Yoko Tani: From Samson to Venus

22 Jul

Yoko Tani (1928-1999) was a Japanese actress/dancer who was born in France but raised in Japan and got her start in movies after she returned to France in the 1950s. I first became aware of her as a child when I saw her in SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD (which played the Bronx in 1963), an Italian muscleman film starring Gordon Scott as Samson (Maciste in the Italian original). Around the same time, FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, another film Ms. Tani starred in, also showed up in neighborhood theaters and I remember noting Tani’s name in the ads. I didn’t get to see FIRST SPACESHIP at the time and would have to wait some 20-odd years before seeing it on TV.

Yoko Tani arriving at the London premiere of THE WIND CANNOT READ, 1958

I recently watched both films, SAMSON and FIRST SPACESHIP, on public domain DVDs just to relive an era when neighborhood theaters offered such a diverse cultural mix. SAMSON was an Italian/French co-production set in China in the 13th century with an American star, a Japanese leading lady and assorted French, Italian and Asian cast members, and released in English by American International Pictures. FIRST SPACESHIP was an East German/Polish production from behind the Iron Curtain, filmed in East Germany, about a multinational eight-person crew traveling to Venus with a cast that included various European actors, a Japanese leading lady, and actors from Africa and China (but none from the U.S.), and released in the U.S., dubbed in English,  by Crown International.

Ms. Tani has quite an interesting and wide-ranging filmography, having shot films in France, Japan, England, Italy, Hollywood, West Germany, East Germany, Canada, and Brazil and probably a few other places as well. She appears as an Eskimo in Nicholas Ray’s THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS (1960), which also included a late-career appearance by Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American actress who at one time had been under contract at Paramount Pictures and even starred in some low-budget films there (DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI, 1937). Ms. Tani also stars with Dirk Bogarde in the English wartime romance, THE WIND CANNOT READ (1958), which I’ve never seen but would very much like to. Her first Hollywood film was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s THE QUIET AMERICAN (1958), filmed in Rome, but set in Saigon, and based on Graham Greene’s novel. In the film, according to Wikipedia, she plays “a francophone Vietnamese nightclub hostess,” a role I don’t recall from my one viewing of the film many years ago. In Japan, she appeared in a women’s prison film entitled, JOSHU TO TOMO NI (1956), with the great Japanese actresses Setsuko Hara (TOKYO STORY) and Kinuyo Tanaka (THE LIFE OF OHARU). Tani’s other Hollywood films include MY GEISHA (1962) and WHO’S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED (1963). Ms. Tani may be alone among Japanese actresses in achieving her greatest celebrity in foreign (i.e. non-Japanese) films. And she crossed paths with some of the greats, most notably Anna May Wong and Setsuko Hara.

Yoko Tani (center) in SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD

In SAMSON, Tani plays Princess Lei-Ling, daughter of the Emperor of China under Mongol occupation, who is pursued by Mongol leader Garak, who wants to marry her to consolidate his control of China. At one point, she is held prisoner in the palace and rescued by Samson and led to the monastery hideout where those rebelling against Mongol rule are gathering.

She has a brother who escapes also to join the rebels and fight the Mongols. The Mongols figure out where they’re hiding and attack the monastery. Samson uses his strength to open up a tunnel through which everyone can escape and then closes it to block out the Mongols. At one point, the princess comes up with a plan to regain control of the palace by going back and agreeing to marry Garak, all to set up a signal for Samson and the others to attack. Long story short: Garak sees through her plans and imprisons her and thwarts the rebels’ attack, capturing them all and disabling Samson who is believed dead and buried in a crypt underground, right under the courtyard where the prisoners are to be executed. Samson wakes up just in time…and all hell breaks loose.

Gordon Scott as Samson, the original tree-hugger:

And he loves animals, too:

It’s not one of the best Italian “sword ‘n’ sandal” movies I’ve ever seen. Before I re-watched it a few years ago on VHS, I remembered very little of it from the childhood screening. In fact, the film’s co-feature, WARRIORS FIVE, a black-and-white Italian World War II drama starring Jack Palance as an American G.I. on a mission behind enemy lines in Italy, was much more memorable and had a bigger impact at the time (and held up quite well in a repeat viewing a few years ago).

Still, Ms. Tani is quite a forceful and beautiful presence in SAMSON and gives it an authentic element that would have been lacking if they’d cast an Italian or French actress in the part. Granted, we don’t hear Ms. Tani’s real voice, nor that of Gordon Scott for that matter. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Ms. Tani’s real voice in a film. If I have any complaint about her role in the film, it’s that she’s too often just a damsel in distress.

The original “girl with the dragon tattoo”

SAMSON was shot on sets left over from another Italian/French co-production set in China, MARCO POLO (1962), which also starred Ms. Tani as a Chinese princess, with Hollywood western star Rory Calhoun along for the ride in the title role. Many of the Asian extras in the film were recast in SAMSON. Interestingly, the monastery setting of SAMSON and its Chinese monks looked forward to the Hong Kong kung fu films which started hitting the American market some ten years later, starting in 1973, and which I’d be seeing in neighborhood theaters, including the exact theater where I saw this film (the Deluxe on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx).

In FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, top-billed Ms. Tani plays Sumiko Ogimura, a Japanese physician, the medical doctor assigned to the international spaceship headed to Venus to investigate the origins of an extraterrestrial artifact found in China.

The crew includes a number of different nationalities, including American, French, German, Russian, Indian, African and Chinese. Dr. Ogimura is a widow whose husband died in space years earlier. Brinkmann, the German scientist, is an old friend of hers and clearly in love with her, but she refuses to allow any romantic involvement during the voyage.

En route, the linguist recruited to translate the message contained in the artifact reveals that it details plans for an invasion of Earth. Long story short: they get to Venus and find an imaginative, almost surreal landscape, recreated entirely in the studio, containing what they only gradually realize to be the ruins of a civilization.

Apparently, the Venusians had destroyed themselves in a nuclear war. There are even shadows of Venusians on a wall, echoing the images of people reduced to shadow outlines on walls in Hiroshima, a connection made explicit by having the Japanese character notice them here.

It’s a serious science fiction film, long on ideas, but short on thrills and action. Still, it makes a great show of the exploration of another planet and the unfamiliarity of the landscape encountered by the crew members. Unlike so many extraterrestrial surfaces found in so many Hollywood space movies, this one looks completely different from what we would normally see. Also, a lot of attention is paid to life aboard the ship and the cooperation and tension among the different crew members.

Ms. Tani, being the only woman and the only beauty in an otherwise undistinguished cast—at least in terms of looks–stands out quite strongly whenever she’s onscreen. Plus, she gets to be proactive and to participate in a lot of the action.

And she looks great in a spacesuit, too:

Both films were cut down considerably for their U.S. release. SAMSON lost 18 minutes, while SPACESHIP lost about 15 minutes. I have recently learned of the availability of the original German cut of SPACESHIP, in a box set called The DEFA Sci-Fi Collection: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0009WIEHU/ref=nosim/dvdtalk

I’m looking forward to seeing more movies with Yoko Tani if I ever get the opportunity, especially her English ones. I have three of her Hollywood films on tape, recorded off of cable movie channels, and I need to re-watch those, but I don’t have the one I’m most curious to see: MY GEISHA. But it is available on DVD (at a high price) and on Amazon Instant Video.

Here’s a link to her IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0849447/

And her Wikipedia page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Tani

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One Response to “Yoko Tani: From Samson to Venus”

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  1. March 10, 1963: The Making of a Film Buff | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - March 11, 2013

    […] SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD here on July 22, 2012, in a piece I did on Japanese actress Yoko Tani (Yoko Tani: From Samson to Venus), the Japanese actress who plays the Chinese princess in SAMSON. I’d watched it again in […]

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