Yoshiko 'Shirley' Yamaguchi was a Japanese film star who made her name in erotic musical melodramas, then reinvented herself in Hollywood.
Yoshiko "Shirley" Yamaguchi, who has died aged 94, was a Manchurian-born Japanese film star whose facility for reinvention encapsulated all the ambiguities of 20th-century Japan.
Her first public incarnation was as the “Chinese’’ actress Li Xianglan (or Ri Koran, in the Japanese version), whose yielding innocence in a succession of Japanese Chinese-language propaganda films of the late 1930s and early 1940s was designed to celebrate Japan’s “noble” role in China and reconcile the populace to their Japanese oppressors.
The films, mostly erotic musical melodramas featuring a romance between a Chinese damsel and a handsome Japanese man, included Hasegawa Kazuo’s controversial China Nights (1940), in which Yoshiko Yamaguchi plays an orphan taken in by a Japanese naval officer with whom she, inevitably, falls in love.
While her rendition of the song Fragrance of the Night is said (on somewhat scanty evidence) to have changed Japanese attitudes to their Chinese “inferiors’’, the servile behaviour of her character went down badly with those at whom it was directed. After Japan’s surrender, its songs were banned by the Chinese government.
In one memorable scene, Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s character is brutally beaten by her lover, but instead of showing anger she interprets his sadism as an expression of love. “Forgive me!” she cries. “It didn’t hurt at all to be hit by you. I was happy, happy! I’ll be better, just watch. Please don’t give up on me. Forgive me. Forgive me!”
She would later apologise for making the film, and claimed that after watching it again she had suffered sleepless nights for months.
None the less, Yoshika Yamaguchi’s incarnation as a “Chinese” actress was so convincing that she won a huge following in China, where her song Yue Lai Xiang is still performed by Chinese singers today. After the war, still assumed to be Chinese, she was arrested by the Chinese and charged with collaborating with the enemy, a capital offence. Interned in a Shanghai detention camp for nine months, she was released only after a friend produced family records proving her Japanese parentage.
Despite her wartime role, Yoshiko Yamaguchi continued on a steady path to stardom. She moved to Japan where, continuing her career under her own name, she appeared in Seijun Suzuki’s Escape at Dawn and starred as a singer pursued by the tabloids in Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (both 1950).
Then, embracing the post-war Japanese passion for all things American, she married a Japanese-American and moved to Hollywood, where, reinvented as Shirley Yamaguchi (after Shirley Temple), she appeared in King Vidor’s Japanese War Bride (1952) as the Japanese wife of a returning American serviceman, and in Sam Fuller’s 1955 film noir House of Bamboo.
In 1956 she performed in Shangri-La, a short-lived Broadway musical based on a novel by James Hilton. Returning to Japan, she reinvented herself as a talk-show host in the 1960s before launching a political career as a member of the Japanese parliament.
In her Hollywood days, Yoshiko Yamaguchi reportedly often asked, at the mention of a celebrity: “Is he knowable?” It was a question others often asked about her and which, in 2008, inspired the author Ian Buruma to write The China Lover, a novel based on her extraordinary life in which she is presented as a metaphor for Japan’s shifting identity, from militaristic dictatorship to America-obsessed post-war ruin to modern democratic nation seeking reconciliation with its neighbours.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi was born at Fushun, Manchuria, on February 12 1920 to Japanese parents at a time when the Japanese were heavily involved in a programme of infiltration spearheaded by the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway Co. Her father had been educated in Peking and taught Mandarin to Japanese employees of the railway.
In 1931, when Yoshiko was 11, the region was seized by Japan following the Mukden Incident and a pro-Japanese puppet government was installed the following year. When she was 13 she was adopted by a well-to-do Chinese friend of her father’s and renamed Xianglan (“fragrant orchid”). She made her debut as a Chinese singer before starring in films made by the Japanese-run Manchurian Cinema Association.
After her first marriage, to the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, ended in the mid-1950s, Yoshiko Yamaguchi married Hiroshi Otaka, a Japanese diplomat.
In the 1960s she worked as a reporter and television presenter, covering the Vietnam War and obtaining interviews with anti-imperialist icons such as Yasser Arafat, Kim Il-sung, Colonel Gaddafi and Idi Amin.
Later she went into politics and in 1974 was elected to the Japanese parliament as a member of the ruling, Right-of-centre Liberal Democratic Party, serving until 1992. She was a generous contributor to a private “atonement” fund for Asian “comfort women” used as prostitutes by Japanese soldiers during the war.
In her bestselling 1987 autobiography, Half My Life as Ri Koran, Yoshiko Yamaguchi claimed that during her early film career she had had no idea that she was contributing to the Japanese propaganda effort and had been kept in the dark about Japanese atrocities in China such as the “Rape” of Nanking in 1937.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s husband died in 2001.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi, born February 12 1920, died September 7 2014