Machiko Kyo, a revered Japanese actress whose sensuous and expressive performances — notably in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic, “Rashomon” — made her one of her country’s first internationally recognized film stars, died May 12 at a hospital in Tokyo. She was 95.
Her death was announced by the movie company Toho, which said the cause was a heart ailment.
A onetime dancer at a Tokyo burlesque house, Ms. Kyo was a prolific actress who appeared in plays, television series and more than 80 films, making five a year at the peak of her career in the 1950s and working with directors including Teinosuke Kinugasa, Kon Ichikawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu.
When Ms. Kyo began acting in the mid-1940s, few Westerners had ever seen a Japanese film — or cared to, given the country’s militant posture in World War II. But after the release of “Rashomon,” an exploration of truth and justice that received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, samurai period dramas became box-office draws and film-festival sensations.
Frequently, it was Ms. Kyo who received top billing. She was among Japan’s earliest on-screen sex symbols, known for playing elegant and assertive princesses, noblewomen, geishas and prostitutes.
Her performances marked a striking departure from traditional roles for Japanese actresses. “In its first couple decades, all women’s roles were played by men,” said Jasper Sharp, author of the “Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema.” “In the ’30s, women were cast as demure figures. You’re either a mother keeping house or a very loyal daughter.”
Ms. Kyo, he added, “was playing modern-day characters” and doing so with such frequency and acclaim that for roughly a decade, “Western viewers might have thought she was the only actress in Japanese cinema.”
For “Gate of Hell” (1953), one of the first Japanese color films, Ms. Kyo played a luminous but tragic wife who is rescued by a samurai. The movie won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and received an honorary Oscar for best foreign film, several years before the category was formally incorporated into the Academy Awards.
“One could write reams of lush enthusiasm for the porcelain beauty and electrifying grace of Machiko Kyo,” wrote New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. “For it is she, with her great power of suggestion with a minimum of gesture and a maximum use of the tiny mouth and eyes, who conveys the sense of sadness and despair that suffuses this film.”
That same year, Ms. Kyo played an enchanting — and undead — noblewoman in Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu,” a runner-up at the Venice Film Festival that Roger Ebert later described as “one of the greatest of all films.” Dressed as a traditional Noh-drama heroine, she seduces a lowly potter before he realizes she is a ghost yearning for love.
In recognition of both movies, the National Board of Review, a U.S. film organization, honored Ms. Kyo with a special citation “for the modernization of traditional Japanese acting.”
By most accounts, the actress was born Motoko Yano in Osaka on March 25, 1924. A 1955 profile in the Times reported that she was born in Mexico, where her father worked as an engineer. Her parents separated, according to news reports, and Ms. Kyo was raised by her mother, a geisha, in the slums of Osaka.
Inspired by music-hall visits with an uncle, she began dancing, and by the time she was a teenager, she had joined a girls’ revue troupe and changed her name.
Ms. Kyo made her film debut in “Tengu Daoshi” (1944) and five years later was signed by the film studio Daiei, where producer Masaichi Nagata began promoting her as a sex symbol in the mold of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, seeking inroads with Western audiences.
“Rashomon” marked a breakthrough for everyone involved. Directed by Kurosawa and adapted from a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the movie featured a nonlinear narrative told through flashbacks, with four conflicting stories centered on the rape of Ms. Kyo’s character and the murder of her husband, a samurai.
The film was deemed “incomprehensible” by Nagata but won an honorary Oscar, set box-office records for a subtitled picture and popularized a concept known as “the Rashomon effect,” in which an event is remembered in different, even contradictory ways. Critic Pauline Kael called “Rashomon” “the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth.”
Ms. Kyo later starred in Mizoguchi’s 1955 film “Princess Yang Kwei-Fei,” playing a maid turned royal, and one year later headlined the director’s last feature, “Street of Shame,” demonstrating her range as a coarse, Westernized prostitute who frantically eats, smokes and chews gum at the same time.
She also starred in “Floating Weeds” (1959), a moody, widely celebrated family drama by Ozu; played a wife who is maneuvered by her husband into having an affair in “Odd Obsession” (1959); and was featured as the wife of a masked burn victim in “The Face of Another” (1966), based on a novel by Kobo Abe.
Ms. Kyo appeared in just one American production, “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956), as a geisha named Lotus Blossom; her co-star Marlon Brando was cast in “yellow face” as an Okinawan villager. She largely stopped acting in movies after Daiei filed for bankruptcy in 1971, although she made a notable return in the 1976 comedy “Tora’s Pure Love,” part of a long-running film series starring Kiyoshi Atsumi as a bumbling everyman.
Ms. Kyo never married, according to Japanese news reports, and a complete list of survivors was not immediately available. In interviews, she spoke of acting as her life’s work and overriding interest, scarcely rivaled by her collection of wooden dolls that drew interviewers’ notice in the 1950s.
“During the rehearsals before the shooting, I was left virtually speechless by Kyo Machiko’s dedication,” Kurosawa wrote in his memoir “Something Like an Autobiography,” using the traditional Japanese order of Ms. Kyo’s name. “She came in to where I was still sleeping in the morning and sat down with the script in her hand. ‘Please teach me what to do,’ she requested, and I lay there amazed.”