TOKYO — Isuzu Yamada, the thesp who debuted in Japan’s silent era and worked with the greatest directors of Japanese cinema’s Golden Age, died Monday at age 95 after a long illness.
Born in 1917 in Osaka, Yamada joined the Nikkatsu studio in 1930 and made her screen debut that same year. In the 1930s she rose to stardom working for such leading Nikkatsu directors as Daisuke Ito, Mansaku Itami and Kenji Mizoguchi. Among her best-known roles in this period are of a woman entangled in a web of debt and deceit in “Osaka Elegy” and a cynical geisha whose sexual manipulations backfire in “Sisters of the Gion,” both by Mizoguchi and both released in 1936.
In the postwar era, when Japanese cinema gained international recognition, while setting BO records at home, Yamada became an in-demand character actress, playing a geisha teahouse proprietor in Mikio Naruse’s “Flowing” (1956), the ruthless wife of an ambitious lord in Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957) and a domineering gang boss wife in the same helmer’s “Yojimbo” (1961).
In the 1960s, as Japanese pics faded at the box office, Yamada made a successful transition to stage and television. She starred in many TV period dramas, including a 10-year run on the enduringly popular “Hissatsu” series.
Though her last pic was a 1985 adaptation from the “Hissatsu” show, Yamada continued her TV and stage work into her 80s, while adding to her already large collection of domestic acting prizes. In 2000 she became the first actress to be awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Japan’s highest cultural award.
In 2002 illness forced Yamada to retire.
Yamada had one daughter, Michiko Saga, from her marriage to fellow thesp Ichiro Tsukita (1909-45). Saga also pursued a career in acting, but died at age 57 in 1992.