As in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.
Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.
Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.
Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.
The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.
Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.
Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.
The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.