February 5th, 1917 to July 9th, 2012
February 5th, 1917 to July 9th, 2012
"Isuzu Yamada, Actress Who Worked With Kurosawa, Dies at 95"
July 15th, 2012
The New York Times
Isuzu Yamada, a towering star of the Japanese screen and stage best known in the West for her chilling portrayal of the Lady Macbeth role in Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptation “Throne of Blood,” died on July 9 in Tokyo. She was 95.
Her death was widely reported by the Japanese news media, which cited her office as the source.
Ms. Yamada worked with many of the major directors of Japanese cinema’s golden age, including Kenji Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, the two who most palpably shaped her screen persona. She maintained a lifelong commitment to the theater and in her later years was also a staple of Japanese television.
A versatile, classically trained actress, Ms. Yamada played a wide range of characters. But whether portraying a victim or villain, a rebellious girl or a “fallen woman,” as many of her early roles came to be called, she brought to bear a signature poise and toughness.
Mitsu Yamada was born in Osaka on Feb. 5, 1917. Her father was an onnagata theater actor, a male performer who specialized in female roles. She studied traditional dance and music as a child and at 13 joined the Nikkatsu studio, where she mainly appeared in period dramas.
While still a teenager, Ms. Yamada began her association with Mizoguchi, whose films were largely devoted to the plight of women, most often geisha and prostitutes, in a society set up to exploit them. Many of his heroines are paragons of self-sacrifice, but Ms. Yamada was his muse when he started introducing harder-edged and more willful women into his work.
Ms. Yamada had the title roles in Mizoguchi’s 1935 films “Oyuki the Virgin” and “The Downfall of Osen”; in both movies she played downtrodden young women who are forced to prostitute themselves.
In the next year’s “Osaka Elegy,” her character, a switchboard operator, endures a similar downward spiral, becoming her boss’s mistress as she struggles to support her family. But there is an unmistakable defiance in the closing shot, in which Ms. Yamada walks directly toward the camera, holding the audience in a gaze that seems to implicate them. That same year, in “Sisters of the Gion,” she played the more resentful and opportunistic of two geisha sisters, determined to exploit the men who exploit her.
After World War II, Ms. Yamada joined several actors in leading a strike against the Toho studio, her employer during the war. She was blacklisted as a result and appeared on screen only sporadically in the late 1940s, but she remained active on the stage and helped found theater companies in the ’40s and ’50s.
She staged a comeback in the mid-1950s, collaborating with Kurosawa as his international reputation was cresting. She played an avaricious landlady in “The Lower Depths” (1957) and a scheming wife in “Yojimbo” (1961). The sinister Lady Washizu in “Throne of Blood” (1957), a film inspired by the minimalist stylization of the Noh theater, was a widely lauded showcase for her control and technique.
Ms. Yamada also excelled in more subdued and naturalistic registers, in films like Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight” (1957), as a woman who returns to the family she left, and Mikio Naruse’s “Flowing” (1956), as the beleaguered madam of a traditional geisha house, an older and hardly happier version of her characters in the Mizoguchi films of the ’30s.
In the ’60s Ms. Yamada shifted her attention from film to theater and television. Her best-known late role was on the long-running television series “Hissatsu.” In 2000 she became the first actress to receive the Imperial Order of Culture, the country’s highest cultural award.
Ms. Yamada was married six times, most recently to the actor Tsutomu Shimomoto, who died in 2000. She had one child, the actress Michiko Saga, with her first husband, the actor Ichiro Tsukida. Ms. Saga died in 1992.
The scholar Donald Richie, who wrote about Ms. Yamada in his book “Japanese Portraits” (2006), described her as a peerless technician who mastered the art of the kata, the intricate physical language specific to classical Japanese dance and theater. “This art informs everything that Yamada does: the way she turns, the way she lifts her hand, the way she smiles,” Mr. Richie wrote. “A knowledge this encompassing means that Yamada always knows precisely what to do and how to do it.”
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