Japan’s first film nude still radiant decades after getting skirty

by Mark Schilling

Arranging an interview with Michiko Maeda took nearly a month — she has long been media-shy — but when she finally agreed to meet film writer Yoshiaki Suzuki and me at a Tokyo beer hall, she epitomized kimonoed grace and charm, while saying this would be her final interview.

Maeda was originally scouted in a Ginza coffee shop by a Shintoho employee and, soon after signing with the studio in 1955 at age 21, was winning lead roles.

“I didn’t know anything about films, anything about acting” she says. “It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do.”

She tried to fit in, but directors were tough on her and the other actresses were cold. “They were jealous,” says Maeda. “They’d taken a test to enter the studio. I hadn’t but was getting roles. If one person gets a role, another misses out.”

Asked to play the lead in Toshio Shimura’s “Onna Shinju-o no Fukushu (Revenge of the Pearl Queen),” she put up no opposition, though she was aware the role would require nudity.

“I went along because Mr. Shimura asked,” she explains.

The starlet and the portly, married, middle-aged director — Shimura was 16 years her senior — were “already together” at this time, she says. They stayed a couple until 1972, when Shimura returned to his family.

After the success of “Pearl Queen,” Maeda made three more films with Shimura, including her last for the studio, “Ama no Senritsu” (“Woman Diver’s Terror,” 1957), in which she played a pearl diver who gets mixed up in a criminal gang’s plan to snatch a trove of diamonds from the ocean floor.

After this film, Maeda was cast in the period drama “Konpira Riseiken” (“Konpira’s Sword of Grace”), but on the second day of shooting she was embroiled in an incident that brought an abrupt end to her film career when she refused to hitch up her kimono for the camera.

“I didn’t say anything. I was supposed to be playing this tomboyish town girl, then suddenly they’re asking me to hike up my skirt,” she says. “Of course I hesitated. I wondered what I should do.”

The media blasted her for her “arrogance,” with Maeda recalling, “I was attacked from all sides.”

She now feels “more puzzlement than regret” over the episode.

“Why did it happen?” she asks, rhetorically. “The truth is lost in the mist. The people involved are dying off one after another.”

On Aug. 15, Maeda appeared at the Laputa cinema in Asagaya for a screening of “Pearl Queen” — the first of a series of screenings of eight of her Shintoho films that will run through Oct. 9. Again, she was radiant in a kimono, if more formal in her answers to Suzuki, who was hosting a postscreening discussion.

She had brought crocheted heating pads as presents for her fans. The packed house laughed at her jokes and a few wept at the story of her dismissal. Afterward, Suzuki and I had lunch with Maeda and a few intimate friends and fans. She seemed happy but said this would be her last public outing. “After today, I disappear,” she said, laughing and making a fluttering gesture, like a bird returning to its nest.

A fan of her singing — she is releasing a minialbum in October — asked if she would perform gunka (military songs) again; she shook her head. “They want the scandalous Maeda and the naked actress Maeda, but they don’t want the gunka Maeda,” she said, smiling.

Perhaps she was wrong about the gunka. But after half a century of paying the price for a youthful act of defiance, she knew what the public and media wanted — and how they could so quickly forget.