Yoshinaga Sayuri: Last of the Silver Screen’s National Heroines


In her latest movie, Kita no kanaria-tachi (A Chorus of Angels), Yoshinaga Sayuri plays a teacher on a small island off Hokkaidō in the north of Japan. She has embodied the zeitgeist of postwar Japanese society, it is said, ever since her debut in 1959. Still centering her career on cinema, she is called the last of the great movie stars.

Yoshinaga Sayuri was born in March 1945, five months before World War II came to an end. She is a movie star whose career can be said to have followed the footsteps of postwar Japan. Although she will soon reach the age of 68, she still projects a youthful image and has an active career as an actress, performing the lead role in a film every two years or so.

Thus far Yoshinaga has acted in more than 100 movies and has fans of all ages. She has won four Japan Academy Prizes for the best actress in a leading role, more than any other actress, and in 2010 she was designated a Person of Cultural Merit, one of Japan’s highest cultural honors. Both in name and in reality, she is one of the foremost stars in the postwar world of film.

Stars Versus Idols

Yoshinaga Sayuri has long been recognized as a star, but perhaps I should add that in Japan these days, it is not stars but idols who are at the height of popularity. When the Japanese use the English terms star and idol, they make a distinction between the two that depends primarily on the medium in which an individual gains fame. Stated simply, movies create stars and television produces idols.

In the world of cinema the heroes are all courageous and handsome, and the heroines are captivating and beautiful, as symbolized by the celebrities who rose to fame through the star system of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Mystique must be enhanced in order to sustain the charismatic qualities of the star, which entails throwing a veil over his or her private life as far as possible. This is why Hollywood stars become the target of the paparazzi.

By contrast, as the phenomenon of the idol gained cultural expression in Japan in particular, the key criterion is familiarity. Being stunningly handsome or beautiful is not as important as being accessible. The idol needs to be an object within hand’s reach, as in the case, for instance, of the cool guy or cute gal in the class next door. One does not become a TV idol simply by performing in dramas or singing in music programs. Favorable impressions depend more heavily on the exposure of one’s character on talk shows or variety programs.

In this context, Yoshinaga has followed a career track centered on movies. While she has played roles in TV dramas, mostly they have been historical or based on literary works. She has not made many appearances in other kinds of TV programs. Perhaps this is only natural, since television had not been as widespread when she made her debut on the screen. Even so, when Japan’s movie industry went into decline, plenty of other cinema stars sought to become more actively involved in television. Perhaps it may be said that by sticking to her stance of favoring movies, Yoshinaga preserved a certain kind of allure.

Seriousness as the Spirit of the Age

Having been born in Tokyo in 1945, Yoshinaga Sayuri grew up virtually embodying the postwar reconstruction of Japanese society and the development of its cinema. Looking back, we can see that film spread through postwar Japan with explosive speed. It was from the second half of the 1950s through the early 1960s that movies took center stage in entertainment for the masses. In those days movie theaters drew in an audience of about 1 billion almost every year. Given the size of Japan’s population at the time, this means that the average individual went to see movies more than 10 times each year.

In the mid-1960s television replaced cinema as the primary form of entertainment, and the role of movies has been in gradual decline ever since. Annual ticket sales for 2011 were 144 million, a fraction of level attained during cinema’s golden days.

It was in 1959, when movies were at the peak of their popularity, that Yoshinaga made her debut at the young age of 14. That was not actually the start of her career, since she had made an appearance in radio drama at an even younger age, but it was still an early debut. Even more remarkable, she acted in more than 20 films from 1960 to 1961. Though that was the heyday of cinema, she was truly a “hard-working student” with what must have been a grueling schedule.

Her first lead role was in Garasu no naka no shōjo (The Girl in the Glass), which came out in the autumn of 1960. This was the first of the “pure-love films” that she starred in together with Hamada Mitsuo. In many of her early films, she played the role of a serious and earnest student—the kind that becomes class president. Among the movies that shaped this serious side of her public image was the 1963 Aoi sanmyaku (Blue Mountain Range), a teen film based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Ishizaka Yōjirō.

The message conveyed by these films was that even if you are poor, you should adopt a forward-looking stance and work as hard as you can, always believing in a better tomorrow. This was, in a nutshell, the mentality of the Japanese from the postwar reconstruction period through the years of high-tempo growth. Yoshinaga portrayed a single-mindedness that inspired the dreams and aspirations of many young Japanese at the time. For this reason, her character as a star was not laden with sexual innuendoes, unlike female movie stars in the West. Perhaps this is why she still seems to radiate an aura that is truly pure regardless of her age.

Adopting a Stance in the Social Humanist Camp

When asked what her most representative works are, many people mention Ai to shi o mitsumete (The Crest of Man), which came out in 1964, and the 1962 movie Kyūpora no aru machi (Foundry Town), as well as the film version of Ishizaka’s novel.

Foundry Town is based on a story by Hayafune Chiyo. It was adapted to screen by Imamura Shōhei, who was to go on to win the Palme d’Or, the top award in the Cannes Film Festival, on two occasions, and Urayama Kirirō, who made his debut as director in this film. Set in the factory city of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, it depicts a variety of episodes involving the family of one of the factory workers through the lens of “social cinema” and its humanism.

The film tackles serious themes including labor problems, poverty, and ethnic disputes, and it seems rather too dark to make a good fit with Yoshinaga’s “pure and innocent” image. Indeed, at the casting stage, Director Urayama is reported to have had doubts about using her. But she was at the peak of her popularity, and he selected her despite his misgivings, bowing to the requirements of show business.

Taking to heart Urayama’s advice to give serious thought to what it means to be impoverished, Yoshinaga rose to the occasion. Her performance was so good, in fact, that it won the best-actress prize in the Blue Ribbon Awards, one of the most prestigious Japanese cinema awards. The film itself, moreover, snared the Blue Ribbon Award for best film.

It seems doubtful that today’s most popular idols, such as the girls in AKB48, would perform in films or dramas with such ponderous themes. The producers of the groups, and many fans, would no doubt disagree. Back in those days, however, it was taken for granted that young people in particular should be aware of social problems and hold critical views about them. In her actual life as on the screen, Yoshinaga grappled in earnest with serious issues and themes, and this also endeared her to her faithful followers.

In this light, while she has an eternally pure and innocent image from her films, she does not live in the fleeting world of the stars and is quite grounded. People consider it only natural that even today she sometimes speaks out on political issues, an example being her endorsement of the campaign against nuclear power. Precisely because she is of the generation that came of age when postwar Japan was striving toward a better country and society, one can perceive within her a serious democratic spirit that on occasion can become quite stubborn.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 26, 2012.)

*The top photo shows Yoshinaga Sayuri in her latest movie, Kita no kanaria-tachi (A Chorus of Angels), where she plays a teacher on a small island off Hokkaidō.

movie star Yoshinaga Sayuri Inamasu Tatsuo Japan Academy Prizes idols TV Imamura Shohei AKB48