Tuesday, January 04, 2011
As noted in the Los Angeles Times obituary:
Hideko Takamine, a Japanese actress who over the course of nearly 200 films developed from an endearing child star into a powerful representative of the Japanese woman’s search for identity and autonomy in the years after World War II, died on Dec. 28 in Tokyo. She was 86.
Ms. Takamine, who often seemed to be gallantly fighting back tears with her famously gentle smile, was widely regarded by Japanese and foreign critics as one of the three great actresses of the classical Japanese cinema. Her two peers were the aristocratic Kinuyo Tanaka, who worked extensively with the director Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff) and died in 1977, and Setsuko Hara, whose portrayals of modern middle-class women were associated with the films of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story).
Ms. Takamine was most notably the muse of Mikio Naruse, who, although not as well known in the west as Mizoguchi and Ozu, is frequently ranked as equally important in Japanese film history. For Naruse, Ms. Takamine often played women from rural or lower-middle-class backgrounds who were forced to make their own way in the world, often saddled with weak or unfaithful men.
Among her best-known work with Naruse was Floating Clouds (1955), in which she played a secretary in love with her married boss, sticking with him from a wartime post in Indochina to contemporary Tokyo despite his coldness, and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), in which she played a widow working as a bar hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district.
While one of her most well known films mentioned in the New York Times obituary, Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds, plays a little long, even for me, Takamine's performance as a women who works at a civilian outpost of the empire in Indochina, and subsequently returns to an impoverished Japan is still remarkable. Indeed, the film, and the novel of the same title upon which it is based, provide a striking, understated presentation of imperial occupation, defeat and the social turmoil that result from them. Yukiko Koda, the protagonist played by Takamine, is a victim of the fascism that fueled the empire and persists in post-war Japan through the survival of a patriarchal social order despite the catastrophic military defeat:
Hideko Takamine was one of the most beloved and accomplished of Japan's film stars, said Kevin Thomas, a former Times staff writer who reviewed Japanese films from 1962 to 1985. She was beautiful, and she had tremendous range and versatility.
After beginning as sort of Japan's answer to Shirley Temple, Thomas said, she emerged as one of Japan's greatest star actresses in the postwar period, which was a tremendous period for Japanese cinema.
In the wake of the war, Thomas said, there was this renaissance of Japanese filmmaking. They could discuss the war and assess blame, the impact of the occupation, the growing emancipation of women — all this kind of stuff. There was this terrific ferment, and it was a really creative period.
And for many Japanese, Phyllis Birnbaum wrote in her 1990 New Yorker profile of Takamine, she was as much a part of postwar Japan as the strange-tasting powdered milk distributed by the American military.
Many of Takamine's heroines were typical of the women who had grown up after the war, film historian Donald Richie told Birnbaum. Like so many Japanese women then, they wanted more out of life, but couldn't get it.
The war may have been over, women found, but they weren't better off. They were still fairly unhappy. So the kind of roles Takamine played fit the zeitgeist, may have even made that zeitgeist.
Both Yukiko and Tomioka, her love interest, possess that tragic dimension so characteristic of many of Fassbinder's finest creations, a sense of the emotional inadequacies and cruelties of our present lives, while being incapable of perceiving any alternative. Hence, the inevitable nihilism that overwhelms both. Yukiko, as a victim of the Japanese patriarchy, resists it as best she can, while Tomioka perpetually falls back upon an ingrained exploitation of his privileged male status, leaving several victims along the way, seemingly oblivious. I recommend the novel, written by Fumiko Hayashi, highly for her matter of fact, folkloric invocation of day to day life and language, as experienced by a finely developed cast of characters in addition to the protagonist.
Even in it’s vivid depiction of the female protagonist, Naruse’s outlook differs significantly from his illustrious peers. Ozu’s heroines were often the epitome of the ideal Japanese woman, while many of Mizoguchi’s female characters were beautiful, tragic figures oppressed by society, but whose suffering and sacrifice also in some way underlined their spiritual nobility. Naruse’s depiction, in being more realistic and less conciliatory, does not offer any respite. It too displays the keen eye for the sense of tragedy and suffering, but incisively cuts through the weaknesses and flaws of a strong-willed, yet weak-hearted woman, one only too prone to letting herself get betrayed by the men in her life and one too unsure of the direction her life should take to righteously feel grieved about being wronged. Yukiko is torn between her love to Tomioka and a desperate need to have some kind of a stable life, and to see her life slip slowly but surely into a downward spiral is as frustrating as it is heart-wrenching. For her needs, both financial and emotional, she is often at the mercy of her brother-in-law for the former and Tomioko for the latter, when there is possibly no salvation in sight from either. The overbearing sense of futility is told with a cold, almost nihilistic detachment.