Actress Harue Akagi, who died on Nov. 29 at the age of 94, chose acting as her career when she left school at 16.

But landing an acting role did not come easily. Even though she did fairly well in auditions, she invariably ended up in second place.

After agonizing over her choices, Akagi made up her mind to volunteer for the role of an old woman in a costume drama.

She nailed the role perfectly and without any apparent effort. The director was hugely impressed.

While male actors were being sent to the front during World War II, Akagi even played sword-wielding male roles. But when more and more movies began to take on the rigidity of propaganda films glorifying the war effort, she moved to Manchuria in the hope of pursuing her theatrical career without restraint.

Manchuria happened to be where she was born. Initially, she enjoyed her second life in her native land.

But she was stunned when she heard, in Harbin, the Imperial Rescript of Surrender--the radio-broadcast speech delivered by Emperor Hirohito on Aug. 15, 1945, effectively declaring Japan's defeat in World War II.

To avoid arrest by Soviet troops, Akagi fooled them with theatrical makeup and by acting like an elderly woman.

While visiting a Soviet camp for Japanese prisoners of war, she caught typhus, which almost killed her. She returned to Japan in autumn 1946.

In the postwar years, she pursued acting like a fiend. "I almost died in Manchuria, and my life in these postwar years is a bonus," she told herself, and gave her all to every role that came her way. She did not turn down even roles of a monster and a goblin cat.

An acknowledged late bloomer--and by her own admission as well--she was 48 when her acting chops finally earned due recognition.

It started with her portrayal of the mother-in-law of the heroine of the year-long NHK serial drama "Ai yori Aoku" (Bluer than Blue).

Since then, Akagi kept getting typecast roles, such as the school principal in the TV serial drama "3-nen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei" (Teacher Kinpachi of third-year, class B), and her popularity soared across generations.

She was 88 when she landed her first starring role in "Pekorosu no Haha ni Aini Yuku" (Going to visit Pecoros's mother): Her performance as the mother with senile dementia was simply superb.

Both on TV or the silver screen, and irrespective of whether she appeared only in a minor role, or portrayed a nasty, evil character, it was awe-inspiring how the story suddenly became "totally human" the moment a tight shot of her face filled the screen.

From the twitching of her eyelids to the rhythm of her breathing, Akagi was capable of making any character totally believable.

She was one of the greatest supporting actresses that ever lived.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.