Pacific Film Archive’s summer exhibition celebrates the divas of Japanese cinema

Janus Films/Courtesy

When one thinks of the Golden Age of American cinema, it’s only natural to associate the period with the host of actresses that defined the Hollywood star system. With titles like “To Catch a Thief” and “Rear Window” one might be inclined to give all attention to Grace Kelly’s luminous face before examining Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful filmmaking skills. And for every Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, there was an Ingrid Bergman and Katherine Hepburn, proving that actresses were just as indispensable to the film industry as their male counterparts.

Now, Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive attempts to bring that same kind of attention to the actresses that rose to stardom during Japan’s own cinema through this year’s summer series, entitled “Japanese Divas.” Running through the rest of July and August, the program highlights the best of Japanese cinema and its actresses from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Showcasing a host of 35mm restored classics, including 16 prints on loan from Janus Films, the PFA have created a program that exposes patrons to historically significant films in the proper format. “The best way to view any film is the way the filmmaker intended it to be seen,” said Sarah Finklea of Janus Films. “35mm still gives us the truest, most beautiful image, and every one of these films was made to be seen with a crowd in a darkened theater.”

The series includes a diverse set of early masterpieces by such eminent and experimental filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara, while also providing a concise career retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu. Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (an apparent favorite at the PFA) stands as a landmark in film history for its unique narrative structure, while also responsible for making lead actress Machiko Kyo one of the most famous Japanese actresses in the West.

“The Face of Another” marks another must-see film from the program. Teshigahara’s relatively accessible surreal thriller about a man who attempts to seduce his wife after his face is scarred stands as one of the more eccentric choices. But with its stylistic touches and stark black-and-white imagery prove why the director deserves to be ranked amongst the best Japanese filmmakers.

Ranked as one of the top ten films of all time according to British Film Institute’s 2002 Critics’ list, Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” illustrates the master director’s close working relationship with actress Setsuko Hara. “The emotional impact of watching ‘Tokyo Story’ with a group of other people cannot be matched,” Finklea said.

The collaboration between Ozu and Hara can be further witnessed in the “Noriko Trilogy” — consisting of “Late Spring,” “Early Summer” and “Late Autumn” — in which Ozu’s female characters exhibit a sense of independence and assertiveness. “The combination of ‘Late Spring’ and ‘Late Autumn’ is amazing,” said Finklea. “They bookend Setsuko Hara’s career, and you can’t help but fall in love with her.” The series is set to conclude with “Late Autumn” on August 20th. However the influence of these films can be seen only a few days later as the PFA is set to screen a newly restored print of Kon Ichikawa’s 1983 film, “The Makioka Sisters” on August 26th. providing an appropriate bookend to a series that celebrates the unique collaboration between the director and his actress.