Based on the life story of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajo (1922–1954), Kinuyo Tanaka’s Chibusa yo eien nare (The Eternal Breasts, 1955) is a remarkably feminist film in many respects. The film’s director, Kinuyo Tanaka, was a major Japanese star from the late 1920s onwards, breaking through to leading lady status in Yasujirō Ozu’s Daigaku wa detakeredo (I Graduated, but…, 1929), and appeared in Japan’s first sound film, Heinosuke Gosho’s Madamu to nyōbō (The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, 1931). By the late 1930s, Tanaka was so popular that her name was often used as part of the film title, in such films as Gosho’s Joi Kinuyo sensei (Doctor Kinuyo, 1937) and Hiromasa Nomura’s Kinuyo no hatsukoi (Kinuyo’s First Love, 1940).

By the 1940s, Tanaka began appearing in more challenging films, such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Naniwa Onna (A Woman of Osaka, 1940). Tanaka soon realised that she wanted more than anything else to direct, but it was nearly impossible for a woman to direct at this time in Japan. Tatsuko Sakane (1904-1975), Japan’s first female director, cut her hair and dressed as a male in order to fit into the male-dominated film industry. Sakane was able to complete only one feature film for which she is credited, Hatsu Sugata (New Clothing, 1936). Unable to secure financing for features, Sakane directed a series of documentaries made in Manchuria. She later worked as a script clerk, and as an editor on several of Mizoguchi’s films, but he did little to help her advance as a film director.

Tanaka, meanwhile, appeared as an actor in many of Mizoguchi’s most accomplished films – including Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu, 1952), Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953) and Sanshō dayū (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954) – but, much to her shock, when she applied to the Directors Guild of Japan to direct a film of her own, Mizoguchi actively campaigned against her nomination, blocking her on the grounds that a woman had no place as a film director. Like Sakane, however, Tanaka was highly driven and fiercely determined, and, despite industry sexism, in 1953 she directed the feature film Koibumi (Love Letter), a popular romance that screened at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. This was followed by Tsuki wa noborinu (The Moon Has Risen, 1955), and then Tanaka’s most famous and controversial film, The Eternal Breasts.

 In the film, Fumiko Shimojō (Yumeji Tsukioka), a thinly disguised version of Nakajo, is unhappily married, with two young children, to a lazy, adulterous husband, who neglects her and does nothing to help her career as an aspiring poet. Just as she is beginning to develop as a writer and has joined a poet’s circle, she is diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoes a double mastectomy. After the operation, which is shown in remarkably clinical detail, Fumiko pursues her work in poetry with a vengeance, sheds her hair and the ways of a dutiful wife, and writes poetry that is critical of patriarchal society. She is transformed by the experience of the operation, especially in her new-found sexuality and self-confidence as a poet.

Fumiko’s poems are published in the Toyko Daily News and attract favourable attention, as well as the admiration of a young reporter, Akira Ōtsuki (Ryōji Hayama). Fumiko and Akira soon strike up a relationship, based at first on sheer exploitation – her plight with cancer makes for sensational newspaper copy – but gradually Akira becomes romantically and sexually involved with Fumiko, and he becomes an advocate for her poetry. Fumiko’s illness progresses rapidly, and even as her work as a poet blossoms, her body begins to lose the fight against the disease. Instead of quietly passing away, she takes charge of her life and her legacy as a poet, leaving her children (and the viewer) a final poem to remember her after her death.

The visual style of The Eternal Breasts is decidedly feminist and auteurist. While there are touches of Ozu’s rigorous formal style – especially towards the beginning of the film, when Fumiko is trapped in a disastrous traditional marriage – as Fumiko becomes more assertive and independent, so does the camerawork of the film. Tanaka’s fluid camera takes on the subjective point of view of the poet, as she becomes more and more daring and nonconforming in her manner of living. Facing death, she no longer attempts to be likeable or submissive. Her behaviour often shocks others, particularly when she sexually conquers the newspaper reporter, finding romance for the first time in her life.

The Eternal Breasts is breathtaking in its honest portrayal of the female body – not only during the mastectomy sequence, but also later in the film when Fumiko defiantly displays her scarred chest to a female friend, Kinuko (Yōko Sugi). Though the camera angle blocks our view, we can see from Kinuko’s expression that she is profoundly shaken by what she sees. Clearly, Tanaka was ahead of her time.

During her career, Tanaka acted in over 180 films – the last being Yasuzō Masumura’s Daichi no komoriuta (Lullaby of The Earth, 1976) – and directed a total of six feature films, completing her last film as director, Ogin-sama (Love Under the Crucifix), in 1962. Tanaka served as a goodwill ambassador shortly after World War II, and famously met with Bette Davis, who told Tanaka that she referred to herself as “the Kinuyo Tanaka of America”. In newsreels of the era, Davis accepts a gift of a kimono from Tanaka, a gesture designed to ameliorate the ill will between the United States and Japan after the war.

In Japan, Tanaka was criticised by some for seemingly “selling out” to Hollywood, but she continued to work almost until her death. Tanaka is the subject of a posthumous film biography, Kon Ichikawa’s Eiga joyū (Actress, 1987), a frank depiction of her work with Mizoguchi and Gosho and her marginalisation as a female director within the hierarchy of 20th century Japanese cinema.

Ultimately, The Eternal Breasts stands out as a surprisingly feminist film made in a culture dominated by men, both within and outside of the Japanese film industry. Like Ida Lupino, another actor-turned-director who tackled controversial subjects in her independent films of the postwar era, Tanaka proved herself as an independent director with a strong feminist voice. Tanaka’s six films as a director stand as a testament to her determination to tell stories that reflect female experiences and desires from an authentic female point of view.

Chibusa yo eien nare (The Eternal Breasts, 1955 Japan 106 minutes)

Prod Co: Nikkatsu Prod: Hideo Koi Dir: Kinuyo Tanaka Scr: Sumie Tanaka Phot: Kumenobu Fujioka Prod Des: Kimihiko Nakamura Mus: Takanobu Saitō

Cast: Yumeji Tsukioka, Ryōji Hayama, Junkichi Orimoto, Hiroko Kawasaki, Shirō Ōsaka, Tōru Abe, Masayuki Mori, Yōko Sugi

About The Author

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is co-editor of the new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press, and the author of many books, articles, and experimental videos.