Japanese Star in the U.S.: “The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka”

17 Sep

The Criterion Collection edition of Kenji Mizoguchi’s THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952) includes as a special feature a 31-minute documentary entitled “The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka” (aka “Kinuyo Returns,” according to the subtitle for the Japanese title, and  “Kinuyo Tanaka’s New Departure,” as it’s called on IMDB). Tanaka plays the title character in THE LIFE OF OHARU and starred in quite a number of films for Mizoguchi (including WOMEN OF THE NIGHT and UGETSU), as well as films by such other great Japanese directors as Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. She’s pictured here in THE LIFE OF OHARU, in which she plays a merchant’s daughter who experiences an extraordinary series of ups and (mostly) downs as she’s buffeted by fate and the wills of men more powerful than her in 18th century Japan:

“The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka” was made in 2009 and compiles film footage taken during Ms. Tanaka’s goodwill tour of the U.S. in 1949. Some of the footage was 35mm black-and-white and some was 16mm color Kodachrome. A few scenes have sound, but most are silent with narration in Japanese recorded 50 years after the fact. Still photos are used a lot as well. Ms. Tanaka’s voice is heard very briefly during an interview (shot in color) on her return to Hawaii just before heading back to Japan and seen late in the film. Most of the film, in fact, covers the Hawaii leg of her trip, during which she visited Japanese-American communities; performed on stage; paid calls on local politicians, including the territorial governor and the (female) territorial senator; and soaked up some local Hawaiian color, including Hawaiian-style fashions and trips to the beach.

The real treat for film buffs, of course, is the visit she pays to Hollywood and her meetings with Hollywood film stars. A newspaper item tells us that Ms. Tanaka is “Japan’s Bette Davis,” so the first star she calls on is none other than…Bette Davis!

There is color footage of Ms. Davis putting on the kimono Ms. Tanaka has given her as a gift.

Davis graciously calls herself “the Kinuyo Tanaka of America.”

Tanaka goes to MGM with producer Joe Pasternak (who’d made Deanna Durbin a star back in the 1930s)…

and meets Louis B. Mayer himself:

As well as these other famous faces:

Joan Crawford showed that she could be as gracious as her archrival, Bette Davis, as revealed in the subtitles for this shot:

This was all astounding to me. I’d never heard of this trip before seeing this film. I went and looked in some of the books I have on Japanese film (including three by Donald Richie and one called “Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan,” by Hiroshi Kitamura) and none of them mentioned Tanaka’s trip. Who arranged the Hollywood portion and got her entrée to the major studios? How was the L.A. press coverage of it? Were there newsreels? I’d love to know all of this but none of it is in the film.

Tanaka went on to visit other parts of the U.S. with significant Japanese-American communities, including New York, but these parts of her trip are disposed of in a matter of minutes.

Most disappointingly, the New York segment consists of only about 20 seconds of fuzzy footage of Tanaka walking down Broadway in Times Square. HOLIDAY AFFAIR, which I wrote about here on December 22, 2012, is visible on the marquee of a theater.

The narrator mentions that she went to see “South Pacific” (still in its original Broadway run at the time) but says nothing about her reaction.

The narrator hints that things did not go well for Tanaka after she returned to Japan. Here is the text of the opening narration:

“Wearing sunglasses and a half coat of silver fox, on January 19th, Kinuyo Tanaka returned from America. She had set out dressed in impressive kimonos, but when she returned, her new look drew everyone’s attention. It was 1949. Envy and jealousy besieged the popular actress who’d gone to America as a goodwill ambassador of the arts. In a Japan still under U.S. occupation, her sunglasses and blown kisses, meant to be an American-style performance, earned her a ferocious drubbing in the media. For a time thereafter, she was so depressed she even considered suicide. The significance of her trip to America was never properly recognized and has only been talked about in scandalous terms ever since.”

And here is the block of closing text:

Nothing else is said about this subject during the whole film. I would like to have known more. I can imagine that when she returned wearing American fashions and adopting American mannerisms, some Japanese would have been outraged. How did women react? What about her directors? Did Mizoguchi stand up for her? What was the reaction of the American occupation authorities? I’m frustrated by the lack of further exploration. Was anything ever published in English about this? As I said before, I find nothing about this in any of the books that should have something about it. A colleague of mine has suggested that such a trip would have had heavy State Department backing. There’s no mention of the State Department in the film.

I’m not sure when the next big trip by a Japanese film star to the U.S. took place. Japanese actresses did show up in Hollywood films not long after this, including Shirley Yamaguchi (JAPANESE WAR BRIDE, HOUSE OF BAMBOO) and Miyoshi Umeki, the co-star of SAYONARA and winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Sessue Hayakawa returned to Hollywood as early as 1949, for TOKYO JOE. He’s even glimpsed in a photo with Ms. Tanaka in this film.

Toshiro Mifune began making Hollywood films in the 1960s (GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC), followed by such performers as Tatsuya Mihashi (NONE BUT THE BRAVE), Ken Takakura (TOO LATE THE HERO, THE YAKUZA, BLACK RAIN), and Sonny Chiba (ACES: IRON EAGLE III), all the way up to Chiaki Kuriyama (KILL BILL, VOL. 1) and Rinko Kikuchi (PACIFIC RIM). Japanese pop stars have come to the U.S. to shoot music videos (Ayumi Hamasaki) and give concerts (Morning Musume, AKB48, Berryz Kobo). But I don’t know if there’s ever been any trip here quite like the one Kinuyo Tanaka made.

What about American stars visiting Japan? Interestingly, only three years after Ms. Tanaka’s trip to the U.S., a famous actress went to Japan to become the first Hollywood star to appear in a Japanese film:

Margaret O’Brien, right, with Hibari Misora in FUTARI NO HITOMI (1952)

I’d love to see a film about Ms. O’Brien’s trip to Japan.

For the record, I did find some discussion of Ms. Tanaka’s trip to the U.S. in a piece by Chris Fujiwara honoring Ms. Tanaka’s centennial that is found on the Museum of the Moving Image’s website:


Also, the Hollywood portion of Tanaka’s trip, including all those great shots seen above, can be found in a clip on YouTube, posted by Criterion:


P.S. Upon further digging, I found a paragraph devoted to Tanaka’s trip in Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake  (1990, Tuttle), by Edward Seidensticker. It adds a detail or two missing from the film’s narration and not much else, but it does offer the perspective of a historian who didn’t write about film:

It was a most advantageous thing in those days for an actor or actress to have a trip to Los Angeles on his or her record. The expression ameshon, a most graphic one, had some currency. It is another acronym, made of “American” and shomben, “urination,” and it refers to a sojourn in America just long enough for a good trip to a urinal. When the actress Tanaka Kinuyo returned from her ameshon in 1949, she too had an open parade up Ginza and on to the Mainichi Shimbun, from a balcony of which she blew kisses to the crowds, not at all a common or accepted thing for a Japanese lady to do. Her first word to the reporters upon disembarking from her plane is said to have been haro (“hello”). She was for a time an object of ridicule, but her career, a brilliant one, did not suffer. She gradually moved from ingénue to gerontic roles.

One can argue that Tanaka’s trip was a bit longer than “enough for a good trip to a urinal,” so I’m not so sure that ameshon would be an accurate term here. However, his assertion that it was “an advantageous thing in those days for an actor or actress to have a trip to Los Angeles on his or her record” begs the question of how many similar trips other Japanese stars made and what record there is of them.

Also, in posting about this film on the DVD Talk website, a member there (“Ororama”) posted a link to a piece on Duriandave’s blog on a similar trip to Hollywood made by a Hong Kong star, Lin Dai, seen in a photo with Kirk Douglas in 1958:


I’m a big fan of Lin Dai (aka Linda Lin Dai) who starred in a number of high-powered costume dramas, musicals, melodramas, and romantic comedies in Hong Kong before she killed herself in 1964, with at least five more movies waiting to be released. I’d love to know more about this trip.

One Response to “Japanese Star in the U.S.: “The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka””


  1. 2017 Citations – Cinema Nippon Citations - December 31, 2017

    […] Camp, Brian. “Japanese Star in the U.S.: “The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka”.” Brian Camp’s Film and Anime Blog, 17 Sept. 2013, briandanacamp.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/japanese-star-in-the-u-s-the-travels-of-kinuyo-tanaka/. […]

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