Machiko Kyo, the great actress who passed away a few days ago at the ago of 95, was markedly unlike her contemporaries. Where Setsuko Hara or Hideko Takamine were celebrated for their ability to convey warmth and innocence, Kyo seemed to have an irrepressible fire. This made her equally effective as the ghost in Ugetsu Monogatari, one of her best known roles, or as the most callous of the prostitutes in the influential Street of Shame. Both of those movies were directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the great four filmmakers of Japanese cinema, and Kyo has the rare distinction of having worked with all four--Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, and Kurosawa.
Rashomon, her film with Kurosawa and, along with Ugetsu, widely considered her best, is also the film that impressed the world with the power of Japanese cinema, making Kyo the best known Japanese actress in the world. The character she presented in Rashomon is as complex as the other characters of the film and she transmits to the audience a sense of calculated spitefulness when she tries to take control of the narrative. This is seen both in her own narrative and in the narratives of the other two witnesses of the crime in the movie famous for its discussion of alternative perspectives. In films like this or Ani Imouto Kyo often played women who were forced to manage their intelligence and anger in company with people who did not value these qualities in women.
In Floating Weeds, the Yasujiro Ozu movie I love more every time I watch it, she is in the unenviable role of being the ageing road woman in contrast to her lover's stable mistress who embodies the housewife ideal. The impression of a boiling temper contributes to the sense of Kyo's vulnerability as she realises her hold on the man she loves is as tenuous as their career and lifestyle as travelling kabuki performers.
Machiko Kyo leaves behind a remarkable filmmography that also includes classics like Gate of Hell and the New Wave sci-fi drama The Face of Another. Each movie's impact is at least partly defined by her irreplaceable, inimitable presence.
Twitter Sonnet #1236
Wists of panicked tolls remit the dime.
Acoustic storms submit the paper rain.
Repeated pens could write in double time.
Distilled in spokes the wheels would surely gain.
In tandem, tubers sprout a sort of song.
In mason jars a sea appears to flow.
The shortest plant was still disputed long.
Along the bank a gang the tankers tow.
A noise of shapes became a human sky.
In many parts assembled desks arrive.
To make a space for pencils papers try.
What ink and lead can write and will contrive.
At night the sound of rubber bands is faint.
A linen heaven found a silken saint.