Photo/IllutrationActress Machiko Kyo in 1960 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Actress Machiko Kyo, who died May 12 at age 95, was still new to the movies when she sighed at her face in the mirror. Her eyebrows were too thick for a period drama. This wouldn't really matter if she was a stage actress, she reckoned, as makeup would solve the problem.

But on the silver screen, a close-up shot would fully reveal the "flaw."

When she was cast in a starring role in "Rashomon," she solved the problem by shaving her eyebrows. Her professionalism impressed even the esteemed director Akira Kurosawa.

Born in Osaka in 1924, Kyo was 3 years old when her parents separated, consigning her to a lonely childhood. She dreamed of joining Osaka Shochiku Kagekidan, a girls' revue troupe, and fulfilled her dream by making her stage debut as a revue dancer.

Her home burned down twice in air raids during World War II.

Kyo won critical acclaim for her portrayal of Naomi, a 15-year-old cafe waitress, in a film adaptation of the novel "Chijin no Ai" ("Naomi" or A fool's love) by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965).

The plot revolves around a middle-aged man's attempts to mold Naomi to his taste, only to end up being be manipulated by her. Kyo fullly brought out the aesthetic eroticism that typifies Tanizaki's works.

She resented being stereotyped as just a "sexy, sensuous actress," and "Rashomon" was exactly what she needed to show off her acting chops. She would weep softly in one scene, scream with laughter in another and then spit in a man's face. Her no-holds-barred acting won critical acclaim at home and abroad.

Praising the depth and dimension of Kyo's acting, Tanizaki noted the following in a column he contributed to The Asahi Shimbun in autumn 1961: "(Kyo) fits perfectly in any period in history, be it now or the Tokugawa, Heian or Tenpyo periods. She can also play to perfection any woman in any classical work, from the 'The Tale of Genji' to 'The Tale of Heike,' 'Taiheiki,' 'Taikoki' and works by Chikamatsu and Saikaku."

Upon learning of her death, I rewatched some of her representative films and was struck by her versatility. She could play any role with total conviction, from a genteel lady to a genius, seductress, evil woman and mad woman.

It was as if she let out all her passion--pent up during the war--and expressed every emotion with abandon.

Kyo was the irreplaceable "heroine" of the silver screen when the Japanese film industry was just starting to make itself known to the rest of the world.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 15

* * *

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.