Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama During the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema

There will be a season of films dedicated to the female actors who dazzled as stars during the Golden Age of Japanese cinema at the BFI Southbank from October 16th to November 29th It is called, Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama. Billed as “an opportunity for audiences to explore the cinema of Japan’s ‘Golden Age’, with a distinctly female focus,” there are thirteen films programmed and several of those titles are rarely screened in the UK so this is a good opportunity to get acquainted with them.

The season opens with a double bill of films by Kenji Mizoguchi and that will followed up by a season introduction on October 17th, – Women in Japanese Melodrama – during which experts including Alexander Jacoby and Alejandra Armendáriz will discuss the work of the female stars who dazzled at the heart of mid-century Japanese cinema. Following that will be the rest of the films from directors such as Yasujiro Ozu. Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and others who made powerful female led dramas such as Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine and others who are now becoming well-known across the world.

I’ve only seen one of these films so I’m using the synopses from the BFI’s site.

It’s a great line-up! Here is what has been programmed:

Women of the Night 

夜の女たち  「Yoru no onnatachi

Release Date: May 26th, 1948

Running Time: 75 mins.

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Writer: Eijirô Hisaita (novel), Yoshikata Yoda (story)

Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Sanae Takasugi, Tomie Tsunoda, Mitsuo Nagata


Synopsis: Returning to film in the now-devastated Osaka in the wake of World War Two, Mizoguchi made his rawest and most despairing film, shot with a stark, neorealist immediacy. Kinuyo Tanaka gives a performance of animalistic ferocity as a woman whose life is torn apart by the conflict, and in desperation turns to prostitution on the chaotic, rubble-strewn streets to survive.


Osaka Elegy  Osaka Elegy Film Poster

浪華悲歌 「Naniwa hika

Release Date: May 28th, 1936

Running Time: 71 mins.

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Writer: Tadashi Fujiwara (Dialogue), Kenji Mizoguchi (Story), Saburo Okada (Story “Mieko”), Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay)

Starring: Isuzu Yamada, Yoko Umemura, Chiyoko Okura, Kensaku Hara, Eitaro Shindo, Takashi Shimura,


Osaka Elegy Film Image

Synopsis: A tragic tale of entrapment and compromise that established Mizoguchi’s reputation as the greatest director of the plight of women in Japanese society. Isuzu Yamada is superb as a switchboard operator who sees her own dreams fade after she agrees to a scandalous relationship with her boss in order to pay off her wastrel father’s gambling debts.

Wedding Ring 

婚約指輪 「Konyaku yubiwa

Release Date: July 01st, 1950

Running Time: 96 mins.

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita

Writer: Keisuke Kinoshita (Screenplay),

Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiro Mifune, Jukichi Uno, Nobuko Otowa


The Wedding Ring Film Image

Synopsis: Hailed in the West as ‘Japan’s Bette Davis,’ Kinuyo Tanaka was one of Japanese cinema’s best-loved stars and finest actors. The chemistry is electric in this yearning tale of forbidden physical attraction, in which Tanaka gives a playful, exuberant performance as a woman who falls for the dashing, strapping doctor (Mifune) who’s treating her sickly and bed-bound husband.


Clothes of Deception Clothes of Deception DVD Case

偽れる盛装 「Itsuwareru seiso

Release Date: January 13th, 1951

Running Time: 103 mins.

Director: Kozaburo Yoshimura,

Writer: Kaneto Shindo (Screenplay),

Starring: Machiko Kyo, Yasuko Fujita, Keiju Kobayashi, Emiko Yanagi,


Clothes of Deception Film Image

Synopsis: Glamorous and sensual, Machiko Kyo was a new kind of female star in the 1950s. Shortly after starring in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, she gave a superb performance in Yoshimura’s story of the contrasting fate of two sisters in a post-war Japan caught between the old and the new; one a geisha in Kyoto’s Gion district (Kyo), the other (Fujita) employed by the tourist board


The Mistress (aka Wild Geese) 

雁 「Gan

Running Time: 104 mins.

Release Date: September 15th, 1953

Director: Shiro Toyoda

Writer: Masashige Narusawa (Screenplay), Ogai Mori (Original Novel)

Starring: Hideko Takamine, Hiroshi Akutagawa, Choko Lida, Eijiro Tono, Jukichi Uno,


Gan Film Image

Synopsis: Hideko Takamine’s peerlessly expressive face was capable of registering the deepest emotion in merely a glance – qualities vividly displayed in Toyoda’s heartbreaking film. Takamine plays a lowly divorcee who is tricked into becoming mistress to a despised moneylender, but she dares to dream of love and escape from the confines of her position when she falls for a kind-hearted student.

An Inlet of Muddy Water Nigore Film Poster

にごりえ 「Nigorie

Release Date: November 23rd, 1953

Running Time: 130 mins.

Director: Tadashi Imai

Writer: Yoko Mizuki, Toshiro Ide (Screenplay), Ichiyo Higuchi (Original Short Stories)

Starring: Chikage Awashima, Haruko Sugimura, Yoshiko Kuga, Nobuo Nakamura, Natsuko Kahara

An Inlet of Muddy Water Film Image

Synopsis: Based on stories by the great 19th-century female writer Ichiyo Higuchi, Tadashi’s sensitive, beautifully observed anthology beat even Ozu’s Tokyo Story to be named best film of 1953 by the Japanese film magazine Kinema Jumpo. It presents three devastating portraits of women trapped by injustice and circumstance, with outstanding performances by some of the finest actors of the time.

The Eternal Breasts 

乳房よ永遠なれ 「Chibusa yo eien nare

Release Date: November 23rd, 1955

Running Time: 106 mins.

Director: Kinuyo Tanaka

Writer: Sumie Tanaka (Screenplay),

Starring: Yumeji Tsukioka, Ryoji Hayama, Yuko Sugi, Junkichi Orimoto, Choko Lida, Masayuki Mori, Hiroko Kawasaki


Eternal Breasts Film Image

Synopsis: Not only one of Japan’s greatest actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka was also the director of six features, including this powerful, frank film about the poet Fumiko Nakajo, who died of breast cancer aged 31 in 1954. Tanaka brings an unmistakeably female perspective to recounting Nakajo’s life – from divorce through single motherhood, illness and her growing independence in life and love as her literary reputation grows


Floating CloudsFloating Clouds Film Poster

浮雲 「Ukigumo」

Release Date: January 15th, 1955

Running Time: 118 mins.

Director: Mikio Naruse

Writer: Yoko Mizuki (Screenplay),

Starring: Hideko Takamine, Masayuji Mori, Mariko Okada, Isao Yamagata

I have seen this one, almost a year to the day, and it’s a good one.

Floating Clouds Film Image

Synopsis: Hideko Takamine was Naruse’s great muse as Setsuko Hara was Ozu’s and Kinuyo Tanaka was Mizoguchi’s, and this searing tale of amour fou is their most famous collaboration. Shifting back and forth in time, the film reveals the tumultuous love affair between Yukiko (Takamine) and married Kengo (Mori), who meet during the war, but find they can live neither with nor without one another in peacetime.

Elegy of the NorthBanka Film Poster

挽歌 「Banka」

Release Date: 1957

Running Time: 130 mins.

Director: Heinosuke Gosho

Writer: Toshio Yasumi (Screenplay),

Starring: Yoshiko Kuga, Mieko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Fumio Watanabe


Synopsis: An actress who worked with many of the greatest directors of Japanese cinema’s Golden Age, Yoshiko Kuga gives a performance of great sensitivity in Gosho’s exquisitely shot melodrama. Swooning romance meets Modernist alienation as handicapped Reiko (Kuga) becomes infatuated with an architect (Mori) whose marriage has grown cold, and whose wife (Takamine) is having an illicit affair with a student

Tokyo TwilightTokyo Twilight Film Poster

東京暮色 「Toukyou Boshoku」

Release Date: April 30th, 1957

Running Time: 140 mins.

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Writer: Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda (Screenplay),

Starring: Ineko Arima, Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Isuzu Yamada,
Haruko Sugimura, Nobuo Nakamura

Tokyo Twilight Film Image

Synopsis: Long immortalised as Japan’s ‘eternal virgin,’ Setsuko Hara shows another side to her acting in Ozu’s unusually downcast and melodramatic masterwork, which spans teenage pregnancy, abortion and maternal abandonment. Hara plays Takako, the elder of two sisters abandoned by their mother (Yamada) as children. As she deals with her faltering marriage, her younger sister Akiko (Arima) falls into serious trouble.


The Blue Sky Maiden (aka The Cheerful Girl)

青空娘  「Aozora Musume」  Blue Sky Maiden FIlm Poster

Release Date: October 08th, 1957

Running Time: 88 mins.

Director: Yasuzo Masamura

Writer: Yoshio Shirasaka (Screenplay), Keita Genji (Original Novel)

Starring: Ayako Wakao, Keizo Kawasaki, Kenji Sugawara, Ryuji Shinagawa, Yuko Yashio, Keiko Fujita,

Blue Sky Maiden Film Image

Synopsis: The influence of Douglas Sirk’s contemporary melodramas is unmistakeable on Masumura’s fresh, colourful and sharply satirical Cinderella story, the first in a string of collaborations with the beautiful Ayako Wakao. Here Wakao embodies Japan’s new youth, playing an illegitimate daughter who travels to Tokyo to live with her father, only to find his house a seething nest of suspicion and resentment.

An Affair at Akitsu

秋津温泉 「Akitsu Onsen」

Release Date: June 15th, 1962

Running Time: 112 mins.

Director: Yoshishige Yoshida

Writer: Yoshishige Yoshida (Screenplay), Shinji Fujiwara (Original Novel)

Starring: Mariko Okada, So Yamamura, Hiroyuki Nagato, Jukichi Uno,

Synopsis: Mariko Okada’s career bridged both the Golden Age and the New Wave she helped to define in the films she made with her director husband Yoshishige Yoshida. But first came this full-bodied, hauntingly intense melodrama of unrequited love and post-war disillusion, shot in lush widescreen colour, which observes the faltering relationship between a sickly soldier and an innkeeper.


The Shape of Night

夜の片鱗  「Yoru no Henrin」

Release Date: November 01st, 1964

Running Time: 106 mins.

Director: Noboru Nakamura

Writer: Toshihide Gondo (Screenplay), Kyoko Ohta (Original Novel)

Starring: Miyuki Kuwano, Mikijiro Hira, Keisuke Sonoi Tayo Iwamoto, Misako Tominaga, Koji Matsubara, Shinji Tanaka,

Synopsis: This intoxicating rediscovery follows Yoshie (Kuwano), a woman pushed into prostitution by her violent yakuza boyfriend, in a mode that filters the emotion of Naruse through the daring of Imamura. Gorgeously shot in widescreen, with bold compositions and editing, Nakamura’s revelatory film absorbs Douglas Sirk’s expressive use of colour, while pointing forward to the lyrical modernism of Wong Kar Wai.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.