by Allan Fish
Not too long ago, I recall Sam sending me a link to an upcoming series at Manhattan’s Film Forum about the great Japanese actresses. Various works would be highlighted accommodating the five women who they saw as the queens of Japanese cinema; Isuzu Yamada, Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, Machiko Kyo and Hideko Takamine. One couldn’t argue with their description of these as greats, each one of them a shoe-in to any serious film lover’s Hall of Fame. And yet I recall thinking “what a wasted opportunity“.
At the end of the day one could hardly blame the Film Forum management for going the obvious route. Had the season been done a decade earlier Takamine wouldn’t have even been there as the films in which she was best showcased, for Naruse, Gosho and Kinoshita, were unavailable or even unknown in the US at the time. And the Forum had to make money, and who would come to watch films they have never heard of. Yet it was a series that should have made me yearn to be Stateside and in the end it wasn’t. The reason was that other Japanese goddesses were too noticeable by their absence.
When pressed about the greatest of Japanese film queens, while Takamine may still be my unhesitating choice for no 1, there are others I would place along side the others – at the very least – in support of her. Take Mariko Okada, whom 99% of film lovers in the US or UK only recall for her appearances in a couple of Naruse and Ozu films, but to remember her for those is like remembering Vivien Leigh for St Martin’s Lane (1938) or Dark Journey (1937). Her string of amazing performances for her husband Yoshishige Yoshida, the greatest unacknolwedged master of world cinema, let alone Japanese, would place her in the pantheon of director/actress collaborations. Then there’s Kyoko Kagawa, the sweet young girl with the angular face shaped like a rugby ball, so haunting in Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu (1954) and Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths (1957) and Naruse’s Mother (1952), Lightning (1952)and Little Peach (1958), to name but a few. Throw in Haruko Sugimura, the quizzical older hen with a face like she was chewing on a wasp, a legend on the Japanese stage, who had a few priceless roles on film, not least in Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and as the aunt in Ozu’s Late Spring (1949). Others might add Choko Iida, without whom the works of Ozu, Shimazu and Gosho in the thirties would have been by far the worse.
Above all these worthy players, however, I nominate Ayako Wakao. Japan had goddesses before Wakao, but while one could certainly observe an undercurrent of sensuality in the playing of Hideko Takamine and Machiko Kyo, Wakao was the first really sexy Japanese screen queen. She’d started out playing Japanese ingenue parts, not too dissimilar to Kyoko Kagawa, but amongst these there were two highlights for Mizoguchi, as one of the ‘working girls’ in his underrated masterpiece Street of Shame (1956) and then as the younger trainee geisha who bites her prospective master and falls into disgrace in Gion Festival Music (1953), in which she has a priceless drunk scene which makes me smile even to recall it. She’d have other important roles in the fifties, a supporting role in the The Loyal 47 Ronin (1958), both as the younger girl who is persuaded to seduce the young son in Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959) and in Ichikawa’s Punishment Room (1956) and Goodbye Hello (1959), both regarded as masterworks in her native Japan and infuriatingly unavailable in English friendly editions despite the stature of its director.
It was in two formative works of another Japanese master criminally shunned in the west that she made her most telling contributuons, however; for Yasuzo Masumura in Blue Sky Maiden (1957) and as the lead in The Most Valuable Wife (1959). Both are highly regarded in Japan. Both are unavailable with English subtitles. It would be a mournful familiar theme that would continue throughout her career. Masumura would take Wakao and use her not so much as a muse but as his empress. And he, more than any other director, saw in her a burning fire of smouldering eroticism that was, as of yet, unseen in Japanese film. She was in Afraid to Die (1960), but it was in the same year’s A False Student (1960) that she made a bigger impact, for those lucky enough to track it down. She was again the object of desire in A Lustful Man (1961) but was better in one of Masumura’s masterpieces, A Wife Confesses (1961), one of the key female performances in Japanese film. The eroticism found by Masumura soon got picked up by other directors. In Kawashima’s The Graceful Brute (1962), Kimura’s Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962) and Yoshimura’s Niigata Bamboo Doll (1963) she enhanced her reputation still further, but once more one is only left with hints of her greatness; neither is available with English subtitles. She followed up with a supporting role in Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963).
She turned thirty and if anything became even sexier, smouldering in a series of films for Masumura; as the vixen in the strange menage à trois of Manji (1964), in The Husband Confessed (1964), as the unjustly outcast heroine of Seisaku’s Wife (1965), incredibly erotic as the vengeful anti-heroine in Irezumi (1966), with that enormous spider tattoo down her back. And finally and best of all as the nurse who witnesses horrors while experiencing love in Masumura’s masterpiece Red Angel (1966). One could finish there, and indeed my viewings of her do just that. Yet once again we return to that question of availability, for she kept on for Masumura in more unseen masterworks; Two Wives (1967), The Wife of Seishu Hanaokai (1967) and A Thousand Cranes (1969). Not to mention Yamamoto’s Freezing Point (1966). But by 1971, aged still only 37, she’d had enough and retired into her marriage to architect Kisho Kurokawa.
Calling her a sex goddess may seem somewhat strange when, in actual fact, while she was seen naked on screen, the principal attractions were kept chastely covered up. Yet this was part of what made her so elusive, along with her eyes, which drew you in like a black widow to a mate. But she, more than any other, began what would become a Japanese tradition, of great performances in what were little more than sexploitation efforts. It’s down to her as much as any other, that the tradition of actual performances in pinku and exploitation films of the late sixties and through the seventies and eighties, and the careers of the likes of Junko Miyashita, Naomi Tani and Meiko Kaji, rests. She spellbound us, and as with Danielle Darrieux, if her full resume of masterpieces became available to the English speaking world, she will be crowned as one of the greats by a west that has too long ignored her. I’d have her behind only Takamine, and that should say it all.