Actress known for classic of Japanese cinema Rashomon

Born: March 25, 1924;

Died: May 12, 2019

MACHIKO Kyo, who has died aged 95, helped introduce discerning British cinema audiences to the exotic and dramatic world of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, as one of the stars of his breakthrough film Rashomon almost 70 years ago.

With painted-on eyebrows high on her forehead (hikimayu) Kyo was a beautiful, but strange and slightly cold figure, at least to western eyes. She played a woman in feudal Japan whose story of being raped in the woods is told and retold from various perspectives.

The film challenged the nature of memory and truth and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1952.

Kyo went on to appear in other highly-regarded Japanese films and co-starred opposite Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), a film that would be unlikely to get made today in an era when the casting of a white American star as a Japanese man would be considered decidedly insensitive.

An only child, Kyo was born Motoko Yano, probably in Osaka in Japan in 1924, though it has been suggested she was born in Mexico, where her father worked as an engineer. Her parents split up when she was young and she was brought up by her mother and grandmother.

The family was poor and she was earning money dancing in revues from the age of 12. “In those days I dreamed only of becoming a solo dancer so that my mother would not have to work,” she said. She was in her mid-twenties before she began appearing in films and Rashomon was one of her earliest.

While sheltering from the rain at Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate two men recount details of the trial of a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) accused of raping Kyo’s character and murdering her samurai husband

At the trial there has been conflicting evidence presented by a woodcutter (one of the storytellers) who supposedly just happened upon the body, the bandit, the wife and the dead samurai (speaking through a medium). The woodcutter then presents another, much more elaborate account of the drama, at odds with his own earlier version

Rashomon has featured regularly in lists of the best films ever made and the idea that different people with different backgrounds and life experiences recall events very differently acquired the name “the Rashomon effect”.

Within the accounts lies the suggestion that Kyo’s character may have encouraged the bandit to kill her husband or even have killed him herself. On the British Film Institute’s website, the critic David Parkinson talked of “four tantalisingly contrasting performances in playing a single character”.

Her career was guided by the producer Masaichi Nagata, who Parkinson calls Svengali-like. After Rashomon, Kyo managed to balance popular films for the local market with more challenging projects that scored internationally at a time when the world was showing unprecedented interest in Japanese cinema.

Rashomon was her only film with Kurosawa. She appeared in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, and Gate of Hell (1953), with director Teinosuke Kinugasa, which were prize-winners at Venice and Cannes respectively.

It looked like she might graduate to Hollywood when cast opposite Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon, a comedy-drama set during the American post-war occupation – she was a geisha and he a translator. She was nominated for a Golden Globe, but it was to be her only Hollywood film.

She went on making films regularly through the 1960s and 1970s, though her most notable work was undoubtedly done in the 1950s. She died in hospital in Tokyo.