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Japanese Divas: Great Actresses of Classic Japanese Cinema , a lavish 31-film salute to Japan’s finest actresses and the directors they worked with, hits TIFF Bell Lightbox screens on January 24 and runs until March 31, 2013. Part of Spotlight on Japan, a city-wide festival celebrating classic and contemporary Japanese culture, TIFF Cinematheque is pulling out all the stops with this in-depth, wide-ranging look at the best of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema.

As the programme notes for Japanese Divas: Great Actresses of Classic Japanese Cinema indicate, diva might not be the word that springs to mind when imagining a Japanese lady. The cultural prototype that exists in our minds might more accurately include words like demure, delicate, or even the more culturally tricky submissive. But a tour through the film offers in this retrospective highlights Japanese actresses who not only held their own with Japanese finest directors, but also in some of the most demanding, furious, and emotionally complicated roles the cinema has to offer.

Take for example Machiko Kyo, an unknown plucked from obscurity to be pitted against the unstoppable Toshiro Mifune, in Kurosawa’s Rashomon . Not only did she hold her own, she also followed one wild performance with another as the terrifying supernatural seductress of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu .  But if you think only raging, whirling, and blustering across the screen does a diva make, think again. Consider instead Haruko Sugimura, one of Japan’s leading character actresses. Famous for her somewhat unglamorous but steely scowl, Sugimura steals the show in every role she plays, from the domineering daughter in Ozu’s Tokyo Story , to the busy body aunt in his Late Spring , to an aging geisha in Naruse’s Flowing .

In fact, director Mikio Naruse, famed for both his astute social observation and the raw emotion that simmers just beneath the surface in his characters, seems to have quite the touch with his divas. Not only does he bring out the best in Haruko Sugiumura, other Naruse films in the retro highlight the intense emotional performances he elicited from other actresses. See Setsuko Hara grapple with the desire to abandon her unhappy marriage in Repast or Hideko Takamine struggle to hold onto to her principles and become an independent woman, all the while courting financiers in her profession as a bar hostess in When a Woman Descends the Stairs .

But perhaps you can’t fully understand the diva-ness of these fine actress until you see the great The Makioka Sisters from director Kon Ichikawa. This four diva ensemble cast of Keiko Kishi, Yoshiko Sakuma, Jûzô Itami, and Kayoko Shiraishi shreds any notion that these Japanese actresses are not a force to be reckoned with. The story tracks along with the four daughters of the prosperous and affluent Makioka family as they fight with each other, their henpecked husbands and boyfriends, and a society that annoyingly keeps shifting beneath their silk-sandaled feet. The Makioka Sisters is truly divadom at its finest.

Japanese Divas: Great Actresses of Classic Japanese Cinema is a must attend for Japanese cinema fans and neophytes alike. The list of films is deep enough to impress the knowledgeable and offers a complete introduction for the novice. For more information on the 31 films include in the this retrospective and the specific  screening  dates and times, visit