Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Machiko Kyō: Japan’s White Witch

July 23 2019

I call her the woman behind white. When we first see Machiko Kyō, her arms are suspended above her, fingers crossed, holding aloft a veil of gossamer. But it’s not a veil: it’s a hagoromo, and so the robe floats behind her, its translucent sleeves drifting like wings. Don’t let its delicacy fool you. She’s covered for a reason. The fabric falls, her eyes flicker, and men totter. Her gaze carries the force of a fist.

Every Japanese director had his girl, and history would remember Setsuko Hara as Ozu’s, Ayako Wakao as Ichikawa’s, Hideko Takamine as Naruse’s, and Kinuyo Tanaka as Mizoguchi's. Machiko Kyō won men prizes at Cannes and Venice instead. Rashomon, Ugetsu, Gate of Hell. She was Grand Prix Girl, and she belonged to no one. Except, perhaps, to Masaichi Nagata, the president of Daiei, who was her lover, and who’d orchestrated her rise from a dancer in an Osaka revue to the face of Japanese film to the West. Those eyebrows, those legs: a figure anyone will now recognize from even the most casual American foray into Japanese cinema.

Those eyebrows. Those legs. Let’s talk about them, because before Rashomon, Japanese critics called her nikutaiha—a fleshy beauty. Fans flocked to go see her dancer-calves, her cheeks, in roles that took full advantage of how she moved—sweet trouble—and that snap to how she talked, with a Kansai drawl. See her twist and drape herself against a wall in The Skin of Asakusa, after clocking that a producer has a taste for Renoir’s naked girls: “You like ‘em? I look just like them, don’t you think?” See her play a poor girl from Kobe in Naomi, dealing with a man who, entranced by her curves, tries to sculpt her into his learned My Fair Lady. She rips up a book he lends her—the shreds tell him just exactly what she thinks of decorum and male ideas of perfect girls—then skips out, smoking. Her fans didn’t even have to go to the theatre to see her skin: in one magazine, a photograph begins mid-thigh. We see paint streaking her legs, down to the lips of a famous artist smiling as he strokes a paintbrush down her calf, down to her right foot pointed in a perfect tendu. She played modern girls who shrugged off historical memory with a gum-snap, and had no past to long for – only the post-war future.

But there’s a keen calculation to her magazine profiles, an awareness of what Japanese audiences wanted from their actresses. If the girls she played embraced a wanton wildness, then Kyō, in her interviews, sat still. She winced at being called a fleshy beauty. “That moniker stuck, unfortunately,” she would say. She was known as the introvert whom a Daiei assistant director once called the anti-diva, the “one pure heart that works in the movie business,” who was shy, never raised a fuss, loved children, hated to make people wait, and was always there, on time, an hour before shoots. On weekends, she said, she liked to stay quiet and take care of her mother.

Until she shaved off her eyebrows, of course. There are tales upon tales about Akira Kurosawa’s Golden Lion-winning Rashomon—how it got delayed in production, how Kurosawa treated his actors like family—but my favorite is the one that Kyō tells: “I shaved them off, little by little, because I thought I looked too modern with my eyebrows. Until one day, I just said, aaay! and just took it all off.” She replaced her modern eyebrows with two thumbprints of black and blur, and after that, there was no turning back.

When I was a child, I thought that Kyō had the ability to summon mists. I stole my mother’s white silk scarf, stuck on dried seaweed eyebrows, and raised my arms to my ears. So delicate. Then, like Kyō, I writhed. She danced slowly in my dreams, teaching me that donning masks was part of life as a woman. How can I forget watching her for the first time, cantering by like a goddess on horseback, her face hidden beneath sheer, white curtains? Or the way that she balances on her left elbow as the innocent, eyes wide—ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who do you believe? My family, full of women, loved her for her shapeshifting, her spit-flecked madness, how she would shove her face close and show men what they were: hapless fools, the lot of them. She could blister even the great Toshiro Mifune with her rage.

Nagata quickly caught on that it was in Daiei’s great interest to sell movies with kimonos, ghosts, scrolls and kotos to the West, and Kyō always got top billing in his endeavors to win prizes on the international circuit. But I love how she couldn’t quite be flattened into a moon-faced beauty for white men to gawk at. If Setsuko Hara was the post-war angel – a straight-backed model for endurance with her bright eyes and clenched fingers – Kyō was the uncontainable witch. Even in her period films, she’s relentlessly physical; she dances, sidles, presses, and caresses, tuning our focus on the faint music of skin against skin. In Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, she is Wakasa, the doomed princess-ghost who seduces a potter in a little chase around a garden. She doesn’t seem like a ghost there, at least for that moment; she tumbles down and rubs her cheek against his chin with her eyes closed, like a cat. To watch Machiko Kyō is to know your first impression of her won’t be your last. When she finds her potter lover has betrayed her, all of her features droop downwards, and she crouches. She tightens her bent knees, her chalky lips, and her voice harshens. As she groans, transitioning between the unreal – from fantasy woman to ghost – I learn that it’s not so easy, this changing of the mask.

And sometimes, it’s impossible. If there’s a film in which Machiko Kyō ossified into a Japanese prototype of sellable, “Oriental” femininity, it’s in Teinosuke’s Gate of Hell. There’s a hilarious moment, early in the film, when she just lies there on the floor, flat on her back like a forgotten doll, so very stuck, a passive object of love in a lush, kimono-d epic, in Eastmancolor. According to Kyouhei Kitamura, when Jean Cocteau awarded the film the Grand Prix at Cannes, Cocteau proclaimed that it was the pinnacle of beauty, that you can find “Noh here.” Michio Midorikawa, the technical director, reacted: “To think whether we were aiming for getting those exact compliments about the film. Gives me the shivers.”

Perhaps that’s why I love her most in white velvet. In Mizoguchi’s final film, The Street of Shame, Kyō is Mickey, a chain-smoking, ponytail-twisting delinquent cloaked in a white velvet coat. She enters a brothel where she’s planning to work, and sees a stage shaped like a giant plastic seashell. She flings her white coat over a chair, prances onto the shell, presses a palm onto her breast, and says “I’m Venus!” as though it should be obvious. In an ensemble female cast of prostitutes, Kyō is surrounded by women playing “Woman” to survive. As one after another dons delicacy, virtue, and even maternal compassion to try for domestic happiness with a man, Mickey has no such delusions: she wants to be alone and intractably herself. She rolls her eyes and gobbles down rice as her friends dream of marrying out of their straits. Another prostitute buys milk on credit for her sick baby; Mickey kisses the vendor and steals an extra scarf. When her father tries to haul her back to Kobe to preserve their family’s reputation, she stares at him and starts to laugh. She offers to fuck him, as he’d fucked other whores. Hadn’t he driven her mother to her grave? Didn’t she have a right to be careless, too? Why are only women punished for being honest about what they want?

Kyō, in her films, is so often either alone—The Woman—with a handmaiden, or surrounded by men. She was so good at making men look like fools, men with their futile alliances, their wayward friendships. So it moves me, to see that despite the way she lives, Mickey doesn’t begrudge other women, for acting the way they do. She shows the comfort, the potential, in women seeing other women as what they are-- in another woman who understands. When her friends begin to chitter about the one that got out by loaning money with interest—their very own Lady Shylock, they say—Kyō props her bare feet onto a trash can, curls her toes, and gives the woman her due: “Trick or be tricked,” she says, “You have to act like her or you can’t get out of here. She’s smart.”

In the last few minutes of the film, we see the cycle begin anew: a young girl made up in white paint to sell her virginity on the street. As she sits in front of the brothel, crouched and scared, Kyō comes in brandishing a meat skewer. “Eat,” she says, then sighs. She makes sure—twice—that there’s no other way for the young girl to live. She then crouches close: “Let’s hurry up and throw it away. Normal girls give it away to idiots for free, right?” Kyō runs outside, a blur of black velvet and plastic jewels: “I’ll call in for you. Cheer up!” She presses herself on a man who fights her off with a tiny flame on his lighter. She flinches and stamps her foot, then returns, chewing on her skewer. She gives the girl a rough pat on her arm. Then, she runs into the street, turns her calf, and smiles again for a man – but this time, for the sake of another woman.