Tanaka Masasumi

A shocking piece of news at the beginning of the year was the sudden passing of the film scholar Tanaka Masasumi on 30 December 2011. Tanaka-san was returning home after the benshi Sawato Midori's year-end party and collapsed at the entrance to his apartment. He was only 65 years old. 

Tanaka-san was insistent on not being called an academic, but his scholarship was better than a lot of professional academics I know. He was most famous for his work on Ozu Yasujiro. Over the years, he published not only important analyses of Ozu's work such as Ozu Yasujirō no hō e: Modanizumu eiga shiron, but also accumulated and published over several volumes, Ozu's writings and diaries, such as Ozū Yasujirō zenhatsugen: 1933–1945. But Ozu was not his only passion: he also helped write and edit books on Naruse Mikio, Shimizu Hiroshi, and Mori Masayuki. He contributed essays to many publications (I used his essay on prewar jidaigeki from Jidaigeki eiga to wa nani ka in my period film class this semester--a fine piece that is one of the best surveys of jidaigeki's place in modernity). His breadth of knowledge and scholarship will be greatly missed.

Tanaka-san was born in Kushiro, Hokkaido, in 1946, the son of school teachers. Some (including myself at one time) have misread the kanji 田中眞澄 as "Tanaka Masumi" but it was "Masasumi." He got his bachelor's and master's degrees at Keio University, where he wrote two theses on the novelist Shimao Toshio. It wasn't until the late 1980s that he began publishing extensively on film, but he was already famous throughout Tokyo as the man who seemed to be at every retro screening. The people at the National Film Center apparently nominated him their number one audience member.

Tanaka-san gave lectures at museums and community centers, but it wasn't until 2004 that he began teaching in an adjunct position at Aoyama Gakuin Women's Junior College, which he continued doing until 2011. It was around 2004 that he also served as a visiting curator at the National Film Center and then later at the Setagaya Literature Museum

It was the National Film Center that ended up hosting a memorial service for Tanaka-san on 10 March 2012. The date was ironic for me because it was exactly one year before, on 10 March 2011, that I participated in a roundtable talk with Tanaka-san and some other scholars about the place of academic research in Japanese film culture that was published in the Spring 2011 issue of Eiga geijutsu. Tanaka-san was brought in as the outsider to academic film studies, but we ended up finding more commonalities than perhaps the editors planned.

The memorial service was quite a surprise. Over 200 people crowded the small space on the sixth floor of the NFC, a testimony to how many people respected Tanaka-san's work. There was a small memorial table (photo below) with a photo (iei) of him, one of Ozu, a collection of his books, and some of the things he loved, including his camera. I did not know him as well as many others, so it was touching to listen to the tributes to this film scholar. A film was screened: a short indie work from 1990 called Isn't This a Lovely Day? (Sutekina hi ja nai ka?), in which Tanaka-san briefly appears as a school teacher. A memorial pamphlet and a CD of some of his lectures (including one on the film critic Kishi Matsuo) was distributed to those in attendance (one set of which will end up in the Yale ephemera collection). He never married, so his sister and her family gave an emotional thanks to everyone in attendance.

Tanaka-san did not seek out powerful positions, so there were no big obituaries in the newspapers, but a number of have paid their respects on their blogs, including Abe Kasho (I first learned of Tanaka-san's death from Abe-san via Facebook), Koga Futoshi and Terui Yasuo. There will be some commemorative articles in the Spring 2012 issue of Eiga geijutsu coming out this weekend.

There was a lot of research Tanaka-san still could have produced, so his death was a loss to Japanese film studies. Still, Japanese film studies will be better off if more read his work, so I hope at some time to assist in a translation or two.

Tanaka-san, otsukaresama deshita.


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