Isuzu Yamada: Iconic Japanese screen actress who brought a memorable intensity to her roles

The power of Yamada survives in two absolute masterpieces: ‘Osaka Elegy’ and ‘Sisters of the Gion’

The great actress Isuzu Yamada has died at the age of 95. Richly talented and totally dedicated to her craft, her long career in film, stage and television won her the highest awards and recognition.

Yamada was born in Osaka, as Mitsu Yamada, daughter of Kusuo Yamada, an actor. Her mother, Ritsu, was a geisha who provided for her daughter's training in the arts of nagauta singing and traditional dance from the age of six. Ritsu also had good connections with the head of Nikkatsu studio in Kyoto, and, under the name of Isuzu, her daughter started to appear in period films from the age of 13.

Her classic beauty was much in demand. Very few of these late silents and early talkies from Japan survive but, fortunately, we can still see her work in two absolute masterpieces from the Thirties – in her utterly convincing performances for the director Kenji Mizoguchi: Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. Both were contemporary films and had been preceded by Mizoguchi's Downfall of Osen, which had already marked Yamada as a consummate actress. In Gion she was a geisha with a rebelliously modern outlook, in Elegy a modern office worker, or moga; but in both, she is outplayed by men's hypocrisy and power. Elegy was also the first time in Japanese cinema that the Kansai accent, which up till then had been used only in comedy, became an authentic dramatic language. Adaptability in dialect was yet another of Yamada's talents.

Mizoguchi already had a fearsome reputation as an implacable perfectionist, but Yamada clearly devoted herself to the art and technique that Mizoguchi required. Yamada recounts in her autobiography, "In those days the critics labelled him a sadist. Certainly he was extremely ambitious about his work, and as an artist he had a passion for thoroughness. However, I was never afraid of that. I never uttered a complaint... Physically too, the work was extremely strenuous." Some very perceptive books have been written examining the way Mizoguchi portrayed Yamada's gesture and movement in Elegy and Gion, but Mizoguchi wrote of it differently:

"While directing Yamada or Tanaka, I knew there was no point in making minute directions of their roles. All I could do is bend with their styles and find the right rhythm for their movements." Given the stories of endless rehearsal and retake, Mizoguchi's account might seem disingenuous, but as a statement of his dependency upon the skills of a few actresses like Yamada, it is surely honest.

In seeking to explain "the exhilarating strength" of these films, the critic Tadao Sato invokes the love problems of the young Yamada, who, with child, had married the actor Ichiro Takita and was at loggerheads with her father. Mizoguchi was aware of her problem when he made such demands upon her. "She transposed to the screen some of this spirit of resistance and, keenly aware of what was demanded of her, brought an intense passion to her roles."

Yamada, soon after, signed with Toho – never again, in over 200 films, to work with Mizoguchi. In 1938 she gained further critical praise in a Naruse film in which she acts as the accompanist in a gidayu duo, but cuts to marry wealth after constant criticism. Not even Yamada seems to have managed a closeness with Naruse, but, usually quite separate from her romantic attachments, she seems to have had artistic dependencies with a series of directors, often appearing in virtually all of their productions for a while.

From the later 1930s, Japan's films have a much better survival rate, but her wartime films are rarely seen in the West. At this distance, this is a serious oversight, all the more so as Yamada's performances in many of these films are highly praised. In one of the few films of the period to have had a belated showing in the West, Naruse's Song Lantern, Yamada plays a woman who has to learn a dance and singing style – matsuzake – with such panache as to pay the punch-line, which is that her teacher can be none other than a certain disgraced noh actor. This also starred Shotaro Hanayagi, with whom Yamada was romantically linked.

In the post-war period, the link was with Teinosuke Kinugasa, who was already married at the time. In Actress, 1947, Yamada starred in the life-story of the pioneer star of Western-style theatre, Sumako Matsui. Yamada had trod the boards from an early age, and Japanese critics generally considered the film superior to Mizoguchi's account of the same year.

In the 1950s, Yamada mixed her period-film roles with contemporary comedies. A 1955 film, Burden of Love, was a satire about a government minister who advocates birth control even as all the women in his family become pregnant. Another highly praised role in that year was in Heinosuke Gosho's Growing Up, in which Yamada plays an ageing prostitute. Gosho specialist Arthur Nolletti says that the film "achieves a mood of tragedy [due] in no small part to Yamada's fearsome, intense performance". The next year saw her most famous Naruse role, where she leads a strong cast as a geisha with better performance skills than business acumen.

But 1957 also saw the release of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. Yamada, still unknown in the West, played a "Lady Macbeth" that film critic Robin Wood has described as "unforgettable". Her role as Lady Asaji is the focus of the noh elements of this film. Before performance, noh actors contemplate their masks, but Kurosawa had Yamada contemplate a photograph of her own face, made up to be a noh mask. The silk-rustling seemed real, the heel-to-toe walking and the glares were pure theatre. Yamada displayed her versatility in contrasting roles in two other Kurosawa films, The Lower Depths and Yojimbo.

But her regular "tea and rice" work continued in period dramas, both on the large and small screen. The role for women in these was usually limited, but from time to time she would encounter her daughter, another jidaigeki specialist, Michiko Saga, from whom she had been estranged since her first marriage broke up. Saga would only address her mother formally as "Yamada-san". Nine directors cast mother and daughter once, and only once. A tenth, Tatsuo Osone, completely unknown in the West, directed them both six times.

Yamada won innumerable awards. James Kirkup has previously recounted on these pages how Haruko Sugimura declined the Order of Cultural Merit, so it fell to Yamada to be the first actress to receive Japan's highest cultural award from the Emperor.

Isuzu Yamada, actress: born Osaka, Japan 5 February 1917; married four times, to Ichiro Tsukita (one daughter deceased), Kazuo Takimura, Yoshi Kato and Tsutomu Shimomoto; died Tokyo 9 July 2012.

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