Obit of the Day: “Fragrant Orchid”
Yoshiko Yamaguchi straddled two cultures throughout her life, and it nearly cost her everything. Born to Japanese parents who were living in Manchuria, a region of China occupied by Japan, Ms. Yamaguchi would be used as a political pawn on the silver screen.
Fluent in both Mandarin and Japanese, Ms. Yamaguchi used that rare talent to become one of the top cinema stars of Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. She was passed off to audiences as a Chinese national based on her ability with the language and her stage name, Li Xianglan (meaning “fragrant orchid” a name given to her as a teenager by a Chinese general who was considered her godfather). Li Xianglan, which was pronounced as Ri Koran in Japanese, often portrayed Chinese women who fell in love with Japanese heroes. The films were presenting, on film, an alliance between the two countries that did not exist.
She starred in seventeen films before and during World War II, at the height of the Japanese Empire. And although popular in Japan her performances were poorly received in the rest of Asia, not for her ability but for the message.
After the surrender of Japan, Ms. Yamaguchi was charged with treason against China. It took a birth certificate, smuggled into Shanghai by a Russian friend, to save her from the firing squad. She was still forced to leave the country by a Chinese judge.
She returned to Japan and continued to star in films, including Scandal (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa and co-starring Toshiro Mifune.
She moved to Hollywood a few years later and and performed as Shirley Yamaguchi, in honor of Shirley Temple. During her short stay she made appearances on several television shows and in a few films. She was also the star of a Broadway show, Shangri-La.
Returning to Japan she eventually entered politics and was elected to the Japanese parliament in 1974. She served for seventeen years.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who had her life story presented in the 1991 Japanese musical Rikoran, died on September 7, 2014. She was 94.
Sources: Washington Post, Wikipedia, IMDB
(Image of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, at the age of 13 or 14, when she was given the nickname Li Xianglan, “fragrant orchid,” by her godfather. It is courtesy of wikimedia.org)
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