“It is sad to be a woman,” says the protagonist Ogin (Ineko Arima) in Kinuyo Tanaka’s Love Under the Crucifix (Ogin-sama, Japan, 1962) while watching a woman on her way to the execution site. The woman has refused to be the concubine of Hideyoshi, Japan’s ruler in the late sixteenth century, which is the historical setting of this film. This statement could be applied to Girls of the Night (Onna bakari no yoru, 1961) and also to the four other films Tanaka directed and which are set in post-war Japan – the one exception in terms of the setting being The Wandering Princess (Ruten no ohi, 1960), which spans from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Tanaka, the great actress famous for her collaboration with Kenji Mizoguchi, with whom she worked on fifteen films, and with other masters of Japanese cinema such as Yasujiro Ozu, Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Heinosuke Gosho, is considered the second woman director in Japan after Tazuko Sakane. The plight of being a woman in a male-dominated society is a central theme in Tanaka’s oeuvre. In her directorial debut Love Letter (Koibumi, 1953), based on a screenplay by Keisuke Kinoshita, and also in Girls of the Night, the female protagonists are prostitutes or former prostitutes and are therefore regarded as social outcasts. The heroine of The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, 1955) suffers from breast cancer – a rare topic in film. She undergoes a double mastectomy and also has to cope with an unhappy marriage and forbidden feelings for the husband of her best friend.
Forbidden love and moral or other social taboos are topics that link Tanaka’s last two films, Girls of the Night and Love Under the Crucifix. In the second of these, Ogin is the adopted daughter of the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who was also put in charge of political affairs by Hideyoshi. She is a fictitious character, inspired by a daughter of Rikyu who apparently committed suicide to escape Hideyoshi’s sexual advances.
Adapting Kon Toko’s 1956 novel Ogin-sama for the screen, Tanaka’s emphasis is much more on the female protagonist than Kei Kumai’s later adaptation of the same novel (Ogin-sama, 1978). Although Ogin is still the central figure, Kumai develops a variety of subplots focusing on Rikyu, and he also examines the historical context.
Tanaka’s version gives historical background information, too, but focuses more on the protagonist and what she does. The film starts with vivid shots of a battle, symbolizing a male-dominated world in which Ogin is a pawn in the hands of the powerful. Before her first appearance on screen, she is the object of a discussion between her adoptive father (Ganjiro Nakamura) and Mitsunari Ishida (Koji Nanbara), one of Hideyoshi’s five top administrators and one of the film’s villains. In fact, she is part of a proposed deal as Ishida has a suitor for Ogin – and for her family’s sake, she agrees to marry him. Rikyu can hardly reject a request made by such an influential person as Ishida, but he allows Ogin to make her own decision.
Ogin is passionately in love with the samurai Ukon Takayama (Tatsuya Nakadai). Tanaka explores her protagonist’s inner torment in a world in which personal feelings are subordinated to filial duty and political considerations. In contrast to Ogin, who states her feelings openly, Ukon, a Christian Lord, hides behind his faith. He is a married man and is not prepared to break his marriage vow. The expression of pain on his face reveals that his belief in chastity and his wish that Ogin should become a nun are his way of protecting himself from his own forbidden desire for her.
Tanaka presents the story of a woman capable of strong feelings in beautifully framed shots. However, the harmony created by sequences showing the symmetry of Japanese interiors is destroyed by scenes of violence; the slow, almost stately gestures and movements, for example in the tea ceremony scenes, contrast with close-ups of faces that reveal the main characters’ suffering and emotional struggles.
The carefully arranged shots are highly appropriate for this film’s historical setting, as is the black-and-white photography, just as references to Italian Neorealism are a fitting choice for Girls of the Night. Like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (Yaru no onnatchi, 1948), in which Tanaka starred and which the international title of her film echoes, and also like her own Love Letter, Tanaka’s Girls of the Night deals with prostitution. The protagonists are former prostitutes who live in a reform centre. One of them is Kuniko (Hisako Hara), the central figure. This young woman is the reform centre’s model inmate, and she is given the opportunity to take up employment outside the institution. Her first attempts to reintegrate into society fail because of the hypocrisy of her employers and her co-workers – both male and female – who reject her because of her past. When she finds a different job and is accepted, she falls in love with her colleague Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki).
Not unlike Ogin, who chooses death to save her father from Hideyoshi’s wrath, Kuniko renounces happiness. Hayakawa is determined to marry Kuniko despite her past and in defiance of his mother, who is proud of her samurai ancestry and opposed to her son marrying Kuniko. But when the young man returns from visiting his family, Kuniko has disappeared from their workplace. The final sequence shows her as the member of a female community of pearl divers. Far from the urban world, she is seeking atonement and, as she states, wants “to become a purer vision of myself”, the idea of purification being expressed symbolically by water in the shots of the sea at the end of the film.
Despite this moral conformity and the absence in the film of an examination of the reasons behind prostitution, such as poverty and abuse, Tanaka’s criticism nevertheless targets the exploitation of women by men. Kuniko is a complex character who does not act like a victim but is self-confident and strong-willed. This is also true of Ogin, who saves her virginity for Ukon during the three years of her marriage to a rich merchant that was set up by Ishida. After being beaten by her husband, she looks him in the eye fearlessly and asks for a divorce. She shows the same determination earlier in the film when she challenges Ukon’s belief in chastity, saying: “I don’t desire happiness from heaven.”
Love Under the Crucifix does not show Ogin’s death but suggests that – as befits the daughter of a samurai and the adopted daughter of Rikyu, a man of great integrity – she commits ritual suicide. Dressed in a white kimono, the colour of both death and purity, a dagger in her hand, she moves away from the camera and disappears into the darkness of Rikyu’s mansion. Her death is her ultimate expression of rebellion against the omnipotent ruler Hideyoshi and against a world of cruel men.