by Andrea Grunert
Tanaka Kinuyo’s The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare) was released one year after Nakajō Fumiko’s premature death in August 1954 at the age of thirty-one (1). Based on Wakatsuki Akira’s eponymous book (2), the film deals with the life of this well-known tanka poet (3) and mainly with the last weeks before her death from cancer. The Eternal Breasts is the third of six films directed by the famous actress Tanaka. Following her screen debut in 1924, she very quickly became one of the great female stars in Japan, working with Gosho Heinosuke, Shimizu Hiroshi, Naruse Mikio, Kinoshita Keisuke, Ozu Yasujirō, Mizoguchi Kenji (4) and many other Japanese directors. In her directorial debut Love Letter (Koibumi, 1953) as well as in Girls of the Night (Onna bakari no yoru, 1961; 5) she addresses the issue of prostitution and the difficulties faced by former prostitutes who tried to reintegrate into mainstream society. Tsuki wa noborinu (1955) portrays the lives of three sisters and their marriage projects. The Wandering Princess (Ruten no ōhi, 1960) is based on the biography of the Japanese noblewoman Saga Hiro, who was married to Pujie, the younger brother of Puyi, China’s last emperor and from 1934 emperor of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (6). The emphasis in this film is on the years after the protagonist’s marriage in 1937, on her life in Manchuria, and on the hardship she had to endure following the defeat of Japan in 1945. Ogin, the main character in Love Under the Crucifix (Ogin-sama, 1962), is the adopted daughter of the famous tea master Sen no Rikyū (7). In the late sixteenth century, she fights for her love for a Christian lord and, after her refusal to become a mistress of Hideyoshi, Japan’s ruler at that time, commits suicide to preserve her honour and save her family from Hideyoshi’s wrath.
A woman’s predicament
The Eternal Breasts deals with a woman’s desire to live her own life and with the way illness can be a social stigma. The film starts with scenes of Fumiko (Tsukioka Yumeji) and her husband, who, without work and addicted to alcohol and drugs, gives vent to his frustration through outbursts of aggression. For Fumiko, writing poetry is an outlet that enables the heroine to describe her sorrows and her longings. When she presents some of her work to a group of amateur poets on the island of Hokkaido where she lives, it does not meet with the approval of her fellow writers, who find the descriptions of her unfulfilled married life exaggerated and disqualify it as “a woman’s truth”. Her friend Hori (Mori Masayuki) is the only one who supports her, and he sends her poems to a publisher in Tokyo. After her divorce, Fumiko is desperate because her former husband is given custody of their young son, one of their two children. She is also tormented by her love for Hori, who is married to her best friend Kinuko (Sugi Yōko), and she is devastated by his sudden death.
Fumiko’s marriage was arranged. However, she is not a submissive wife. She is the one who asks for a divorce – when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful – and she later refuses another marriage proposal arranged by her mother. She insists on her right to make her own decisions: “When I die, I want to be who I am. I do not want God to help me to be a good woman. There is no God.” After her double mastectomy and with metastases in both lungs, she has to spend most of her time in hospital, but she refuses to be pitied. “She has tremendous willpower,” says one of the film’s characters. Moreover, she is depicted as perfectly lucid and only reluctantly accepts her newly-acquired fame (8), suspecting the journalist Ōtsuki (Hayama Ryōji), who has come all the way from Tokyo, of being more interested in her imminent death than in her poems. One early sequence in the film reveals how close happiness and tragedy can be. While the heroine is enjoying a few moments with her son who has come to visit her, she receives the news that a Tokyo-based magazine is interested in her poems. This jubilant sequence is interrupted by several shots of reflections in a mirror that show her hand feeling and examining her naked breasts. These are images which bode ill for the protagonist’s future.
A woman of her time
Despite her determination and courage, Fumiko is a woman of her time, torn between her wish for self-fulfilment and moral bondage. “I’m going to die. Poems don’t help. I lost my breasts. What can I write? I’m just a woman,” she states tearfully. She falls in love with Ōtsuki and, when she finally has to face death, this young journalist is the one whose tender feelings give her moments of happiness. Enjoying this last love in her life, she wonders whether she is a bad person. Internalization of moral standards leads to a self-destructive mood, for example in the sequence in which Fumiko takes a bath at Kinuko’s home. When Kinuko opens the door of the small room containing the bathtub, she almost jumps backwards, unable to hide her horror at the sight of her friend’s mutilated body. While Kinuko tries to compose herself, Fumiko explains why she had asked to use the bath in this room, where she had once seen Hori taking a bath. “I wanted to have a bath where your husband took his. Cancer is my punishment. I loved him.” Her almost hysterical confession reveals her inner torment rather than being an act of revenge on her friend.
The film contains numerous emotionally powerful sequences, some of which could even be called daring – for example the shot of Fumiko’s naked breasts being prepared for the operation. This is followed by images of surgical apparatus and transfusion tubes, the coldness of the technical instruments contrasting sharply with the warmth of human flesh. These shots hint at the transitoriness of life, also expressed in the first lines of one of Fumiko’s poems: “Like a weed floating in water / I am swaying in the ocean of life…”. This poem was written during a brief moment of inner peace when Fumiko, having left the hospital to avoid a first meeting with the journalist from Tokyo, enjoys sitting in the sun near a stream. A melancholic tune accompanies shots of nature which, however, like many others in the film, are not without an element of sadness. Before reaching the spot where she writes her poem, Fumiko walks along a tree-lined path. Framed in a general shot, she is only a tiny figure surrounded by dark trees, and this fragility of human existence is also evoked by the reflection in the mirror in the farewell sequence between Fumiko and Ōtsuki. The young man, about to leave and already at the door, turns once again towards Fumiko, who is holding a mirror that shows a reflection of her lover’s face. The image in the mirror – a kind of doppelganger motif – is a poignant expression of fragility and loss, and in the very next shot, the sign “No visitors” outside Fumiko’s room informs the viewer that she is close to death.
The aesthetics of imprisonment
The film starts with shots of the wide open spaces on Hokkaido but very quickly becomes dominated by fragmentation and visual closures as symbols of the heroine’s situation – imprisoned by her sex and her illness, her feeling of guilt and her body. Her imprisonment is supported by frequent shots of bars, for example in the sequence in which Fumiko watches Ōtsuki leave the hospital from behind the barred window of her room. The profound feeling of hopelessness is perfectly expressed in two sequences in which this same visual motif recurs. One night, Fumiko, as if in a trance, follows a group of nurses who are taking a patient who has died to the morgue. Gripping tightly the bars of the door leading to the morgue, she collapses. Enhanced in its effect by Tsukioka’s marvellous acting, this sequence also emphasizes how strongly Fumiko clings to life. At the end of the film, her two young children follow the nurses taking their dead mother to the morgue until the same barred door blocks their way. The camera frames the two small figures standing behind the black bars of the door with darkness surrounding them.
Frequent use of frames within frames is a further powerful cinematic device creating a feeling of imprisonment, for example in the bath sequence with Fumiko and Kinuko in which Fumiko is filmed through a glass panel in the door of the bathroom. Elaborate use of light and shade, fragmenting bodies, objects and space, contributes to the atmosphere of a menacing closure.
The Eternal Breasts ends with images in which once again despair and hope co-exist. Fumiko’s children and Ōtsuki throw flowers into Lake Tōya, a place that Fumiko would have loved to visit together with Hori but was prevented by her illness. The words “Children, accept my death. The only thing I bequeath to you!” appear on the shot of the lake. Fumiko’s acceptance of her fate is linked to an expression hope, with the images of the children and the water suggesting renewal and the idea that life will go on.
(1) Nakajō Fumiko, whose real name was Noe Fumiko, was born on 25 November 1922 and died on 3 August 1954.
(2) The title of the book and the film could be translated as Let Breasts Be Eternal. The screenplay was written by Tanaka Sumie.
(3) In Japan, Nakajō, a writer of tanka poems (tanka: a genre of classical Japanese poetry), is considered one of the best-known female poets of the twentieth century alongside Yosano Akiko and Tawara Machi. See for further information about her life and work Kawamura Hatsue and Jane Reichhold, Breasts of Snow: Fumiko Nakajō – Her Tanka and Her Life, Tokyo, The Japan Times, 2004.
(4) Tanaka is best known in the West for her collaboration with Mizoguchi in films such as The Love of Sumako the Actress (Joyū Sumako no koi, 1947) and The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952).
(5) The English title is reminiscent of Mizoguchi Kenji’s Women of the Night (Yaru no onnatachi, 1948), a film dealing with prostitution in post-war Japan in which Tanaka is cast in one of the leading roles.
(6) Puyi, who became Emperor of China at the age of two in 1906, was forced to abdicate six years later. In 1932, he was installed as Chief Executive of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo. Two years later, he was crowned Emperor of Manchukuo, a title he held until Japan was defeated in 1945.
(7) The film is an adaptation of Kon Toko’s eponymous novel published in 1956. Very little is known about the private life and family of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), one of the important and highly influential tea masters from the city and seaport Sakai. Ogin is a mainly fictitious figure.
(8) Nakajō’s first book of poems, published when she was already very ill, immediately became a bestseller. However, as the film shows, press coverage of her focused on the fact that she was dying. See Kawamura and Reichhold, op. cit. for further details.