Film

Series Notes

Curator's Note



"Despite living in our own time of war, it is difficult to appreciate the central role cinema and its star system played in forming public opinion and seducing people to sacrifice everything from creature comforts to human life. And considerations of war cinema regrettably focus on male stars locked in mortal combat. This is why I have chosen to look back at WWII through a comparison of two major actresses, examining both their wartime roles and postwar lives.

Of the two actors, Yamaguchi led the more complicated—even spectacular—life. She was born to an expatriate family of settlers in the Japanese colony of Manchuria. Thanks to these unusual circumstances, she was fluent in both Japanese and Chinese. This linguistic talent, along with her formal training in opera, made her a valuable asset to the newly formed Manchurian Motion Picture Association. Although Japanese, Yamaguchi passed for a pert Chinese woman with a stunning voice and an astounding command of the Japanese language. Not long after her 1938 debut, she was one of the first transnational stars of East Asia.

In contrast, Setsuko Hara was a domestic star before her discovery by the international art cinema crowd, and then for only her postwar performances. She debuted in 1936 as a cinematic paragon of youthful womanhood. During the war, this meant playing a pure and innocent daughter supporting the young men deploying to the meat grinder of modern warfare, a persona tweaked into the “eternal virgin” after 1945. These Japanese films treated gender quite differently than the Yamaguchi vehicles over on the mainland.

The differences between these two stars also include their respective relationships to history and the high profile roles they played in it. For her part, Hara never addressed her contributions to the militarization of Japanese cinema and the seduction of young people into the war effort. She retired from film and public view in 1963, leaving the virginal persona of her Ozu films overshadowing her efforts on behalf of Japanese fascism.

Yamaguchi took a more interesting and, frankly speaking, admirable route. She escaped a Chinese death sentence for treason by producing a Japanese passport and fleeing the continent. However, rather than running away from history, she participated in it. After pursuing a career in Hong Kong, Hollywood and on Broadway, she became a thoroughly political person. Her support for the Palestinian cause scored the first television interview with Red Army leader Fusako Shigenobu in Lebanon. She served 18 years in the Diet, where she was one of the first politicians to renounce Japanese imperialism. And she acknowledged and renounced war crimes such as the military’s sexual slavery of Korean women, and publicly apologized for the wartime episode of her complicated life story.”
–Markus Nornes

Markus Nornes is Professor of Asian Cinema at the University of Michigan. His latest book is The Pink Book: the Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts (available for free download at Kinema Club). His previous books include A Research Guide to Japanese Cinema Studies, Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema, Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary Film and Japanese Documentary Film: From the Meiji Era to Hiroshima. He co-edited Japan-American Film Wars, In Praise of Film Studies, and many film festival retrospective catalogs. Professor Nornes was also a coordinator for the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival from 1990 to 2005, where he programmed major retrospectives such as Japan-America Film Wars, In Our Own Eyes—Indigenous People's Film and Video Festival, and Den'ei Nana Henge: Seven Transfigurations in Electric Shadows.

Lecturer's Note

An Actress with a Thousand Names: A Lecture by Inuhiko Yomota

“During her very long lifetime of 92 years, she changed her name many times. She was Yoshiko Yamaguchi, Ri Koran, Li Xianglan, Shirley Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Otaka and her Arabic name was Jamira. It was not just her name either. During her life, she changed her languages, her jobs, her husbands, her boyfriends, her nationalities and her political ideologies. Nobody seemed to know whether she was Chinese, Korean or Japanese.

Ri Koran (1920-2014) was an actress for 18 years and then spent the next 18 years as a politician. As an actress, beginning in Manchuria, she went on to work in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and even Hollywood. With her striking beauty similar to that of Danielle Darrieux and her pitch-perfect, beautiful soprano voice, she kept her audiences busy. She later deeply regretted her appearance as a young girl in melodrama films that had hurt the Chinese people under Japanese occupation. From this self-critical realization, her second life began.

As a politician, she became heavily involved in aiding Palestinian refugees as well as in the problems related to the compensation and apology towards comfort women. She strongly opposed the Prime Minister's visit to Yasukuni shrine and was awarded for her made-for-television documentary about Palestine and the Japanese Red Army. Her life was adapted into an antiwar musical which traveled around East Asia and praised for its antiwar sentiments.

Once, she said to me, ‘my biggest secret was that I am Japanese. Now that this secret is out, I no longer have any secrets. So feel free to ask me anything.’ She had a lightness in her voice. It was a cheer that could only be admitted by a person who had survived the nightmare that was 20th Century.”

-Inuhiko Yomota, Japanese film historian, comparative literature scholar and the author of numerous books including Ri Koran to Hara Setsuko (Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten. 2011).

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