Wakao Ayako: The Career of a Classic Silver Screen StarCinema
Born in 1933, Wakao Ayako made her silver screen debut in 1952. She appeared in more than 250 films, becoming one of Japan’s biggest stars of the twentieth century.
In 1953, she had a breakthrough role as a maiko, or trainee geisha, in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Gion bayashi (A Geisha). She collaborated with the great director again in Akasen chitai (Street of Shame) (1956) as one of the workers in a licensed brothel in Yoshiwara around the time the Japanese Diet brought in new legislation outlawing prostitution. This was one of Mizoguchi’s rare works with a contemporary setting, as well as becoming his last film, and Wakao took on the challenge of an unsympathetic role, as her character lent money at interest to the other women.
She appeared in Ozu Yasujirō’s Ukikusa (Floating Weeds) in 1959, playing an actress in an itinerant theater troupe, and starred in three late films by Kawashima Yūzō in the early 1960s.
Her most frequent collaborator was the cult director Masumura Yasuzō. They made 20 films together over the course of 12 years.
These included Akai tenshi (Red Angel), a brutal 1966 war film in which she played a nurse on the front lines in China during World War II. Two more notable movies were based on works by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō: the 1964 Manji and 1966 Irezumi (Tattoo). In the latter revenge flick, Wakao’s character is kidnapped into prostitution and has a monstrous spider tattooed on her back.
In a retrospective running through April 2, more than 40 of Wakao’s films are showing (in Japanese) at the Kadokawa Cinema Yūrakuchō in Tokyo.
Other big names she worked with include the director Ichikawa Kon, the actress Kyō Machiko, and even the author Mishima Yukio, who appeared alongside her in one of his occasional acting roles.
The retrospective brings new attention to the actress, who lit up the silver screen for decades with performances at turns tender and bewitching.
For details on the Wakao Ayako film festival, click here (information in Japanese only).
Festival Trailer (in Japanese)
(Originally published in Japanese on February 27, 2020. Written by Matsumoto Takuya of Nippon.com. Banner photo: Wakao Ayako in the film Irezumi (Tattoo). © Kadokawa 1966.)