an example of the wages of sin for a group of acolyte priests. Yoshinaga's response as Oharu is as startling and poignant as that of Kinuyo Tanaka herself.
Launching a samurai festival in the Little Cinema 2 are "Baby Cart in Peril 4" and "Zatoichi to the Rescue." For full schedule, call (213) 687-8665.
'ACTRESS' A Toho presentation. Producer Hiroaki Fuji, Junichi Nizaki. Director Kon Ichikawa. Screenplay Ichikawa, Kaneto Shindo; based on a novel by Shindo. Camera Yukio Isobata. Music Kensaku Tanikawa. Art director Shinobu Muraki. Costumes Mimatsu Company. Film editor Chizuko Osada. With Sayuri Yoshinaga, Bunta Sugiwara, Toru Watanabe, Mitsuko Mori, Mitsuru Kurata, Kiichi Nakai, Koji Ishizaki. In Japanese, with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.