I didn’t write an In Memoriam piece on Toho actress Yumi Shirakawa after her passing on June 14, 2016. Generally speaking, I shy from writing about individual film artists unless I either a) know a sizable amount about them, or b) can come up with something unique to say about their lives and careers; since I knew—and truthfully still know—little about Shirakawa and haven’t seen that many of her movies, I refrained from commenting back then. In hindsight, I regret that decision. Like many readers of this site, I was introduced to Shirakawa through her appearances in Ishiro Honda’s science fiction movies; and while her genre roles were never as memorable as those of, say, Kumi Mizuno’s, there was always something immensely appealing about her which managed to shine through. Her delicate beauty (which garnered her the nickname “the Japanese Grace Kelly”),1 combined with an aloof on-screen nature, made her one of my favorites in Honda’s “stock company.”
Thinking back, I suspect my affinity for Shirakawa was because she seemed remote compared to Mizuno, Yuriko Hoshi, Momoko Kochi, etc. There was an air of mystery to the way she performed, the manner in which she carried herself about—a feeling enhanced by the hindsight fact that little remains known about her, at least in English. The actress herself is partly responsible for this, having refused to be interviewed for Stuart Galbraith IV’s book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! Although she, years later, shared memories for Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, that mysteriousness lingers on, seven years after her death. Maybe for all of these reasons, I feel compelled to write about her—meager as my insights might be.
Born Akiko Yamasaki in Shinagawa, Tokyo, on October 21, 1936, Yumi Shirakawa launched into the public eye at age nineteen, after winning a nationwide beauty contest hosted by Moronaga Confectionery. Chosen as the candy company’s “sweetheart,”2 her ubiquitous presence in advertisements led to her being scouted by Toho3 and a film debut in the 1956 Toshiro Mifune vehicle Scoundrel. By year’s end, she got a leading role in Ishiro Honda’s Rodan (1956). Her relative inexperience became evident on the latter film’s set regarding a tearful embrace with co-star Kenji Sahara that she was embarrassed to perform. Fortunately, their director, perhaps the genre’s best when it came to actors, stepped in. Sahara remembered: “[Honda] told me, ‘Stand over here, okay?’ and then he ran over and hugged me. Seeing this, Shirakawa-kun started giggling. ‘Why are you laughing?’ Honda said. ‘You’re the one who has to do this.’”4
Through Honda’s careful guidance and some compelling first-act drama, Sahara and Shirakawa managed believable chemistry—which, in hindsight, only makes their subsequent (passionless) pairing in The Mysterians (1957) that much more frustrating. In fairness to the leads, they’re ill-served by a script yielding little opportunity to shine. Shirakawa herself is primarily resorted to sitting around and waiting to be rescued, though Honda grants her an effectively chilling moment wherein she, soaking in a public bathhouse—naked and vulnerable—turns to see the robotic monster Moguera moving past the window. Of all her genre appearances, the actress arguably left her greatest impression in 1958’s H-Man. While failing again to cast sparks with Kenji Sahara (once more largely a scriptwriting fault: the scientist hero’s completely uninteresting and they have no compelling scenes together), she is given complex situations to perform apart from him: as a nightclub singer constantly tormented by cops, criminals, and then by the eponymous gooey monsters that invade Tokyo. Between the release of this film and a forgettable part in Honda’s Gorath (1962), she appeared in Jun Fukuda’s wonderfully energetic The Secret of the Telegian (1960), as another beauty pursued by a human mutant.
While best known internationally for her genre films, as one of Toho’s most popular actresses of the 1950s and early ‘60s, Yumi Shirakawa naturally appeared in multiple pictures not featuring monsters—often under the watch of reputable directors. She played a free spirit in 1960’s Evening Stream, co-directed by Mikio Naruse and Yuzo Kawashima, and the following year acted for the great Shochiku director Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu, who wrote scripts having already decided who his principal actors would be, made The End of Summer (1961) for Toho affiliate Takarazuka Eiga in order to cast contract stars Setsuko Hara and Yoko Tsukasa. This paved the way for Toho personnel nearly making up the entire cast and crew,5 Shirakawa landing a small role as the co-worker who informs Tsukasa their handsome colleague (Akira Takarada) is moving to Sapporo.
Image: Yumi Shirakawa and Hiroshi Koizumi in a promotional still for Good Luck to These Two (1957)
Image Courtesy of Ed Godziszewski
Shirakawa played a doctor treating a gangster’s crippled son in the Kihachi Okamoto crime drama The Big Boss (1959). Shue Matsubayashi cast her as a schoolteacher who dies with her students amid nuclear holocaust in The Last War (1961). Another Naruse credit came in the form of 1964’s Yearning, wherein she played a selfish woman conspiring to force out a widowed sister-in-law for fear she’ll remarry and disrupt the family’s pecking order. And perhaps of particular interest to genre fans: Honda cast her alongside Hiroshi Koizumi in his charming Good Luck to These Two (1957). This drama, whose story bears some semblance to Honda’s own life, follows a young couple struggling against old-fashioned ideas and poverty as they strive to build a life together—granting two actors so often limited in their genre roles a chance to show what they can really do.
Throughout this period, Shirakawa’s popularity continued to soar, regularly making the covers of magazines such as Asia Scene (which first used her on their September 1957 issue),6 and participating in international film festivals. While returning from an event in Los Angeles, the actress stopped in Honolulu to thank the American GIs of Schofield Barracks for their continued support of Osaka’s Holy Family Home orphanage. The New Japanese American News reported: “Miss Shirakawa’s first request on arriving in the Islands was to be permitted to express her gratitude—and the gratitude of all other Japanese—for the soldiers’ philanthropy.”7
Yumi Shirakawa’s film career slowed following her 1964 marriage to actor Hideaki Nitani, though she later became active in television dramas,8 her credits including GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka and Majo No Jouken. She often appeared alongside her husband in Japan Rail commercials between 1988-1993.9 And while she declined to be interviewed for Galbraith’s Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! claiming she’d only made her genre films due to being under contract and wished not to speak about them,10 later stories indicate her becoming more aware—and appreciative—of their international popularity. Following Shirakawa’s death of heart failure in 2016, the talent agency Celebrity Icons posted on its Facebook page that her close friend, Ultraman suit actor Bin Furuya, had helped interest her in attending western genre conventions. As fans, we can take some gratitude that, toward the end of her life, she became more aware of the impact these often-maligned movies have had around the world.
Yumi Shirakawa participating in a roundtable discussion on Ishiro Honda, circa 2009.
Image courtesy of Ed Godziszewski.
- Kalat, David. Audio commentary for The H-Man. (Eureka! Blu-ray)
- “September Issue of Asia Scene on Newsstands Now.” New Japanese American News 2 October 1957, p. 1
- Ryfle, Steve and Ed Godziszewski. Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, p. 128
- “The End of Summer (1961).” Ozu-san. http://www.a2pcinema.com/ozu-san/films/endofsummer.htm. Accessed 11 March 2023
- “September Issue of Asia Scene on Newsstands Now.”
- “Actress Thanks GIs for Orphans.” New Japanese American News 12 February 1958, p. 1
- Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Japanese Filmography: A Complete Reference Work to 209 Filmmakers and the More Than 1250 Films Released in the United States, 1900-1994. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996, p. 66
- Yee, Wai. “In Memoriam: Yumi Shirakawa, Actress.” Eastern Kicks 29 June 2016. https://www.easternkicks.com/news/in-memoriam-yumi-shirakawa-actress/. Accessed 11 March 2023
- Galbraith, Stuart, IV. Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. Port Townsend: Feral House, 1998, p. 14