Pearl-diving sirens return

Sexes battle again in revival of racy castaway movies

by Mark Schilling

The castaway on a deserted tropical isle has inspired everything from “Robinson Crusoe” to innumerable New Yorker cartoons — but it was no joke to Kazuko Higa, the young wife of an assistant plantation overseer living on the small Pacific island of Anatahan in the closing days of World War II.

About 30 Japanese soldiers landed on Anatahan after their ship, sailing from Saipan to escape the advancing Americans, was bombed and sunk. When Japan surrendered, they refused to accept defeat and scraped out a bare existence on the island.

After Higa’s husband died amid mysterious circumstances, the men contended for her favors, at times violently (six allegedly died in this struggle, though Higa herself claimed the number was only two). She moved from suitor to suitor, until she escaped on an American boat in June 1950. A year later, 19 survivors finally left Anatahan.

Higa’s story, widely reported in the Japanese media, inspired a genre of movies, some following the actual events less rigidly than others. The latest filmmaker to take up the Anatahan theme is veteran indie director Makoto Shinozaki, in his new film, “Tokyo-jima (Tokyo Island).” Shining star Tae Kimura plays a middle-aged woman on a cruise who, after a storm, finds herself shipwrecked on a tropical island with her husband. When they are joined by several dozen other young male castaways, her husband suddenly goes missing — and she begins to queen it over the men, making lovers and enemies in the process.

Back in 1953, the first to adapt the story for the big screen was Joseph von Sternberg, the Svengali of 1930s star Marlene Dietrich, with “Anatahan” — one of the strangest films ever made by a major Hollywood director. Sternberg narrated the entire film, using Japanese actors speaking unsubtitled dialogue in his tale of sex and survival. Boosted by local publicity surrounding its production, “Anatahan” did well in Japan, but it bombed in the United States, effectively ending Sternberg’s directing career. The film has since acquired a cult following, though Hollywood has shown little interest in a remake.

That has not been the case in Japan, however. In 1956, Mitsugu Okura, president of the struggling Shintoho studio, gave the green light to a film partly based on the Anatahan story, if by no means a direct retread.

Directed by studio hit-maker Toshio Shimura and starring new discovery Michiko Maeda, “Onna Shinju-o no Fukushu (Revenge of the Pearl Queen)” blatantly capitalized on Maeda’s voluptuous charms — and became a big, studio-reviving hit. One reason was a shot of Maeda from behind, gloriously unclothed on a rocky prominence, making her instantly notorious as the first Japanese actress to get naked on screen. For a short period afterward, she starred in film after film, and seemed set to become Japan’s glamour-queen answer to Bridget Bardot and Marilyn Monroe.

Her character in “Pearl Queen,” Natsuki, is not a fiery-eyed temptress, but rather a pure, innocent office worker whose burly boss (Susumu Fujita) has plotted a murder to further his corporate ambitions — and plans to frame Natsuki’s boyfriend (Ken Utsui) for it.

When she accompanies him on a business trip to America and he threatens to implicate her in the killing unless she submits to his embraces, she stoutly resists — and ends up overboard. We next see her prostrate, skimpily clad form on an island beach, where she soon attracts the attention of five Japanese castaways. Three want to rape her, but two decide to defend her. The latter faction prevails and, when Natsuki discovers pearl oysters while diving in the sea, she and her companions celebrate their good fortune.

After her rescue, Maeda’s character, now using the alias Helen Minami and referred to as the Pearl Queen, plots to put her former boss and his henchman behind bars.

Though hardly erotic by today’s standards — Maeda’s character defends her modesty and virtue throughout — “Revenge of the Pearl Queen” launched not only Maeda as a star but also a subgenre of films about female pearl divers.

Their attraction — curvy women in wet bathing suits — lured millions of mostly male fans, though they were not enough to keep Shintoho solvent. Undermined by the rising popularity of television, and by its always shaky finances, the studio closed its doors in 1961.

Maeda’s reign at the top was even shorter lived. The year after the release of “Pearl Queen,” she was set to star as a working-class girl in Edo (feudal-era Tokyo) in Goro Kadono’s 1957 period actioner “Konpira Riseiken” (“Konpira’s Sword of Grace”). She was asked to hike her kimono for an up-skirt shot, but did not comply, reasoning that the shot was not in the script. She was suspended for six months and fined ¥1 million — a huge sum at the time — and, after Okura had her blacklisted from the industry, her big-screen acting career in Japan was over.

After making two films in Taiwan, Maeda made a new start as a cabaret singer of gunka (military songs) but drifted into obscurity, only to emerge decades later running a small bar in Akasaka, Tokyo. One of her customers, director Teruo Ishii, cast her as the judge of Hades in his 1999 film “Jigoku (Japanese Hell),” Maeda’s first screen appearance in 42 years. Now a youthful-looking 75, she lives in retirement in Nagano Prefecture.

The new film, “Tokyo-jima” — a black comedy that examines the war between the sexes (guerrilla war in Kimura’s case) in its most basic, politically incorrect form — is quite different from both of its predecessors. At the same time, it testifies to the enduring appeal in Japan, at least, of the Anatahan tale, with its mix of male lust and female power.

Mark Schilling reviews “Tokyo-jima” on the Re:Film page next week. The film opens Aug. 28.