When Shintoho’s voluptuous new discovery Maeda Michiko got naked for Shimura Toshio’s Revenge Of The Pearl Queen (Onna Shinju-o no Fukushu, 1956), her unclothed form, captured by the camera from behind, hit screens with a seismic force. Lines of fans, mostly male, formed outside theaters to glimpse Maeda in all her glory and a new star - and genre - was born.
The film’s central plot line was based on the true story of 19 Japanese men who had been discovered on Anatahan, a tiny island in the Marianas Group, in June 1951. Refusing to accept Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, they had been scraping out a bare existence, while scheming and fighting over the one woman in their midst, the young widow of an agricultural instructor. After occasioning deadly disputes among the men, while playing one off against another, she had escaped to an American boat the previous June.
This tale of sex and survival inspired Joseph von Sternberg, the directorial Svengali to Marlene Dietrich, to make Anatahan, using an all-Japanese cast and Japanese dialogue. A modest success in Japan, the film was a flop in the US following its 1953 release - and Sternberg never directed again.
Shimura’s version begins, not on a island, but with a young trading company employee, Kizaki (Utsui Ken), delivering documents to the company president in Hakone. That night the president is killed and the company safe is robbed. The next day, Kizaki sees off his girlfriend, Natsuki (Maeda), and the company managing director, Asanuma (Fujita Susumu), on a voyage to the United States. Soon after, he is arrested and charged with the president’s murder, while a telegram is sent to the ship requesting that Natsuki be held on suspicion of being Kizaki’s accomplice.
In fact, Asanuma plotted the murder and robbery in cahoots with Noguchi (Tanba Tetsuro), his saturnine young subordinate. When a hungry-eyed Asanuma tells Natsuki he will testify the right way if she treats him the right way, she resists - and ends up overboard.
When we next see her, she is on a tropical island beach, prostrate with exhaustion. She is revived by five Japanese male castaways - several of whom are as hungry-eyed as Asanuma.
She escapes their assaults with the help of the elderly Ishizuka (Sawai Saburo) and his prospective son-in-law Yamauchi (Amachi Shigeru). Then, diving off the coast, she discovers enough pearls to make her fortune. After she and the others are finally rescued, years later, she cashes in - and becomes known as the “pearl queen.” She also knows facts that will free Kizaki - and sets in motion a scheme to trap the real criminals.
Though no actress, Maeda had an upright, ladylike bearing, even when she was fleeing bare-breasted from would-be rapists, that justified the “queen” appellation. And, of course, au naturel, she was a natural.