Co-Stars: Mitsu Yamada

IMG_9592She was the daughter of a geisha, and an actor; she herself was trained as a child on the shamisen, an incredibly ornate and beautiful instrument. As an actress, her body was an ornate and beautiful instrument, played in films by Mizogushi and Kurosawa–or would appeared be a better word? Because what she says is less important than how she says it–the shapes she made in cinema. The camera rolls and she grows still, and then stiller. In 1957 she won Western acclaim as Lady Asaji Washizu, in “Throne of Blood,” Kurosawa’s “Macbeth,” set in feudal Japan. Essential to her characterization is ohaguro, or dyeing her teeth black. (This was achieved by dissolving iron filings in vinegar.) Fashionable in Japan–and southeastern China–ohaguro was a coming of age sign in aristocratic circles. In the film, ohaguro makes Yamad’s mouth look like a tunnel, a dangerous receptor that won’t listen to anyone but its own yowl. This she paired with hikimayu–the practice of shaving one’s eyebrows and painting them in. Adopted from the Chinese, hikimayu was another sign of one’s aristocratic ancestry, or position. Underneath her oshiroi–white powder–Yamada’s Lady Washizu’s eyebrows are marks of disdain and boredom; she must wait for Mifune, as her lord and master, to carry out the dark deeds she describes to him. In between her inferred violence she struggles to control her own body; why was she not born a man? If nature had not played her such a dirty trick, she would more fully be herself–a greater more cunning warrior than her husband. Certainly Yamada is a greater actor than Mifune, who plays Washizu. Too often Mifune reminds me of Anna Magnani–a theatre presence too needy for film: he cannot repress, condense, which is essential to the art of film acting, while Yamada not only knows how to condense–not only that, she folds her condensation in half, than quarters it: she makes us look for her character’s self under the kimono, and we see her, but only in flashes. Yamada died last summer, aged 95, no doubt fully realized as a human being since she realized so many human beings in her work, perfectly, nearly soundlessly, before she moved on to the next.


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