Japanese Actress Shirley Yamaguchi, Who Starred in ‘House of Bamboo,’ Dies at 94

Chinese-born star had a life that was as dramatic as many of her movies

Shirley Yamaguchi
Wikimedia Commons

Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi, who starred in Japanese WWII pics posing as a Chinese but segued postwar to fame in Japanese and Hollywood films such as Samuel Fuller’s “House of Bamboo,” died at her Tokyo home of heart failure on Sept. 7, her family announced on Sunday. She was 94.

Born in 1920 in Manchuria to Japanese parents, Yamaguchi took the name Li Xianglan (in Japanese “Ri Koran”) to use in her Chinese singing and acting career, presenting herself as a local. Her films, including the 1938 “Honeymoon Express” and the 1940 “China Nights,” made her popular with Chinese audiences, while serving the propaganda purposes of her Japanese backers.

After the war she was tried and nearly executed for treason by a Chinese court, but was repatriated to Japan after her true identity became known. In the early postwar years, this time as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, she built a thriving singing and acting career in Japan.

In Hollywood, where the English-fluent actress was known as Shirley Yamaguchi, she scored major roles in films, television and even a short-lived Broadway play, “Shangri-la.”

Among her credits were Akira Kurosawa’s “Scandal” (1950), King Vidor’s “Japanese War Bride” (1952), Samuel Fuller’s noir classic “House of Bamboo” (1955) and the pioneering Toho and Shaw Brothers co-production “Madame White Snake” (1956), in which she played an ancient snake spirit able to take human form. In Hong Kong she appeared in several now-lost local films, while recording Chinese-language hits.

In 1951 she married Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, but the union ended in divorce in 1956. In 1958 she wed Japanese diplomat Hiroshi Otaka and retired from show business. In 1974, she was elected to the House of Councillors, Japan’s upper house, as a member belonging to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a post she held until 1992. She also wrote her autobiography, in which she expressed regret for her wartime deceptions, hosted a TV talk show and otherwise maintained a media presence, this time as Yoshiko Otaka.

She penned an autobiography and her dramatic life was fictionalized in Ian Buruma’s novel “The China Lover.” In Japan her life story has inspired a hit musical, TV dramas and a biopic that director Hirokazu Kore’eda is reportedly preparing.