Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the death of a wonderful friend. Actress and author Kyoko Kishida passed away on Dec. 17, 2006, and Japan lost not only a fantastic stage presence but also an immense creative spirit and inspiration to its young actors.
The first time I saw her was in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film, “Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes).” Back then I was living in Los Angeles, and for some reason — though I knew nothing about Japan in those days — I went along to see it. The scene of the woman brushing sand off her naked body was, to say the least, most arousing; and, from then on, I had a secret crush on her — never dreaming that I would someday live in Japan and not only meet her, but also direct her on stage.
After that I saw her again in a number of films, and her acting range was stunning. To some scenes she brought a lightness, an infectious frivolity; to others, an intensely concentrated wrath. I will never forget her sublime, easy smile when, standing behind the counter, she offered drinks to Daisuke Kato in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1962 film, “Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon).” Altogether, the Western actress most like her is probably Jeanne Moreau.
Poet Shuntaro Tanikawa introduced me to Kyoko in 1983, and I asked her to play Miss Julie in an adaptation of the August Strindberg play, “Miss Julie,” that I was calling “Julia.” She graciously accepted the offer, without having any idea of what kind of a director I was.
In a sense, this was indicative of her view of her profession. Kyoko’s father, Kunio Kishida, one of the most famous playwrights of modern Japan, was a founder of the Bungakuza Theater. She joined Bungakuza and appeared on stage there for the first time in 1950. But she was to find Bungakuza too establishment, and in 1963 — together with Hiroshi Akutagawa and Tsutomu Yamazaki — she formed a new troupe they called Kumo. Then, in 1975, she and others founded the En troupe, in which she was active until the end of her life.
Cultural and social change
Why was her taking me on as director with En for our 1984 Strindberg production indicative of her commitment to her profession? Put simply, she was determined to keep modern theater at the forefront of cultural and social change in Japan — and to do that you have to take risks. I was, I guess, part of that risk.
Throughout her career, Kyoko acted in many experimental plays, as well as ones from countries such as Poland, which were not on the map of the mainstream Japanese repertoire. (The second play I directed her in was written by the Polish playwright S.I. Witkiewicz.)
I have myriad memories of our meetings and our work together over the years. She was a painstaking experimentalist during rehearsals, and I well remember one run-through of “Julia” in which, after quite a while, I stopped the scene. We went into a huddle, and I suggested that our line of approach to her character may not be leading us to anything fruitful.
“Nevertheless,” she said, giving me one of her hard stares, “I am going to pursue it. I need to try everything, Roger!”
After our first night of “Julia” at the Haiyuza Theater in Roppongi, I went backstage with a potted orchid for her. She peered at me in the mirror as I stood behind her, then stood and turned around.
“This is the very same variety of orchid,” she said, with a tear in her eye, “that Yukio Mishima gave me the first night of his ‘Salome.’ “
She was one of Mishima’s favorite actresses.
Millions of people who never saw Kyoko Kishida on stage or on screen could immediately recognize her from her unique, low-pitched voice. She did countless readings on radio, and voiceovers for film and television — her best-known TV voiceovers being the roles of Moomintroll in the popular Scandinavian story, “The Moomins,” and that of Miss Marple in the series of that name.
Kyoko loved children and invariably played with ours when my wife, Susan, and I took them on visits to her flat in Roppongi. She also wrote several books for children, and every year produced and starred in a children’s play for En at Christmas.
She acted in more than 40 films, most notably Tesihigahara’s and Ozu’s films, mentioned above, and Masaaki Kobayashi’s 1961 epic on war, “Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition).” Film master Kon Ichikawa also adored her, and one memorable night she brought Ichikawa to “Julia” and afterward the three of us went to a coffee shop.
“I love your use of sound in the play,” Ichikawa said to me. “Would you like to do the sound for my next movie?”
I was so flabbergasted I could hardly speak.
“Why . . . why . . . yes . . . yes,” I muttered, nodding up and down.
Naturally I never heard from him after that.
Kyoko was deeply fond of the writing of Kenji Miyazawa, and her readings of his prose on NHK radio were mesmerizing. Her voice had not only tenderness and sensuality, but a sense of mystery that perfectly suited his lyrical and bizarre style.
One day, in the late 1990s, I confessed to her that the first time I had seen her was in Los Angeles, in “Woman in the Dunes.”
“That nude scene must have been difficult,” I said. “Also, those were early days for such a scene, not only in Japan but all over the world.”
“That scene?” she said, grinning, “that scene was nothing for me. That’s because it wasn’t me. We used a body-double.”
Kyoko married actor Noboru Nakatani in 1954, but they divorced in 1978. Their only child, a daughter, did not follow in her parents’ footsteps. She had, from a young age, always wanted to teach at kindergarten.
The last time I saw Kyoko was at Theater X (Cai) in Ryogoku in 2004. She came to see a play of mine. She stayed on, and we chatted in the empty theater.
“My greatest joy now,” she said, “comes from my granddaughter. She doesn’t call me obachan (granny), you know. She calls me Kyoko. That’s the way I want it.”
I will remember her sitting in the empty stalls of the theater, smiling in her inimically playful way, no doubt thinking of her granddaughter.
In January last year she began to complain of headaches. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and some 11 months later, that was what took her life.
The career of Kyoko Kishida (April 29, 1930-Dec. 17, 2006) spanned more than half a century during Japan’s great postwar cultural renaissance. Those of us fortunate enough to have crossed paths with her, even briefly, know just how profoundly she enriched our lives — and how indelible and unique was her contribution to the lives of millions of Japanese people who encountered her solely as sound and light.