The Look of the Pearl Queen: Maeda Michiko and the Japanese Nude in 1950s Shin-Tōhō Films
A woman stands on a cliff, naked, overlooking the sea as she wrings out her clothes. Though indistinct, this shot of Maeda Michiko from Shin-Tōhō’s 1956 Revenge of the Pearl Queen comes to be remembered, arguably, as the first full nude in mainstream Japanese film. What does it mean for an on-screen nude to be “Japanese”? What historical conditions intersected to coalesce in this moment? And what will become of the body on view, the “glamour girl” Maeda? With the influence of Occupation and post-Occupation discourses equating democratization with sexual liberation, sexuality and sensuality increasingly moved from the implied to the clearly visible in the midst of scandal and social outcry. Under economic pressure from American and European films, studios searched for a “Japanese Marilyn Monroe” whose body would represent a physical transformation from the previous ideals of Japanese femininity. At the same time, Shin-Tōhō and other studios reached for the motif of the ama, traditionally semi-nude female shellfish divers, which draws on a wild eroticism associated with an imagined primitive Japan and women’s access to the secret world of the ocean. The foreign body of the “Marilyn” can therefore be resituated within an ostensibly-innocent premodern setting. These complexities criss-cross on Maeda’s bare skin, coveted by both the men within the film and the audience watching, grasping after something previously invisible on film screens.
Reischauer Institute Japan Forum Lecture Series