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Theme Tuesday - The Eternal Breasts

For January, I will be exploring the works of Japanese female directors as part of my 2018 resolution to watch more films by female directors (more than fifty percent of films watched to be precise).


as long as they were burning

I offered my breasts to a man

without knowing

when cancer cells have developed

Despite its somewhat risque title, The Eternal Breasts is actually a stately biopic of respected tanka poet Fumiko Nakajo. She was most famous for fighting breast cancer and writing about it at length in her poetry. Despite a mastectomy and a long, hard struggle fighting the disease, Fumiko succumbed and died at the age of 31.

a hill in the similar shape

of a breast I lost

withered flowers decorate it

in the winter

Kinuyo Tanaka is quite capable as a director. She clearly has picked up techniques from some of the great talents she has worked with. We can see Ozu’s famous shot reverse shots with the characters staring directly at the camera. There are also hints of his tendency to frame figures symmetrically, like in doorways. Mizoguchi’s graceful camera work makes an appearance, gliding along at almost an ethereal pace.

Perhaps what distinguishes this film the most from previous director’s works is the portrayal of women, especially the protagonist (played by Yumeji Tsukioka). She is neither the helpless, weak ingenue that needs rescuing nor the strong female character, but a believable mix of both. Sumie Tanaka, a renowned female screenwriter who had written for director Mikio Naruse (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), clearly had a big hand in this portrayal. In fact, nearly all the major characters are treated sensitively. The young reporter who urges Fumiko to write is seen as genuinely conflicted - that he knows that he is verging on exploitation of Fumiko’s weakened physical and mental state yet cannot suppress his hunger for fame and renown.

you leave

after eating some loquats

you, too, reside

outside of my death

Despite all this, I must admit I was not overly impressed with this film. It dips into melodrama a little too freely, and I would have liked to see the poetry be more front and center and used to give the character some interiority. The extraordinary The House Is Black that I reviewed last week did exactly that, but perhaps it was asking too much for Tanaka’s talents or her clout as a female director in Japan (which couldn’t be that much at this time) to expect this sort of work.

However, I do value this film for introducing me to some truly extraordinary women. The only one I had been familiar with was Kinuyo Tanaka who starred in some of the best Japanese films ever made (Tale of Oharu, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, etc.). Given how excellent she was in those films, I am eager to discover more of her work as a director, because I have read so little of the female artists who contributed to Japanese cinema. Unfortunately, it is frustratingly hard to find her directed films in the U.S. (Eternal Breasts is available on YouTube with English subtitles.) Not to mention the searingly honest yet beautiful poetry of the real-life Fumiko Nakajo, and Sumie Tanaka’s work. Sumie Tanaka is the first and only female Japanese screenwriter I know about, and she wrote for a director I am largely unfamiliar with, so I know I need to discover more of their work. Even in the short time I have been trying to fulfill my resolution to watch works from more female directors, I have learned so much, so this year promises to be only more exciting and adventurous.

Translations of Nakajo’s tanka are from Fay Aoyagi’s blog

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