Kyoko Kagawa is among the fast dwindling number of living witnesses to Japanese cinema’s Golden Age of the 1950s and ’60s.

In a career that started in 1949 with the Shintoho studio, Kagawa worked with the giants of the era, including Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse. And she appeared in films that have since become regarded worldwide as classics, such as 1953’s “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story),” 1954’s “Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff)” and 1963’s “Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low).”

To her natural vitality, intelligence and charm she added a sterling work ethic that served her well in the ensuing decades.

On Sept. 6, the 79-year-old actress appeared in Tokyo at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to announce that she would receive an award from The International Federation of Film Archives for her film-preservation efforts, and also to promote a nine-film retrospective of her work at the Tokyo International Film Festival and an even bigger retrospective at the National Film Center (45 films that began screening Nov 8 and will continue until Dec. 25), together with an exhibition of photos, posters and other film-related materials from her private collection.

Looking elegant in a white suit, Kagawa was impeccably gracious in speech and manner. Instead of a remnant of a vanished era, she came across as a still-vital exemplar of that age’s best aspects.

Later given a chance to interview Kagawa one-on-one, this reporter realized that she had no doubt answered, ad infinitum, almost any question I could ask — from the obvious to the rude. But during our appointed 30 minutes together, on a day full of media interviews, Kagawa was, to my relief, unfailingly patient.

I had first seen her in the flesh on the set of the 1993 film “Madadayo,” Kurosawa’s final work, in which she played the long-suffering wife of Hyakken Uchida, the film’s eccentric writer/educator hero. I remembered thinking then how Kurosawa seemed to have mellowed from his famously tyrannical days as Toho’s top director in the 1950s, when Kagawa worked with him on the Maxim Gorky play adaptation “Donzoko (The Lower Depths)” in 1957. Did Kagawa, I wondered (hoping she hadn’t heard the question today at least), share that view?

“He filmed takes (on ‘Madadayo’) more quickly,” she answered without missing a beat. “When we were making ‘Donzoko,’ I wondered many times if we would shoot even one take that day — and finally realized it wasn’t going to happen. On ‘Madadayo,’ we’d always rehearse the previous day and then the next morning we’d always shoot a take, with one cut per scene. His tempo had really become faster.”

She also recalled Kurosawa as being “tough” on veteran character actor Tatsuo Matsumura, who played Uchida, but also saying OK to his first take, which was rare for a director to do — and going to his dressing room afterward to compliment him. “He didn’t do that for me, though,” she added. “Mieko Harada told me that when she had a good take on ‘Ran’ (1985), Kurosawa would come over to her applauding. But he never did that sort of thing for me, from a long time back,” she said with a big, lilting laugh — and no discernible resentment.

“But it’s true that he enjoyed shooting ‘Madadayo,’ ” she quickly added. “He would joke, saying, ‘I want to get to the set early, but if I go too early everyone is going to hate me.’ “

Having broken the ice (and discovered that Kagawa had a sense of humor), I took the actress back to her beginnings at Shintoho, which at the time was the smallest of Japan’s six major studios. When she started appearing in films there in the early 1950s, however, it was home to Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse and other greats of the day.

“It was lucky for me that I was able to make my debut there,” she said. “If you were in a big studio then it was hard to make your screen debut even if you had passed what they called the ‘new face’ (new talent) audition. But because (Shintoho) was a small studio, I could make my debut quickly. Also, my seniors — Hideko Takamine, Ken Uehara and Hisako Yamane — were all really nice people. They were kind to me and it was fun working with them.”

Not always so nice were the aforementioned major directors, whom Kagawa described as “big, imposing presences” whose “word was law.” Naruse, with whom she first worked on the 1952 family drama “Okaasan” (“Mother”), “was quiet, but his eyes were strict.” Also, she explained, Naruse favored short cuts, which made it harder for Kagawa to act.

“I liked longer cuts because they gave my performance more continuity,” she explained. “But since Naruse added one small cut to another, it was hard to make the right expression for each one.”

Mizoguchi, who cast her as the female lead in his 1954 period tragedy “Chikamatsu Monogatari (The Crucified Lovers),” “would never tell me what to do,” she said. ” ‘Think for yourself’ was his directing style.” Then only 22, Kagawa found the experience “tough — it was really hard.”

At the same time, being the favorite ingenue for the leading directors of the day made her a major star, as well as giving her confidence that she belonged in the business — and Kagawa is still grateful. “When I tried hard and these eminent directors said ‘OK’ I thought I might be alright,” she said with another laugh. “I could feel a sense of security about myself. They loomed that large. Of course, they were older than me and I didn’t feel I could talk to them.”

In 1965, Kagawa went with her husband and young child to New York for a three-year stay. When she returned to Japan, the country’s film industry was in steep decline and roles were much harder to come by.

“It was the age of television, so I did television work for a while,” she reminisced. “That continued for some time, doing period dramas and that sort of thing.” She did occasional film work, appearing in Satsuo Yamamoto’s 1974 drama “Karei-naru Ichizoku” (The Family), a 1979 episode of the “Tora-san” series and Kei Kumai’s 1990 period drama “Shikibu Monogatari (Mt. Aso’s Passions).”

Then came a three-year blank, finally ended by Kurosawa’s call to appear in “Madadayo.” “I was so happy that I could be with Kurosawa again,” Kagawa enthused. “It had been 27 or 28 years since my last film with him, ‘Red Beard’ (‘Akahige,’ 1965).”

Critics (including this one) called “Madadayo” one of Kurosawa’s weaker efforts, but Kagawa won several awards for it, including a Japan Academy Award for best supporting actress. After that she was in demand by not only veterans, but also directors who weren’t even born when she rose to stardom, including Hirokazu Kore-eda, Chihiro Ikeda and Takashi Yamazaki.

The pressure, I said, must be on the director now, working with the great Kyoko Kagawa. She laughed her loudest of the entire interview. “That’s not true,” she replied. “For me a director is always a director, even the young ones. So from the beginning I tell them ‘Ask me anything, ask me to go anywhere.’ “

The Kyoko Kagawa Retrospective runs till Dec. 25 at The National Film Center in Chuo-ku, Tokyo. For more information about screening dates and times, visit www.momat.go.jp.

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