Milestone: Machiko Kyô Turns 90

Today is the 90th birthday of Machiko Kyô, an actress who worked with many great directors of Japanese classics during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. She is one of the last remaining stars of the period besides Setsuko Hara (b. 1920), neither of whom ever married. One could view them as two sides of the same coin, contemporaries who exhibited two very different manifestations of femininity. If Hara lived up to her moniker as “The Eternal Virgin,” then Kyô represented the side of women that explored sexuality, a new kind of star in the Golden Age of Japanese cinema.

As noted by this photo and quote, taken from resources at Berkeley’s PFA Library & Film Study Center, Kyô was unique in her appeal to moviegoers on a more bold aesthetic level. She could play traditional, subservient female roles, but she could also be a sex symbol for the new, modern era. I don’t know how much control she had over her own image, but I hope she considered it liberating to break out of the stereotypical, repressive ideals for and of Japanese women.

Kyô’s most famous film, Rashomon (1950), was an international breakthrough for director Akira Kurosawa. Kyô plays one of only two female characters, the center of a deadly triangle completed by the legendary Toshirô Mifune and Masayuki Mori. Kurosawa’s innovative method of storytelling allows several versions of the same narrative to unfold, showing the possibilities and moral implications of Kyô’s character as the innocent victim of rape or as a willing, sexually available woman who has no problem committing murder.

Kyô shows her range as an actress, displaying each iteration of the character with total believability. Her work stands out in a film that won an Honorary Academy Award as the “most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1951” (the competitive category was later established for the 1957 ceremony) and which was also nominated for art direction/set decoration (in a black-and-white film).

In 1953 Kyô starred in three well-regarded films: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, Mikio Naruse’s Older Brother, Younger Sister and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell. Ugetsu received an Oscar nomination for costume design (in a black-and-white film), while Gate of Hell won both an Oscar for the costume design (in a color film) and an Honorary Award for best foreign film. All three filmmakers ranked among the highest-praised of Japan’s auteurs. Ugetsu (pictured) is a chillingly unforgettable ghost story, in which the spectral Kyô seduces a married man (Masayuki Mori of Rashomon fame), undoing his entire life.

Kyô had another important collaboration with Kenji Mizoguchi in 1956 when they made the provocative drama Street of Shame. (In between the two films, Kyô also starred in Mizoguchi’s colorful historical drama Princess Yang Kwei-fei in 1955.) Street of Shame was the noted director’s swan song, released only five months before his death from leukemia. The main characters are all prostitutes who struggle to maintain their complicated personal lives while also dealing with the social and legal ramifications of their chosen careers. It is surprising when we meet “Mickey,” a nearly unrecognizable Machiko Kyô as a Westernized girl with a ponytail, American-style makeup, jewelry, a low-cut top and formfitting plaid pants. She dances along to Western-style music and she speaks frankly of her body as “well-proportioned.” The character is cold to her colleagues, shrugging at others’ misfortunes with little more than a blank stare and a snap of her chewing gum. Further demonstrating Mickey’s sense of sexual liberation, she is seen in a short, lacy black slip and, quite daringly, even displays her naked backside (though I suppose that could have been a body double). Mickey is no shrinking violet.

Later in the film we finally see the mask come off when Mickey’s father visits. Mizoguchi waited until this scene to show close-ups of Kyô, who finally resembles the actress we’re used to seeing. Up to this point in the film, the narrative is watchable but not always gripping; here, Kyô demands the audience’s full attention. As we learn the reasons for Mickey’s descent into juvenile delinquency and prostitution, we see an emotionality to the character that we had no idea was hiding beneath the surface.

By the end of the film, Mickey has once again donned her usual attire. Because of the revealing earlier scene with her father, however, we understand her motivations and we feel compassion for her. She is trying her best to survive in a difficult world.

Later that year, Kyô appeared in her only American production, the comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon. For her performance as a geisha named – what else? – Lotus Blossom, she received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical, a prestigious achievement for a Japanese actress. As per usual in Hollywood, though, a Caucasian actor (Marlon Brando) was cast in the role of an Asian man.

Another of Kyô’s acclaimed films is Odd Obsession (1959), directed by Kon Ichikawa. The drama won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Again Kyô shows her ability to manipulate her physical appearance.

Taking a major stylistic turn from the previously mentioned directors, Kyô made her first and only film with Yasujirô Ozu, Floating Weeds (1959). Although I have not yet had the pleasure of watching it, it looks like another beautiful example of how Ozu viewed interpersonal relationships in Japanese society.

Even in the mid-sixties, Kyô continued to take risks in film. Hiroshi Teshigahara, known as one of Japan’s more avant-garde filmmakers, directed her in The Face of Another (1966). Kyô has a substantial supporting role as the wife of Tatsuya Nakadai’s facially disfigured protagonist. Unlike in Street of Shame, when Nakadai pulls the covers off of Kyô in one scene, there is no doubt that that is her unclothed body. I presume that her toplessness would have been shocking at the time, although Teshigahara certainly was not shy about female nudity, which was prevalent in his earlier film Woman in the Dunes (1964).

Machiko Kyô retired from the movie world thirty years ago, but her place in film history is secure. I have read that she continues to take part in theatrical productions, which I hope is a rewarding continuation of her experience with acting.

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