Friday, February 5, 2010

Japanese cinema's first sex symbol (and nude scene) Michiko Maeda

by Chris MaGee

We like to look back every once and a while here at the Pow-Wow to revisit those landmark moments in Japanese cinema - the first sound film, the first female director, etc. In light of the fact that actress Haruka Ayase just won a Blue Ribbon Award for her role in "Oppai Volleyball" for her performance as a high school teacher who promises she'll show her volleyball term her breasts if they shape up and win a game, we thought we'd go way back to one of Japanese film's first sex symbols, Michiko Maeda, who unlike Ayase in "Oppai Volleyball" actually showed skin onscreen, in fact Maeda was the very first actress in Japanese cinema history to do so.

Born Yoshiko Maeda in Osaka in 1934 Maeda worked as a salesgirl in a kimono shop in Nihonbashi as well as doing some pick-up work as a fashion model. It was through these modeling jobs that she was discovered by top Shintoho Studios executive Mitsugu Okura. Although Shintoho started out making high profile films by Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi by the time Okura discovered Maeda in 1955 the studio was churning out campy science fiction with Teruo Ishii's "Super Giants" series and a new brand of film designed to titilate as much as entertain.

At first the then 21-year-old Maeda was brought in for bit roles, but one of these small roles took advantage of her natural beauty. She was cast to star in Hiromasa Nomura's 1955 film "Santōshain to Onna Hisho", her role - that of a burlesque dancer. Maeda quickly jiggled into both Shintoho studio execs and public's imagination. Despite a much more chaste role as a fishmonger's daughter who takes up bicycle racing in Kiyoshi Kimori's 1956 film "Onna Keirin Oh (Keirin Queen)" it was Maeda's beauty and ample bosom that audiences wanted to see more of. To capitalized on the buzz surrounding Maeda's buxom screen persona Shintoho cast her in the role of Natsu, an ama, or pearl diver in Toshio Shimura's "Revenge of the Pearl Queen" a suspense thriller opposite the young Tetsuro Tamba. Due to their nude diving of the coast of Okinawa ama were one of the touchstones of Japan's nascent pinku eiga genre, but Maeda's Natsu didn't let it all hang out for the camera. All that would be seen would be a head to toe look at Maeda in the nude, shot from behind as she stood looking out at the ocean, as well as a shot of Maeda cupping her bare breasts with her hands. Not much by today standards, but this was the first nude scene ever filmed in Japan.

Maeda would follow up her sensational role in "Pearl Queen" with other appearances in films with titles like "Rope you into Stardom", "King of the Wharf" and "The Male Chauvinist and his Wife" that wouldn't focus on any acting ability, but her figure. By 1957 and Goro Katano's "Konpira Riseiken" Maeda had had enough. When she was asked by Katano to lift up her slip in a scene she flatly refused. Okura and Shintoho were furious, kicked Maeda off the picture, fined her ¥ 100 million in damages to the studio and was fired. Maeda made a formal complaint to the Japanese bureau of civil liberties and would eventually be granted a grudging public apology from Shintoho as well as ¥30 million in severance, but it was too little too late. At the age of 23 and with 18 films behind her Maeda had been blacklisted. Her career as a movie actress was over.

Thankfully once "Pearl Diver" premiered in Taiwan in 1961 (the same year that Shintoho Studios would go bankcrupt) Maeda's curves and talent led her to a successful career as a lounge singer at clubs and cabarets around Taiwan and Japan. She also would make the occasional TV appearance on the Tokyo 12 Channel all-girl police series "Playgirl Q". It wasn't until 1999, after a 42-year screen exile, that Maeda was convinced to return to the motion pictures by one of her old Shintoho colleagues, Teruo ishii. She would play Anma, the Queen of Hell, in Ishii's low budget shocker "Jigoku (Japanese Hell)". The film was full of over-the-top gore and of course nudity, but at the age of 64 Maeda left the film's frequent nude scenes to the young actresses in the film. To this date it was her last screen role.

You can check out the opening of "Revenge of the Pearl Queen" below courtesy of YouTube, but don't get too excited. Maeda's historic nude scene isn't included.