Film / Reviews

Kyoko Kagawa retrospective looks back at Japan's golden age of cinema

by Mike Hamilton

Staff Writer

Actress Kyoko Kagawa has starred in some of Japan’s most successful films, over an impressive acting career that has spanned more than 60 years. She was the First Lady during the so-called golden age of the Japanese film industry in the 1950s and ’60s, appearing in such classics as 1953’s “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” and “Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low)” a decade later. Her versatility as an actress and humble beauty brought a breath of fresh air to the film industry that helped her to become a pinup star.

Her allure is now the subject of an exhibition at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, through a collection of stills, portraits, photo albums and memorabilia from her films.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Kagawa found herself in limbo following graduation from high school, initially having her heart set on becoming a ballerina. It was after being nominated for a “new face” beauty competition in a newspaper that she was spotted by a film studio and her fate was decided. Director Koji Shima soon gave her her first major film role in 1950’s “Mado Kara Tobidase” (“Jump Out of the Window”).

In her early roles she often played simple, innocent characters, but directors soon realized her potential and gave her grittier roles. It was her starring role in “Tokyo Story” that made her a household name. The internationally released film was directed by prominent filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and played on one of his favorite themes, that of generational conflict. Kagawa plays the role of a daughter who, like many young Japanese of the 1950s, abandons rural life for the city. When her parents later move to Tokyo, she and her brother have no time to entertain them; but when their mother falls ill, the family pull together and a great tale unfolds.

“Tokyo Story” has been touted by critics as one of Japan’s greatest masterpieces of all time through its timeless portrayal of family struggles, which still manages to resonate with today’s Japanese society.

Ozu was famed for his eccentric and highly technical directing style, which drew him plaudits domestically as well as a posthumous fan-base abroad. Kagawa felt enormously grateful to be given a lead role, which enabled her career to be put on the map.

“I will never lose my great gratitude to and respect for Ozu,” said Kagawa at a recent festival celebrating Ozu’s body of work. “More than 50 years have passed already since ‘Tokyo Monogatari’ was shot, but I remember it as if it was only yesterday.”

Other acclaimed directors and screen writers also choose Kagawa to star in their films, including Kenji Mizoguchi for his 1954 film set in feudal Japan, “Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff).” Kagawa plays the role of a desperate daughter who after growing up in a slave camp tries to find her mother, but ends up sacrificing her life for her younger brother. In addition, she had an acclaimed role in Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low,” a domestic thriller that effortlessly managed to dip its toe into a social commentary on the general malaise that existed in Japan’s postwar society.

In 1965, Kagawa married and followed her husband to New York to raise a family. She spent three years there; upon returning in 1968, the industry had changed somewhat, so she started appearing less in film but more on TV, and later took the ’80s off altogether. But in more recent years she has made a return to screens both big and small.

Most notable was her role in the 1993 film “Madadayo,” directed by Kurosawa, in which Kagawa plays the wife of the eccentric writer Hyakken Uchida, again in Japan’s postwar era.

What with all the great talents with whom she worked, this exhibition of stills and portraits is not only a nostalgic look at Kagawa’s career but also a chance to indulgently look back at the glory days of the Japanese film industry.

The exhibition “Kyoko Kagawa, Film Actress” takes place at the National Film Center, part of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Sept. 13-Dec. 25, with a film retrospective Nov. 8-Dec. 25. For more information, visit