The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0298  Friday, 13 July 2012


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Friday, July 13, 2012

Subject:     Isuzu Yamada (Kurosawa’s Lady Macbeth)


I learned this morning of the death of Isuzu Yamada, who played the Lady Macbeth character in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a film that is important to me in many ways. What follows is from today’s Washington Post.




Isuzu Yamada, 95, acclaimed Japanese actress

By Adam Bernstein


Isuzu Yamada, who became one of Japan’s most formidable and revered actresses and is perhaps best remembered as the treacherous wife of a warlord in “Throne of Blood,” director Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth,” died July 9 at a hospital in Tokyo. She was 95.


She died of multiple organ failure, the Japan Times reported.


A second-generation actor, Ms. Yamada appeared in more than 120 film and television roles in addition to her extensive theater career. She rose to movie stardom in the mid-1930s playing a series of “fallen women” — sometimes tragically sympathetic, sometimes tragically opportunistic —under the director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose films explored societal hypocrisies toward women.

In Mizoguchi’s “Sisters of the Gion” (1936), Ms. Yamada played one of two sisters who become geishas in Kyoto’s red-light district. Asserting that men use her as a plaything, she schemes to take her customers for every penny they have. She ultimately meets a ruinous end in what remains a man’s world.

Ms. Yamada played a self-sacrificing geisha in Mizoguchi’s “Oyuki the Virgin” (1935), which is based on a story by Guy de Maupassant and which is often considered a basis for John Ford’s landmark western “Stagecoach” just a few years later.


Her tour de force under Mizoguchi was “Osaka Elegy” (1936), in which she plays a telephone operator who sleeps with her boss to support her drunken, debt-ridden father and to pay for her brother’s education. Ultimately, she is scorned by all the men in her life and turns to prostitution. The film was lauded for its powerful ending: Ms. Yamada, all but enveloped in darkness, walks toward the camera — essentially accusing the audience of complicity in her fate.


Peter M. Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, said Ms. Yamada specialized in portrayals of intense and willful women who “flew in the face of all stereotypes of submissive Japanese women. She was always the tough girl in movies. If I had to compare her to an American actress, I’d say she was a combination of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — a very tough, self-aware, aggressive personality.”


Ms. Yamada’s fame coincided with a period of intellectual liberalization, including a flourishing of feminist writing, before the country descended into militarism and world war.


“She was riding that initial crest of independence, with a rethinking of the significance of women in society,” said Grilli, an authority on Japanese cinema, who created the Japan Society of New York’s film center in the 1970s. “Because she’s so assertive and so strong, she usually suffers for it, as Japanese women do suffer for it. She always comes to no good for being powerful.”


Ms. Yamada’s run of determined women continued after the war. In 1947, she starred in “Actress,” a biography of Sumako Matsui, a stage performer who helped introduce Shakespeare and Ibsen to Japanese audiences in the 19th and early 20th century.


As she shifted to character roles, she continued working with Japan’s top directors, including Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kurosawa.


She played a vicious landlady in Kurosawa’s “The Lower Depths” (1957), based on Maxim Gorky’s play, and was a brothel keeper in “Yojimbo” (1961), which was later transformed into Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars.”


“Throne of Blood” (1957), starring Toshiro Mifune as the warlord undone by his wife’s ambition, was performed in the stylized and austere Noh theater form, which forces passion inward and relies on subtle body language to convey emotion. The film elevated seduction, betrayal and madness to high art, notably when Ms. Yamada scrubs maniacally at her bloody hands.


Film critic Pauline Kael lauded the film as a masterpiece and wrote of Ms. Yamada that “there may never be a more chilling Lady Macbeth.”


Mitsu Yamada was born Feb. 5, 1917, in Osaka, Japan. Her father was an actor, and her mother was a geisha. She studied traditional Japanese dance as a child, made her film debut at 13 and became one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.


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