Jan. 24–Mar. 31 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
TIFF’s retrospective on the glory days of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and ’60s rounds up the usual suspects: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi are among the directorial titans whose work is on display. But the focus of the series is not on the men behind the camera, but rather the women in front of it—the brilliant yet comparatively unheralded actresses whose contributions helped push many of these movies over the top and into the canon.
For example, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) is a moving drama about mortality that’s routinely cited as one of the greatest films of all time. But it’s impossible to think about it without recalling the incredible work of Setsuko Hara, who plays the daughter-in-law of the film’s main characters: an elderly couple who decamp to the Japanese capital to visit their adult children only to be received with indifference. Ozu’s portrait of generational disconnection (screening Feb. 2, 7 p.m.) is heartbreaking in its depiction of familial neglect, but Hara’s supporting turn emanates warmth and decency. Not only does her character, Noriko, supply this enduringly wise and perceptive movie with its most persuasive point of view, she also gives the film its big, broken heart.
There are also some truly ferocious performances in the series, like Isuzu Yamada in Kurosawa’s gory Shakespeare adaptation, Throne of Blood (1957). Her interpretation of Lady MacBeth is one for the ages, transforming a character usually portrayed as a patient schemer into a wild-eyed force of nature (March 23, 7:15 p.m.).
Kurosawa’s reputation as an alpha-masculine director is also belied by the excellence of Machiko Kyo in Rashomon (1950). As the most enigmatic character in a drama that is famously about the very nature of mystery—with one key event recounted from four different perspectives—the actress more than holds her own against the director’s go-to man, Toshiro Mifune (Jan. 26, 5 p.m.).
Kyo figures into arguably the most exquisite film in the entire series, as well: Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), a misty, richly allegorical 16th-century tragedy about a humble potter (Masayuki Mori) who gets waylaid in the wilderness by the spirit of a beautiful aristocrat (Jan. 24, 6:15 p.m.). The central idea of a man abandoning his domestic life for a fling with an ephemeral seductress is richly suggestive, and Kyo makes for one of the most fetching ghosts in movie history: a mesmerizingly elegant apparition whose fate is to wander undead yet is nevertheless fiercely alive behind her eyes.