Pretty Hurts

Nick Pinkerton on Shirley Yamaguchi and Setsuko Hara at the Japan Society

Kunio Watanabe, Song of the White Orchid, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 102 minutes. Kazuo Hasegawa and Shirley Yamaguchi.

IN THE LIFE OF SHIRLEY YAMAGUCHI, who died in the fall of last year at age ninety-four, the entire twentieth-century history of the Pacific Rim is reflected.

An actress, songbird, and legislator who lived and worked in Manchuria, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, Yamaguchi is one of the subjects of a Japan Society film series timed to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara” is somewhat deceptively named—the nine-feature program focuses on female stars, and so none of the movies are dispatches from the front lines, exactly. Most take place far from the battlefield, and four were released after the surrender of the Empire of Japan. In another respect, however, the marks of the war are all over these films: Japanese imperialism, the reverberations of combat on the home front, and the confusion of new possibilities that followed defeat—new possibilities that Yamaguchi would seize upon in the course of a most remarkable career.

Guest-curated by Markus Nornes, professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan, “The Most Beautiful” looks at this period as reflected in the films made by the two actresses, both born in 1920, who came to fame in “national policy” propaganda films reinforcing the official doctrine of the empire and were subsequently reborn along with Japan itself. Setsuko Hara, who’d made her film debut in 1936, would have been all of sixteen years old when she appeared in The New Earth, a German-Japanese coproduction meant to illustrate the virtues of Japanese culture to their new white-supremacist allies. The codirectors, Mansaku Itami (father of director Juno) and visiting German Arnold Fanck, best known for his “mountain films” featuring Leni Riefenstahl, clashed openly, and settled on shooting two different versions of the story, involving a German-educated Japanese returning home, being reconciled to his motherland, and embarking as a settler to Manchuria with his new bride (Hara). (Japan Society will show Itami’s version, not Fanck’s, whose German premiere Hara herself attended in the company of one Mr. Hitler.)

One might think that such associations would’ve sullied Hara forever, but in roles for Naruse, Kurosawa, and particularly Ozu, she became more famous than ever for her radiant, self-sacrificing purity, and retired in 1962 as Japan’s “eternal virgin.” For these high-profile collaborations, Hara is today the better remembered of the two actresses in the West—she was among the “Five Japanese Divas” singled out for recognition in a 2011 Film Forum series of the same name—so I will concentrate instead on the case of Yamaguchi who, per Nornes’s notes for the series, took another path: “Rather than running away from history, she participated in it.”

Mansaku Itami and Arnold Fanck, The New Earth, 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 114 minutes. Ruth Eweler and Setsuko Hara.

Subject of a March 28 lecture at Japan Society titled “An Actress with a Thousand Names,” the woman who we will for the sake of simplicity call “Shirley Yamaguchi” was variously credited as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, Ri Koran, Pan Shuhua, Li Xianglan, and Yoshiko Otake. I first became aware of the diminutive yet resolute actress in the movies she’d made during her marriage to the American-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi: King Vidor’s too-little-seen Japanese War Bride (1952), and Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), which will play Japan Society in a brand new 35-mm print. (The hasty New York Times obit for Yamaguchi, “Actress in Propaganda Films,” identifies these as “Hollywood B-movies” which, point of fact, they are not.)

Yamaguchi was born in northeast China in the years of increasing Japanese influence in the area preceding to the 1931 invasion that created the puppet state of Manchukuo, and was raised in the mainland speaking what I am told is flawless Mandarin. This, along with other obvious assets—she had a lovely, tremulous soprano singing voice and photographed strikingly, with large eyes and a prim bow of a mouth—brought her to the attention of Manchuria Film Production, a Japanese company half owned by the South Manchuria Railway, of which her father, Fumio Yamaguchi, was a sometimes-employee.

Billed as Li Xianglan and playing a native Chinese, Yamaguchi appeared in the so-called Continental Trilogy films opposite Kazuo Hasegawa. These movies explicitly endorsed the philosophy behind Japan’s pan-Asian ambitions, gozoku kyowa, or “harmony of the five peoples” (Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, Mongols, and Japanese), a doctrine raised to the level of utopian cult by Fumio Yamaguchi, among others. Two of these films, Song of the White Orchid (1939) and China Nights (1940), play Japan Society, and follow approximately the same narrative arc: Stubbornly nationalistic Chinese Xianglan/Yamaguchi is at odds with Japanese Hasegawa, but gradually comes to appreciate the benevolence of his intentions, and prostrate herself before him. The Chinese people were not so grateful for the lesson they were being taught by Manchuria Film Production and Yamaguchi—“a Chinese manufactured by Japanese hands,” as she wrote in her 1987 autobiography. She was imprisoned for nine months and sentenced to death by Chinese Nationalists, only saved when proof of her Japanese origins was smuggled into the country inside a doll. The judge presiding over her case called her “a Chinese impostor who used her outstanding beauty to make films that humiliated China and compromised Chinese dignity,” which is something like the ultimate in backhand compliments.

Returned to a foreign homeland, Yamaguchi began the first of the reinventions which would mark her career, traveling between national film industries with an ease unmatched by any Asian actress of her era. Japan Society has Yamaguchi’s best-known Japanese and American efforts, Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950) and House of Bamboo, in both of which she plays a woman scorned—a classical singer smeared by the tabloid press for romantic indiscretions for Kurosawa, a Japanese detested by her own people for shacking up with a gaijin for Fuller.

After her divorce from Noguchi, Yamaguchi briefly revived the Li Xianglan sobriquet to film and record in Hong Kong, then became a television anchorwoman in Japan, in which capacity she secured the first interview with Japanese Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu, in large part due to her outspoken support for the Palestinian cause. Yamaguchi visited Palestinian refugee camps, traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia during the war, and interviewed world-historical figures including Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin, and Kim Il Sung. After ending her career as a broadcaster, she ran for and won a seat in the upper house of the National Diet of Japan in 1974, and remained there for eighteen years. Throughout this time she agitated for Japanese recognition of war crimes, advocating for and winning the payment of reparations to Korean “comfort women” sold into sex slavery, and continued this work after her retirement as vice president of the Asian Women’s Fund. In 2005, she chastened Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, and at least one Chinese media outlet was quoted praising her for transforming “from an abettor in Japan’s aggression on China to a messenger of peace.”

Playing Chinese, Japanese, even an aboriginal Taiwanese in 1943’s Bell of Sayon, Yamaguchi might’ve created the mold for the multiplatform pan-Asian pop star, a torch later carried by Taiwanese Teresa Teng, who covered Yamaguchi’s “Hen Bu Xiang Feng Wei Jia Shi” (If Only We Had Met Before I Married). None of this was quite enough to warrant Yamaguchi’s inclusion in the Oscar death montage, but Japan Society has given a much greater tribute to this remarkable, complicated career.

“The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara” runs March 21–April 4 at the Japan Society in New York.