Actress Keiko Awaji has passed away at the age of 80. The cause of death is reported as cancer.
A star in the 1950s and 60s, she is probably best known in the West for her screen debut as the spirited dancer Harumi in Akira Kurosawa‘s 1949 film Stray Dog (pictured right together with a more recent image), as well as for her role in Mark Robinson‘s 1954 war film The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
Before being cast in Stray Dog Awaji, whose real name was Ayako Ida, had been studying dancing and had no apparent interest in a film career. After the release of Stray Dog, it took four years until she would be on the big screen again, suddenly appearing in altogether four films in 1953. For the next decade she worked steadily as a film actress, mainly in supporting roles.
In 1966 Awaji married Kabuki and film actor Yorozuya Kinnosuke, her second husband, and switched to theatre, not appearing on screen again until 1986, a year before their divorce. The couple had two sons, with the actress outliving both of them. According to Wikipedia, the older son died in a car accident in 1990, while the younger committed suicide in 2010. Awaji also had two sons from her first marriage with Filipino musician and actor Bimbo Danao.
IMDb credits Awaji altogether 112 film appearances, the most recent from last year. These include altogether five films by Mikio Naruse, all between 1960 and 1963, for whom her most memorable performance was perhaps as the young and entrepreneurial hostess Yuri in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Awaji also appeared in altogether seven films with Toshiro Mifune, most notably as his middle aged love interest in the 1987 film Tora-san Goes North.
In his Kurosawa/Mifune biography, Stuart Galbraith IV quotes Awaji’s recollections of the making of Stray Dog:
Every time I remember that picture, I am impressed by how childishly I behaved … I was fifteen or sixteen years old at the time, and still a student of S.K.D. [Shochiku’s dance troupe]. The audition had been whittled down to ten students, including me. I knew neither Mr. Kurosawa nor Mr. Mifune. I didn’t think they were anybody. They asked us, ‘What kind of roles do you want to play?’ While the other students answered ‘I want to be a princess’ or ‘I want to be a prima donna’, I said that I wanted to play an enchantress. I guess they thought I was strange for saying that, but was hired anyway. …
Messrs. Mifune, Shimura, [director of photography Asakazu] Nakai, [soundman Fumio] Yanoguchi, and I went to Mr. Kurosawa’s room and drank every night. I would eat something while listening to their conversation. One day after work, I was surprised to see the film’s poster. Here I was, squatting down on my heels. ‘This is me!’ Only then did I realize that appearing in the film was a big deal.” (112)
Galbraith also quotes Kurosawa’s recollections of young Awaji:
This ingenue was spoiled enough to be a full measure of trouble. … She was only sixteen years old, had never acted before, and all she really wanted to do was dance. She would fret and fuss no matter what she was asked to do, and in places where she was supposed to cry she would burst out laughing out of pure contrariness. As time went by and the crew befriended her, it seems Awaji began to find the work more and more interesting. Unfortunately, by that time her job was finished. We all gathered at the studio gate to see her off. After sitting in the car, she burst into tears. Then she said, ‘I couldn’t cry when I was supposed to, and now look at me.’ (113)