Donald Richie’s assessment of her as “a star who consisted almost entirely of mammary glands” might have been rather fanciful. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that, like her Occidental counterparts Jane Russell and Brigitte Bardot, Michiko Maeda could certainly fill out a swimsuit. Her sinuous underwater scenes in Revenge of the Pearl Queen caused quite the sensation with Japanese viewers in 1956. Brazen, defiant, athletic, Maeda became the literal embodiment of a more assertive type of female sexuality that emerged in the postwar period. There were others who followed in her wake – figures such as Yoko Mihara, Masayo Banri and Hisako Tsukuba. Collectively referred to as the ‘nikutai-ha joyu’, or the ‘Flesh Group Actresses’, the prominent billing of these glamour girls who dared to bare more than the rest served as a promise of erotic allure on the posters of the films in which they appeared.
Eroticism itself was hardly an alien concept to the Japanese, but before now, never had it been allowed to flourish in the cinema to such an extent. Indeed, vigilant Japanese censors of the prewar era took to snipping every instance of a kiss, every insinuation of physical intimacy, in imported titles, while the tipping point of Pearl Harbor saw Hollywood’s seditious brand of escapist fantasy completely banished from the nation’s screens along with, indeed, every other title produced in America.
Thus sexual liberation became part and parcel of the postwar democratization project steered by the Allied Occupation. “Japanese tend to do things sneakily. They should do things openly,” asserted David Conde of the Civil Information and Education Service entrusted with bringing Western values to the vanquished nation’s screens, and it was under Conde’s instigation that audiences were first afforded their first glimpse of an onscreen clinch in a local film in 1947, in a title called Phoenix directed by Keisuke Kinoshita.
Nudity was another matter, and it was a Hollywood director, albeit one of European origin whose career was on the skids, who first provided Japanese audiences with a legitimate excuse to see themselves as naked as nature intended, when in the early 1950s Josef von Sternberg headed to Japan to make his directorial swansong, Saga of Anatahan. If this first attempt at a US-Japanese co-production was an opportunity for the Americans to get to know their former enemy in a way they clearly hadn’t when Frank Capra assembled his Know Your Enemy: Japan propaganda pic in 1945, it was clear that the main focus of attention was on the female of the species.
The use of the word “species” seems apt here, as von Sternberg’s ethnological, near-documentary approach seems primarily used to justify the emphasis on his main subject, Akemi Negishi, in various states of undress. The film recounted, with a voiceover track written and narrated by von Sternberg himself, the purportedly true tale of a group of Japanese soldiers stranded on the South Pacific isle of the title seemingly oblivious to the fact that the war has ended. When they discover that one of the two others with whom they share their island is a woman, the sex-starved menfolk end up systematically murdering each another in desperation for her favors.
In a manner not dissimilar from the scenes of Polynesian maidens innocent cavorting au naturel around the prelapsarian island paradise of Murnau and Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), Anatahan adhered to the National Geographic-propagated wisdom of the age, that nudity was perfectly acceptable when rendered in anthropological terms and applied to a racial other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anatahan was rather more of a success upon its 1953 release in Japan than it ever was in the States, even as von Sternberg upped the flesh quotient in his 1958 recut of the film. It not only introduced an archetype into Japanese exploitation cinema, that of the “Queen Bee” whose sexuality ensures dominion over the men who swarm around her, but anticipated an entirely new endemic genre.
It is Revenge of the Pearl Queen that truly marked the sea change. A cut-price pulp offering from a studio, Shintoho, whose stock-in-trade was cut-price pulp offerings, it lifted the premise of von Sternberg’s story wholesale for its mid-section, integrating it within a tale of blackmail and corporate corruption in which Michiko Maeda’s role as witness to fraud sees her pitched overboard a cruise liner and washed up on a deserted isle full of horny marooned military men who go gung-ho for her. Maeda might not have been the first Japanese actress to bear her amazonian form for the camera, but she was the first to do so in a local production.
Maeda’s eventual rescue follows the scenes that proved the film’s unique selling point; that of her underwater excursions during which she accumulates the bounty of pearls that afford her the means to turn the tables on her persecutors back on the civilized Japanese mainland. The string of titles that followed adopted a similar formula, although this time the narratives revolved around a different kind of sub-aqueous screen siren more rooted in Japanese traditions – the ama, whose close-knit communities of diving girls who eke out a living scouring the ocean floor for shellfish were then still a notable feature of Japan’s coastal culture.
Both Maeda and director Toshio Shimura returned for the first in the short-lived cycle in ama films, The Girl Diver Trembles in Fear (1957), a film that boldly flaunts all the tropes of this peculiar submarine sub-genre: a village community of cuties with slender glistening wet bodies squeezed into a tight white tunics; sequences of them duck-diving in formation beneath the waves and heading to the ocean floor as if performers in an undersea ballet, the diaphanous fabric swirling with the currents to reveal surreptitious glimpses of bare bosoms; beachside catfights between rivals within the group; and a token plot that sees big-city gangsters mysterious surfacing in the village, lured by rumors of caches of sunken treasure.
Maeda’s moon-faced successor, Yoko Mihara, took over the next two entries, Man-Eating Girl Diver (1958) and Girl Divers at Spook Mansion (1959), in a series that began plunging increasingly ludicrous depths. The second of these saw her returning to her seaside roots after acquiring the sophisticated airs and graces of a short stint away Tokyo, lodging in an ancestral Gothic mansion home now reduced to one just further occupant, a girl diver whose brother failed to return from a fishing trip one dark, stormy night. Secret panels, sinister servants, creaking floorboards and black cats springing out of dark corners abound: there’s even hunchback loitering in the garden, while hushed voices talk of legendary treasure in an underwater cave and a mysterious black pearl. The final straw is an apparition that periodically pops up every time either of the comely residents ventures anywhere near a bed or a bathtub.
Shintoho’s final ama release, Ghost Story: Phantom Ama (1960), saw Mihara stepping aside to allow Masayo Banri, a supporting actress in the previous entries, to take centre stage, before the series sank with the bankruptcy of the studio in 1961. Not that the other studios hadn’t come up with their own equivalents in the meantime, with Nikkatsu’s Reef of the Girl Diver (1958) starring Hisako Tsukuba providing but one example.
None of these, it goes without saying, made it to Western shores. Nevertheless, in 1954, several years before the cycle had even begun, the Italian adventurer, photographer and anthropologist Fosco Maraini arrived in Japan to document their real-life inspiration. The result was the glossy photobook, Hekura: The Diving Girls’ Island (1960). Its smorgasbord of the more striking specimens from the village community where he set up camp, captured in front of his leering lens clad in little more than loin-cloths, came accompanied by such gushing prose descriptions as “mythical sea goddesses”, “Valkyries of the sea with mahogany-colored skins”, and “tall, assured, silent, earthenware-colored, diving girls in their twenties, bare-breasted like goddesses.”
The few sequences of 8mm home-movie footage that Maraini was able to capture of the Hekura girls in action underwater showed up later in a bizarre Italian quasi-documentary, Violated Paradise (1963), based on his other great photographic treatment of the country, Meeting with Japan (1960), and directed by a man called Marion Gering, a Russian émigré who, paralleling von Sternberg, was at one point a fairly significant figure in Hollywood, making films during the 1930s with the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, George Raft, Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton and Cary Grant.
One might also surmise that Maraini would have played some role in drawing the attention of his compatriots Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi to the subject for Women of the World, the 1963 follow-up to their seminal shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962). With these majestic maidens from Japan’s hidden coastal enclaves now exposed to a Western world with an eye for Eastern exoticism, it comes as little surprise that they should later surface as one of the main attractions among James Bond’s Japanese escapades in You Only Live Twice (1967).
There’s no evidence to suggest that Maraini himself was to witness any of the locally-produced ama films. He does, nevertheless, reveal a telling early encounter in a coastal resort closer to civilization where the diving girls worked on cultivated oyster beds and lined up dutifully for day-trippers from Tokyo to take photos, wearing white cotton bathing costumes issued by their employers that did a better job of covering up their modesty than the bare essentials used on the remote island of Hekura. The account reinforces what the Shintoho films had already proven - that these tanned, vital, earthy women of the waves were as equal a source of fascination for the modern, metropolitan Japanese male as they were for the foreign thrill-seeker.