Known for her assertiveness and sensuality at a time when the majority of female characters in Japanese films were expected to be demure, Machiko Kyo, who has died aged 95, helped modernise the way in which women were depicted on screen. During the course of a six-decade career she worked with some of the country’s most respected directors and helped them win so many high-profile international awards that she earned the nickname the ‘Grand Prix actress’.
Born Motoko Yano in Osaka on 25 March 1924, Kyo trained as a dancer and changed her name at the suggestion of Daiei producer Masaichi Nagata, who groomed her to become Japanese cinema’s first glamour girl. Ironically, she made her earliest impression in the title role of Naomi (1949), Keigo Kimura’s adaptation of a Junichiro Tanizaki novel about a waitress who resists an engineer’s attempts to model her into his conception of western womanhood. However, Kyo made a global impact as the samurai’s wife who is raped by a bandit in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which redefined the nature of cinematic truth and brought Japanese film to a wider audience after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
While Nagata continued to cast Kyo in domestic crowd-pleasers like Kozaburo Yoshimura’s Clothes of Deception (1951) and Naruse’s Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953), he also entrusted her with prestige projects like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953), which respectively took the Silver Lion at Venice and the Grand Prix at Cannes. He also sought to launch Kyo in Hollywood. Yet, while she earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance opposite Marlon Brando in Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), she received no further offers.
Undaunted, Kyo returned home to display her growing versatility and maturity in such reunions with Mizoguchi as Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) and Street of Shame (1956). She also collaborated with established figures like Kon Ichikawa (The Hole, 1957, and Odd Obsession, 1959), Yasujiro Ozu (Floating Weeds, 1959) and Shiro Toyoda (Sweet Sweat, 1964), as well as such emerging auteurs as Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another, 1966) and Satsuo Yamamoto (The Family, 1974). Despite making periodic returns to television, Kyo largely bowed out of the public eye in the mid-1970s. But, with over 80 features to her credit, she brought a transformative sense of eroticism and emancipation to female performance.
Director Akira Kurosawa
Although it’s easy to smirk at Masaichi Nagata’s Svengali-like masterminding of Machiko Kyo’s career, he did much more than promote her sex appeal. In gifting her roles like Masako, the rape victim in Akira Kurosawa’s epochal study of passion, egotism and self-deception, he enabled her to make an international impact by giving four tantalisingly contrasting performances in playing a single character. The manner in which Masako’s personality shifts in the accounts given by herself, her assailant (Toshiro Mifune), her late samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) and a purportedly impartial woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) enables Kurosawa to exploit the unknowable nature of truth to dispel the theory that the camera never lies.
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
Director Kenji Mizoguchi
It’s fascinating to compare Kyo and Kinuyo Tanaka in Kenji Mizoguchi’s sublime take on two Akinari Ueda stories, as each demonstrates in subtly different ways how they came to embody Japanese womanhood in an age of social, cultural and political change. Tanaka plays the dutiful wife of potter Masayuki Mori, who leaves home to seek fame and is seduced by Kyo’s spectral noblewoman. Wearing a mask of Noh-like makeup, Kyo steals Mori’s heart more by her flattery than her beauty. But, with Kazuo Miyagawa’s camera moving as sveltely as Lady Wakasa around her majestic villa, Kyo conveys a sense of shifting unease that contrasts with Tanaka’s homely stability.
Gate of Hell (1953)
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa
Filmed in Eastmancolor, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s jidaigeki (period drama) was the first Japanese colour feature to be exported and it enhanced Kyo’s reputation as the ‘Grand Prix actress’ when it secured two Oscars (for costume design and honorary foreign-language film) and the Grand Prize at Cannes. Kyo certainly did her bit to make Sanzo Wada’s costumes so eye-catching, as she is mesmerising yet disarmingly delicate as Kesa, the 12th-century courtier whose devotion to samurai husband Wataru (Isao Yamagata) prompts her to protect him by playing on the vanity of Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa), the besotted warrior with whom she had helped the emperor escape his besieged palace.
The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
Director Daniel Mann
It’s strange that a Hollywood movie that strove so hard to appeal to Japanese audiences should commit such a gauche faux pas as casting Marlon Brando in yellowface as Sakini, the Okinawan interpreter detailed to help Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford) persuade the villagers of Tobiki to build a pentagon-shaped school rather than a traditional teahouse. After all, in teaming with Daiei, MGM had consciously cast Kyo as the geisha Lotus Blossom to reinforce the authenticity of their adaptation of John Patrick’s Pulitzer-winning stage version of Vern Sneider’s satirical novel. Yet, rather than conveying subservience, Kyo’s dialogue and body language make her a screwball adversary who champions both modernity and convention.
Floating Weeds (1959)
Director Yasujiro Ozu
Reuniting Kyo with actor Ganjiro Nakamura and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa after they had collaborated on Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession (1959) — another Junichiro Tanizaki adaptation in which Nakamura had played an impotent man who lures wife Kyo into an affair with a young doctor — Yasujiro Ozu’s colour remake of his 1934 silent A Story of Floating Weeds was made during a brief sabbatical from Shochiku and shows again the lengths to which Nagata would go to showcase Kyo’s talent. As in Ichikawa’s film, jealousy is the driving force. But it’s Kyo’s scheming mistress who reacts with cruel fury when she discovers that actor-lover Nakamura has secretly fathered a son.