Yoshiko Ōtaka 大鷹 淑子) died this week, aged 94, of a heart attack. Who was she, and why does it matter? Otaka was a glamour actress who starred in the film Shina no Yoru (China Nights) (1940), using her Chinese name and identity, Li Xianglan. Nearly everyone knows the song from that film, albeit in its racist, bowdlerized version. Just as Otaka masde propaganda films for the Japanese invasion of China, she made propaganda films for the American occupation of Japan, under the name Shirley Yamaguchi. A "Chameleon woman", because that's the way to survive in difficult times.
China Nights is so notorious in China, that its very mention still gives some people bad memories. I approached it with trepidation. Once you get over the propaganda aspects, though, it's not such a bad movie. You can see why it convinced many Japanese at the time that they were doing good for the Chinese by invading their country,, bombing and killing. Please read my analysis of the film here. "China Nights - totally politically incorect".
In the film, Li plays a Chinese partisan who learns to realize that the Japanese are nice people who just want to civilize the Chinese. Needless to say, this didn't go down well with the Chinese. As a symbol of Japanese oppression, she was vilified. Just as she was about to be sentenced to death, it was revealed that she wasn't Chinese at all, but a Japanese who had been adopted by Chinese. So it wasn't treason by patrotism for the wrong side. Sher moved to Japan wherte she made more movies and becamer a member of the Japanese parliament. Her life is thus a snapshot of turbulent times. A chameleon lady, who switched names, nationalities and professions (she wasn't all that good a singer either). She was a woman who survived because she had to be what the peiople around her expected her to be. Not really so different from millions of other women after all. What is a stereotype, after all? Below, another of her famous songs, sung in Chinese,