A second-generation actor, Ms. Yamada appeared in more than 120 film and television roles in addition to her extensive theater career. She rose to movie stardom in the mid-1930s playing a series of “fallen women” — sometimes tragically sympathetic, sometimes tragically opportunistic —under the director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose films explored societal hypocrisies toward women.
In Mizoguchi’s “Sisters of the Gion” (1936), Ms. Yamada played one of two sisters who become geishas in Kyoto’s red-light district. Asserting that men use her as a plaything, she schemes to take her customers for every penny they have. She ultimately meets a ruinous end in what remains a man’s world.
Ms. Yamada played a self-sacrificing geisha in Mizoguchi’s “Oyuki the Virgin” (1935), which is based on a story by Guy de Maupassant and which is often considered a basis for John Ford’s landmark western “Stagecoach” just a few years later.
Her tour de force under Mizoguchi was “Osaka Elegy” (1936), in which she plays a telephone operator who sleeps with her boss to support her drunken, debt-ridden father and to pay for her brother’s education. Ultimately, she is scorned by all the men in her life and turns to prostitution. The film was lauded for its powerful ending: Ms. Yamada, all but enveloped in darkness, walks toward the camera — essentially accusing the audience of complicity in her fate.
Peter M. Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, said Ms. Yamada specialized in portrayals of intense and willful women who “flew in the face of all stereotypes of submissive Japanese women. She was always the tough girl in movies. If I had to compare her to an American actress, I’d say she was a combination of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — a very tough, self-aware, aggressive personality.”
Ms. Yamada’s fame coincided with a period of intellectual liberalization, including a flourishing of feminist writing, before the country descended into militarism and world war.
“She was riding that initial crest of independence, with a rethinking of the significance of women in society,” said Grilli, an authority on Japanese cinema, who created the Japan Society of New York’s film center in the 1970s. “Because she’s so assertive and so strong, she usually suffers for it, as Japanese women do suffer for it. She always comes to no good for being powerful.”
Ms. Yamada’s run of determined women continued after the war. In 1947, she starred in “Actress,” a biography of Sumako Matsui, a stage performer who helped introduce Shakespeare and Ibsen to Japanese audiences in the 19th and early 20th century.
As she shifted to character roles, she continued working with Japan’s top directors, including Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kurosawa.
She played a vicious landlady in Kurosawa’s “The Lower Depths” (1957), based on Maxim Gorky’s play, and was a brothel keeper in “Yojimbo” (1961), which was later transformed into Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars.”
“Throne of Blood” (1957), starring Toshiro Mifune as the warlord undone by his wife’s ambition, was performed in the stylized and austere Noh theater form, which forces passion inward and relies on subtle body language to convey emotion. The film elevated seduction, betrayal and madness to high art, notably when Ms. Yamada scrubs maniacally at her bloody hands.
Film critic Pauline Kael lauded the film as a masterpiece and wrote of Ms. Yamada that “there may never be a more chilling Lady Macbeth.”
Mitsu Yamada was born Feb. 5, 1917, in Osaka, Japan. Her father was an actor, and her mother was a geisha. She studied traditional Japanese dance as a child, made her film debut at 13 and became one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.
She subsequently formed several theater groups, including one with director Teinosuke Kinugasa, who became the fourth of her six husbands. Her only child, actress Michiko Saga, died in 1992.
Her notice in the West grew through her involvement in Kurosawa’s dramas as well as a handful of other powerful screen performances: as the tradition-bound owner of a once-proud geisha house in Naruse’s “Flowing” (1956); a woman who abandons her husband and children in Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight” (1957); and a plotting wife in “A Cat, Two Women, and One Man” (1956), based on stories by the celebrated writer Junichiro Tanizaki.
Ms. Yamada’s movie career tapered off in the 1960s. Until illness forced her semi-retirement in 2002, she remained a presence in the theater and especially on television in “Hissatsu” (“Sure Death”), the popular drama series about 19th-century assassins. She collected many of her country’s top cultural honors.