BeRightBack here, visiting from the Wordsmoker Collective to blither about Japanese cinema again! Today, I want to talk a bit about great Japanese actress (and first studio-backed Japanese female director!) Kinuyo Tanaka. Specifically, I want to look at her last major role, in 1974's Sandakan 8, which was in the running the following year (upon its international release) for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Sandakan 8 is an issue-driven movie dramatizing the then-little-known phenomenon of the "karayuki-san," a practice by which young girls from the countryside were sold into prostitution in foreign lands by desperately poor Japanese families. The government tacitly condoned the practice, as it was a way for Japanese "business interests" to gain a foothold in places marked for future colonization or annexation. Tanaka plays a former karayuki-san who is being courted by a young female "women's studies scholar" who is interested in her story.
Sandakan 8's strengths do not lie in its filmic qualities. The double-flashback narrative frame distances the audience in an unhelpful way, making the dramatization of the karayuki-san's exploitation seem luridly predictable rather than viscerally shocking or moving, and the script's reliance on melodramatic cliché in its narrative arc does little to detract from the grinding, Stations-of-the-Cross-esque pacing.
What makes Sandakan 8 a joy to watch even today, though, are the performances by its female leads: Komaki Kurihara's grace in the thankless role as the young, idealistic scholar; Yoko Takashi's refusal to indulge in the bathos the script urges on her as she plays the karayuki-san as a young girl; and, above all, Kinuyo Tanaka's disarming, funny, and emotionally fluid turn as the former karayuki-san confronting the loneliness and wisdom her past traumas have bequeathed her.
Tanaka makes the unusual and extremely effective decision to play her character as a woman who has been through so much that she has lost any desire to hide her feelings. As the film relentlessly shows us, she is a woman who has lost everything. Tanaka's choice conveys that this has resulted not in bitterness, but in an almost alarming openness to whatever meager joys come her way. It makes her character both childlike and wise, tragic yet joyful as she clings to the companionship the woman scholar provides. Every emotion the character experiences plays across Tanaka's face like dye dropped into clear water.
While the film is not currently available on DVD (the graininess of these screengrabs is due to the fact that the only copy I could find was transferred from a VHS tape), I did find a Youtube clip of the final scene between Tanaka and Kurihara that demonstrates better than any screengrab the quicksilver emotional beats Tanaka hits every second she's onscreen.
Tanaka won Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival that year, and, as I mentioned before, the film was also nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. In a rather odd twist, the film it lost out to that year was Dersu Uzala, the submission from the Soviet Union – a film directed by Akira Kurosawa!
Does anyone recall if this has happened before or since - a film nominated by one country being beaten by a film submitted by another country that was directed by a national of the former, not the latter, country? Can this question get more convoluted?