Five iconic Japanese actresses of the golden age

Much of the power and potency of the great films of Japan’s postwar golden age comes from their luminous stars. With our celebration of Japanese melodrama playing at BFI Southbank, here’s your introduction to five of the finest actresses of the period.

• Find out more about the Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama season

Jasper Sharp

Kinuyo Tanaka in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952)

Kinuyo Tanaka in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952)

Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77)

What’s special about her?

No list of great Japanese actresses would be complete without Kinuyo Tanaka, who made some 250 credited appearances over a period of over 50 years, beginning with Hotei Nomura’s Woman of the Genroku Era (1924). Tanaka is equally important as the first Japanese woman to direct a significant body of work, making six films from Love Letter (1953) to Love under the Crucifix (1962), although she only appeared, if at all, in minor roles in her own films.

Kinuyo Tanaka in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan No. 8 (1974)

Kinuyo Tanaka in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan No. 8 (1974)

Tanaka is most fondly remembered for her roles for Kenji Mizoguchi, with 15 collaborations between 1940 and 1954. Her appearances in The Life of Oharu (1952), which charts her relentless descent from imperial court attendant into penury and prostitution, as the abandoned wife in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and as the mother whose children are sold into slavery in Sansho Dayu (1954) resulted in three of the most poignant and beautiful films ever produced in Japan.

Tanaka worked with many of Japan’s filmmaking maestros, much earlier appearing in Yasujiro Ozu’s silent comedies I Graduated, But… (1929) and I Flunked, But… (1930). She also starred in Japan’s first talkie: The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine (1931).

She was remarkably convincing at playing a wide range of ages, with her roles as the venerable matriarch in Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama (1958) and as the aged karayuki-san (overseas prostitute) in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan No. 8 (1974) earning her best actress awards from Kinema Junpo magazine.

Essential films

The Dancing Girl of Izu (Heinosuke Gosho, 1933)
The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
The Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Setsuko Hara in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953)

Setsuko Hara in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953)

Setsuko Hara (1920-2015)

What’s special about her?

Setsuko Hara’s unnerving ability to appear both modern and independent, while embodying traditional feminine virtues of demureness, politeness and emotional restraint, made her the most internationally recognisable Japanese actress. As the unwedded daughters or steadfast widows in the immaculate and deceptively simple films of Yasujiro Ozu, she was similarly immaculate and guileless.

Setsuko Hara with Yumeji Tsukioka and Chishu Ryu in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949)

Setsuko Hara with Yumeji Tsukioka and Chishu Ryu in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949)

Ozu must have seen something of himself in her. There were rumours of her romantic involvement with the notoriously chaste director, but Hara never married, and, despite intense press speculation, was never linked romantically to anyone. Her persona, both on-screen and off, earned her the affectionate if rather unflattering label of ‘The Eternal Virgin’. When Ozu died in 1963, the 43-year-old Hara held a press conference to announce her retirement. For the rest of her life, she disappeared from public view.

Hara had made her debut at the tender age of 15, in a film called Don’t Hesitate, Young Folks (1935). There were minor roles at first, then major roles in minor films, and then major roles in critically regarded titles such as Kochiyama Soshun (1936).

Like many of her generation, there was the odd black mark on her copybook, notably her appearance in Daughter of the Samurai (1936), Arnold Fanck’s misguided attempt at discovering common cultural links between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It was only after the war that Hara’s career really began to take off, following a masterful performance in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946).

But it was in Ozu’s so-called Noriko trilogy of Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), in which she effectively played the same character in different domestic scenarios, that Hara’s star truly shone.

Mikio Naruse’s altogether bleaker Repast (1951) provides a glimpse of what Noriko might have become after leaving the family home: a silently suffering spouse to a feckless office drudge who is barely capable of putting food on the table, yet alone showing her any affection.

Essential films

No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)
Repast (Mikio Naruse, 1951)

Yamaguchi Yoshiko with Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950)

Yamaguchi Yoshiko with Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950)

Yamaguchi Yoshiko (1920-2014)

What’s special about her?

The scholar Inuhiko Yomota called Yamaguchi Yoshiko one of the most important Asian women of the 20th century. She was certainly Japan’s most politicised performer. Born in Manchuria to Japanese parents, and fluent in Mandarin, it was in the productions of the Japanese-backed Manchuria Film Association that she made her name – although not her own name one should add, but that of Li Xianglan, or Ri Koran to the Japanese.

Yamaguchi Yoshiko

Yamaguchi Yoshiko

Her live appearance in Tokyo in 1941, singing hit tunes from her movies such as Song of the White Orchid (1939) and China Nights (1940), triggered the country’s only riots of the wartime period, when thousands of spectators couldn’t get into the theatre. After the war, she was sentenced for treason and collaboration by the Chinese government, only escaping execution after it was revealed that she was not a Chinese national.

Following her return to Japan, this turbulent past haunted such roles as the young singer with whom Toshiro Mifune’s celebrated painter is snapped by the paparazzi in Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950). She remained destined to play exotic and potentially dangerous outsiders, whether in local productions such as Hiroshi Inagaki’s Woman of Shanghai (1952) or under the name of Shirley Yamaguchi in Hollywood titles such as Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955).

Her linguistic abilities saw her cast in several co-productions with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers between 1952 and 1958, including Shiro Toyoda’s The Legend of the White Serpent (1956), based on a Chinese legend about a young man who falls for a snake masquerading as a beautiful seductress.

Following the breakup of her marriage to Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (between 1952-57), she married a diplomat and retreated from show business. She later reentered the public sphere presenting a current affairs television programme focused on political issues between 1969-74. She entered the Upper House of the Japanese parliament in 1974, and became a prominent campaigner for women’s rights across Asia. 

Essential films

Sayon’s Bell (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1943)
Scandal (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

Machiko Kyo in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950)

Machiko Kyo in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950)

Machiko Kyo (b. 1924)

What’s special about her?

A common trait shared between Japan’s great actresses of the golden age is their astonishing longevity. Hara and Yamaguchi lived well into their 90s while, at the time of writing, Machiko is still with us.

Born in Osaka as Motoko Yano, she adopted her stage name after joining the Osaka Shochiku Girls Opera as a dancer. She followed her screen debut in Shochiku’s Tengu Daoshi (1944) with a more substantial part in Mizoguchi’s Three Generations of Danjuro (1944). Her turning point in film came when she joined Daiei in 1949, and was groomed by studio president Masaichi Nagata as a glamour girl in the vein of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.

The wily producer had his eyes firmly fixed on the international market, pushing titles to prestigious European festivals, with the Golden Lion award for Rashomon (1950) at Venice leading to a boom in foreign interest in Japanese exoticism. Kyo was at the heart of this Kurosawa classic, as the samurai’s wife whose assault, alongside the murder of her husband, provides the central mystery that the various opposing testimonies attempt to resolve.

Machiko Kyo in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1950)

Machiko Kyo in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1950)

She appeared in the country’s most widely seen prizewinners: as the spectral enchantress in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Palme d’Or winner Gate of Hell (1953). She also had the dubious honour of playing the young geisha Lotus Blossom alongside Marlon Brando, in risible ‘yellowface’, in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).

Significant roles in titles such Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) and Street of Shame (1956), Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession (1959) and as the wife of the disfigured protagonist of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966) highlight Kyo’s presence and versatility.

Essential films

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
Odd Obsession (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

Sachiko Hidari in Susumu Hani’s She and He (1963)

Sachiko Hidari in Susumu Hani’s She and He (1963)

Sachiko Hidari (1930-2001)

What’s special about her?

Though she doesn’t have the status she once had, Sachiko Hidari was for a time celebrated both at home and abroad. She received the Silver Bear award for best actress at Berlin in 1964 for two standout roles: the earthy country girl who rises to the top of Tokyo’s flesh trade in Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963), and the newlywed facing a lonely tenement block existence in the New Wave documentary realist work, She and He (1963). The latter was directed by Susumu Hani, to whom she was married between 1958 and 1977. She also appeared in his Bride of the Andes (1966), as a mail-order bride shipped in to Peru.

Sachiko Hidari in Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963)

Sachiko Hidari in Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963)

She made her film debut in 1952 in Hiromasa Nomura’s Mistakes of Young Days, for Shintoho, appearing in over a dozen films for the studio before briefly being contracted to Nikkatsu, where she made her first appearance in The Black Tide (1954) by actor-director So Yamamura.

She was particularly memorable as one of the brothel-workers in Yuzo Kawashima’s bawdy period comedy The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era (1957). She played the nurse love interest in Yasuzo Masumura’s 1957 version of the classic hospital drama Warm Current, and the prostitute who harbours the Fugitive from the Past in Tomu Uchida’s 1963 epic allegorical crime drama.

A standout role was in Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972), as the war widow still seeking compensation 30 years after her husband went missing in action. She also played in one of the segments of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).

Hidari also is significant as the first Japanese woman to plan, produce, direct and star in her own dramatic feature, The Far Road (1977), a story of a railroad worker’s wife set over the course of 30 years.

Essential films

The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era (1957)
The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (Kinji Fukasaku, 1972)

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