A Profile of Japanese Filmmaker Tazuko Sakane
By Claire Graman
I love Japanese film, from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai dramas to Satoshi Kon’s mind-bending anime. One of the earliest Japanese films, A Page of Madness (1926), a silent film with no intertitles, blew my mind when I saw it in college. Even cult classics like House (1977) and Sweet Home (1989) hold up over time.
But, like most other canons, Japanese cinema has a problem. Where are the women?
Thus began my research journey. Today I’ll be talking about pioneer Tazuko Sakane, the first female Japanese filmmaker. This information is from the truly excellent website, Women Film Pioneers Project, run by Columbia University, and from the book, Women Screenwriters.
Birth, Education, Marriage and Divorce
In 1904 in Kyoto, Japan, Sakane was born into an upper-class family with business ties to the film industry. Rare even for her privileged class, Sakane entered university to study English Literature, though her family eventually pressured her to drop out and marry at the age of twenty. Four years later, Sakane divorced her husband and sought a career in film.
1936 and First Film, New Year’s Finery
Her male co-workers bullied her, but she worked in many roles, until she eventually became the assistant director and editor to famed filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. When she applied to direct her own film, however, rumors flew that she and Mizoguchi were having an affair and her application was rejected.
It wasn’t until she moved to a new studio in 1936 that she was given a chance to direct her first film, New Year’s Finery, about a doomed romance between a monk- and geisha-in-training. Sakane hadn’t been given a choice of scripts and reviewers lambasted the film. Even the studio’s own promotional material criticized Sakane’s personal life and divorce.
First Documentary in 1941: Fellow Citizens in North
Still, Sakane continued as an assistant director and editor for Mizoguchi’s award-winning films, until she left to make documentaries in 1940. Her film, Fellow Citizens in North (1941), drew government censorship for being too sympathetic its subjects, the indigenous Ainu people of Northern Japan. Though Sakane would later deny any political affiliation, she would spend the remainder of the war making propaganda films in Manchuria.
Though this imperialist work is reprehensible, Sakane’s propaganda films allowed for the most feminist expression, depicting men and women farming and working together as equals. This goes to show the complex work of feminist historiography.
Manchuria, Then Back to Japan
After the area’s liberation, Sakane remained in Manchuria. Here, she trained Chinese filmmakers and eventually helped them make their own propaganda films. She returned to Japan in 1946. At this time, studios required directors to have college degrees, cutting off any renewed chance for Sakane to direct her own films. Instead, she continued working as an assistant to Mizoguchi until her studio-forced retirement in 1962 at the age of fifty-seven. She worked as a freelance scriptwriter until her death in 1975.
Films Celebrating Women
Sakane had a masculine persona with short cut hair and trousers. She admired lesbian directors Dorothy Arzner and Leontine Sagan, yet whether she herself identified as queer is unknown. What is known is that her first, and only, feature film, New Year’s Finery, is lost to time. Any copies were destroyed, like many other films, during World War II. Yet her impact on film history can be felt in Mizoguchi’s films which are known for being very sympathetic towards women and their struggles in patriarchal society.
In a 1939 interview, Sakane had this to say about women in film: “[I]f something is depicted by men only, it is controlled by men only […] I hope that as many female scriptwriters, camerawoman, etc. as possible come into the Japanese film world, because I would like to take them on as staff to make a film celebrating women, such as only a woman could make.”