France’s Lumiere Festival to honor Japanese golden age filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka with retrospective

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The late, legendary Japanese actor and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka will be honored with a retrospective at the 2021 Lumiere Festival, set for Oct. 9-17 in Lyon, France. [Lumiere Festival photo]

The late, legendary Japanese actor and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka will be honored with a retrospective at the 2021 Lumiere Festival, set for Oct. 9-17 in Lyon, France.

Every year, the festival offers audiences a retrospective of a female filmmaker whose work has been forgotten or hindered by the conservative context of her era, according to a news release. “The Permanent History of Women Filmmakers” series has enabled the rediscovery of films by Alice Guy, Germaine Dulac, Larissa Shepitko, Muriel Box, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Lina Wertmüller and Joan Micklin Silver.

This year, the festival will screen a complete retrospective of the films by Tanaka, the sole female director of the golden age of Japanese cinema, in collaboration with Carlotta Films.

In front of the camera for helmers like Yasujirō Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi, Tanaka first became one of the most celebrated and influential performers in Japanese cinema before making the bold move to directing in an industry that had no female filmmakers.

Born in 1909 in Shimonoseki, Japan, Tanaka started her acting career in 1924 when she was just 14 years old. She was hired as an actress by Shōchiku studios, a major film company in pre-World War II Japan.

A silent film performer directed by Kiyohiko Ushihara and Ozu, her transition to talkies was successful, resulting in films being penned specifically for her.

She was so popular that she was called by her first name only, which was sometimes used in film titles to entice her loyal fans.

She was even sent to the United States after World War II as a “goodwill ambassador” like the biggest American stars of the time, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and future president Ronald Reagan.

In the 1950s, she truly began her reign as “the greatest actress in Japanese cinema,” notably collaborating with Mizoguchi for more than a decade on more than a dozen films, including “Ugestsu” in 1953.

Also in 1953, the “mother of Japanese cinema” decided to step behind the camera, despite resistance from some, including Mizoguchi.

She was just the second woman in Japan to take on the director’s chair, after wartime filmmaker Tazuko Sakane.

Tanaka achieved her moviemaking ambitions with the help of the young studio ShinToho, founded by defectors from Toho, and the gay activist filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita, who supported her and wrote her the screenplay for her directorial debut, “Love Letter.”

She earned international acclaim as a director, entering competition at France’s Cannes Film Festival in 1954 with “Love Letter” (or “Koibumi”). She returned to Cannes in 1961 and 1964 as a performer.

Between 1953 and 1962, Tanaka helmed six femme-focused films. She was the only female director active in the late 1950s, regarded as the post-WWII golden age of Japanese cinema.

She also continued to act, ultimately appearing in more than 250 films. In 1975, she was named best actress at Germany’s Berlin Film Festival for her performance in Kei Kumai’s “Sandakan No. 8” (“Sandakan hachibanshokan bohkyo”), which also was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film.

Tanaka died in 1977 of a brain tumor.

In June, the Cannes Film Festival screened a newly restored 4K version of her second film as a director, 1955’s “The Moon Has Risen” (“Tsuki wa noborinu”).

But her filmography – eventually found by Carlotta Films and Lili Hinstin and restored for the first time by the various studios with which she worked – will be presented to audiences during the 13th edition of the Lumière Festival. For more information, go to


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