It’s probably too easy to pin the emergence of Japanese cinema from obscurity to the international stage to a single moment. But if there were such a moment, it would surely be the day in September 1951 when the jury at the twelfth Venice Film Festival awarded the top prize, the Golden Lion, to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). Kurosawa would, of course, go on to direct such landmark works as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961). But Rashomon also launched the international careers of two of its stars, Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo, who passed away earlier this month at the age of ninety-five.
Born in Osaka as Yano Motoko, Kyo was only twelve when she began dancing with an all-female musical theater troupe. By her midtwenties, she was a showgirl in Tokyo, billed, as Jason Sanders notes in a piece for the Berkeley Art Museum, as “the girl with the perfect legs.” She was spotted by a scout for Daiei Film, a major Japanese studio, and it was there that she and producer Masaichi Nagata became romantic and professional partners. In the mid-1950s, Nagata teamed up with an American distributor to send Rashomon and two other films starring Kyo, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, both from 1953, to theaters in the U.S. The films’ successful runs, combined with the armfuls of awards they’d gleaned all along the festival circuit, earned Kyo the nickname “Grand Prix actress.” Kyo, whose face and renowned legs were already all over Japanese fanzines, was now being profiled by magazines ranging from Life to Mademoiselle as well as by the New York Times.
As the NYT’s Richard Sandomir points out, Kurosawa recalled in his 1982 memoir Something Like an Autobiography that he’d been “left speechless” by Kyo’s commitment to her role in Rashomon. “She came in to where I was sleeping in the morning and sat down with the script in hand,” he wrote. “‘Please teach me what to do,’ she requested, and I lay there amazed.” Rashomon, set in feudal Japan, famously tells four radically different versions of the same story of rape and murder from the points of view of a slain samurai (Masayuki Mori), his wife (Kyo), the attacking outlaw (Toshiro Mifune), and a witness, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura). “Through the four conflicting narratives,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian, “we see different aspects of the character of the wife, brilliantly played by Kyo—passionate, emotional, devious, weak, and strong. Noticing the look of revulsion in her husband’s eyes, she incites the bandit to kill him; or, wielding a dagger, she kills him herself. Western audiences were not used to this kind of stylized screen acting but, as Orson Welles once said about great film performances, they were ‘not necessarily realistic but true.’”
In Ugetsu, Kyo plays Lady Wakasa, a ghostly noblewoman who seduces a poor potter. “Employing the type of movement used in Noh drama, she successfully conveyed the chilling atmosphere typical of the ghost genre within the Noh repertoire, combining a horrifying effect with a mysterious eroticism,” writes Kyoko Hirano for Film Reference. As an example of Kyo’s range, Hirano contrasts this performance with her turn as Mickey, a prostitute enthralled by American culture in Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (1956). Hirano notes that “at one moment while simultaneously eating, smoking, chewing gum, and talking, she outrageously summarizes both her character’s tactile eroticism as well as her own considerable comic skills.”
Gate of Hell, one of Japan’s first productions in color, is built on a complex network of tensions and storylines, but it’s essentially the tale of an imperial warrior who falls for Lady Kesa (Kyo) and plans to do away with her husband. “In her suffering purity,” writes Roderick Heath, “Kyo’s Kesa is a practically archetypal distillation of feminine qualities, stoically attempting to hold her life together under the incessant battery of masculine force with the stoic determination of Mizoguchi’s women, but unlike, say, the ethereal remnant of such victimization found in Ugetsu’s Lady Wakasa, Kesa is provocatively corporeal.”
Kyo’s single Hollywood production was Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), in which she plays a young geisha. If her character’s name, Lotus Blossom, weren’t enough of an affront to today’s audiences, the casting of Marlon Brando in yellowface certainly would be. Fortunately, Kyo returned to Japan to work with the likes of Yasujiro Ozu (Floating Weeds, 1959), Kon Ichikawa (Odd Obsession, 1959), and Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another, 1966). “Despite making periodic returns to television,” writes David Parkinson for the BFI, “Kyo largely bowed out of the public eye in the mid-1970s. But, with over eighty features to her credit, she brought a transformative sense of eroticism and emancipation to female performance.”
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