Ladies first

Kinuyo Tanaka and other legends command the screen in "Japanese Divas"

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Machiko Kyo (right) delivers an iconic performance as the ethereal Lady Wakasa in Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 Ugetsu.

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FILM The phenomenon of scene-stealing Japanese divas is all too familiar to this wannabe, having grown up in the clutches of unrepentantly demanding, real-life J-power matrons — the kind who will ply you with unsolicited advice, gifts, and edibles while smilingly applying the thumbscrews of sweet guile, pile-driving guilt, and sheer gambatte.

Where to begin when it comes to the overwhelming careers of the five femme forces of nature rhapsodized in "Japanese Divas" at the Pacific Film Archive? Inspired by, though not identical to, this spring's series at the Film Forum in New York City, "Japanese Divas" flips the focus, with an elegantly loaded bow and a smile, away from the Toshiros, Chishus, and the other male stars of Japan's cinematic classics and toward idealized Yasujiro Ozu beauty Setsuko Hara; the crossover face of midcentury Japanese film, Michiko Kyo; Kenji Mizoguchi favorite Kinuyo Tanaka; and Naruse muse Hideko Takamine. And though this incarnation of "Japanese Divas" can often seem like the Setsuko Hara show with its attention to Ozu's works, other formidable females show themselves fully capable of grabbing viewers' attention.

One compelling player is Tanaka, Mizoguchi's once-go-to-gal for her open-faced humanity, unforgettable in the revered The Life of Oharu (1952) and the wrenching Sansho the Bailiff (1954) depicting noble women on their way down to the lower depths. At 24, but looking barely legal with her tremulous baby face and minuscule chin, Tanaka's remarkable at the center of the 1933 Ozu silent Dragnet Girl as the titular shady lady straddling the straight world of good office wenches and fiery dance-hall molls.

In this slice of hard-boiled gangster tropes speckled with eloquent imagery, Tanaka's fearsome, politically savvy Tokiko rules the school, be it boxing circles or the academy of 20th-century hard knocks, and plays all the angles. A prickly intelligence and overpowering will are clearly ping-ponging behind that dolly plate-face, as Tokiko fights for her heavily guylinered boy-toy Jyoji (Joji Oka) against challengers, both femme and fuzz, then undertakes the ultimate surrender. This dragnet girl is the whip-smart, indomitable harbinger of modern Japanese womanhood, come the hell of battle, the humility of occupation, and the struggles of survival while tugged by the tide of change.

In Mizoguchi's biggest crowd-pleaser, and arguable masterpiece, 1953 ghost story Ugetsu, Tanaka crumbles, now the angelic, self-sacrificing wife and mother Miyagi, seemingly lacerated by stark branches in one of the filmmaker's most strikingly composed images. The moment somehow foreshadows Tanaka's professional break with Mizoguchi after he tried to stop Nikkatsu studio from hiring her as a director (her first film, Love Letter, was released the same year as Ugetsu).

Rivalry apparently knows few earthly bounds, and in Ugetsu, Tanaka found her worthy seductive, spectral counterpart in Machiko Kyo's ethereal Lady Wakasa. Kyo — who stars in that other J-cinematic monument Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) as well as Kon Ichikawa's now-tough-to-see Odd Obsession (1959) — strides a quivering line between untouchable delicacy and teasing desire, her half-moon eyes flaring through an immaculate alien-aristocratic visage. Kyo's almost unrecognizable as '60s-cute, jewel-polishing, distrusted wife-in-a-box in The Face of Another (1966), Hiroshi Teshigahara's mad, mod, fantastic-looking postwar treatise on disfiguring trauma and Japan's obsession with the mask and identity.

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