1939 - 1942

1939 - The so-called 'propaganda films'
Song of the White Orchid is the first of the 'trilogy', 'Continental', or 'goodwill films' which are now referred to as 'propaganda films'. Here is a video of scenes from the film accompanied by Hamako Watanabe singing the record version of "That Lovely Star":

Li Xianglan sang the song live in the movie, while Hamako sang the hit-record version; you can compare the more seasoned voice of Hamako above to the 19yr old Yoshiko here (it's easy to confuse Hamako and Yoshiko, my apology if I've got it wrong!):

"The horse carriage runs on,
Into the evening breezes and the green willows.
Softly I whisper,
Forlorn though I may be
My feelings will never change."

19yrs old in Song of the White Orchid:  

in October 1939 at age 19:

always in motion:

 The so-called propaganda films of Li Xianglan. 

Yoshiko said in a 2004 interview: "In 1938 - 1939 I appeared in a number of movies, and when the movies and songs became big hits, I travelled all over China. I was then recruited to be in Song of the White Orchid (December 1939), which was advertised widely using the slogans Goodwill between Japan and Manchuria and Friendship among the Five Ethnic Groups.

Other films which also utilized the same slogans were China Nights (Shina no yoru) (June 1940) and Vow in the Desert (Nessa no chikai) (December 1940)

a link to the complete film Vow in the Desert:       Oath of Burning Sands

Kazuo and Yoshiko in Oath in the Burning Sands:

These three above films are now known as the 'continental series' or 'friendship films' because [in Yamaguchi's words] "they were also propaganda tools in the service of Japan's continental policy."


Baskett (in his book "Attractive Empire", UH Press) analyzes Vow in the Desert because of it's attractive themes of Japan's 'film sphere'. He calls the film a "construction" film since it shows an actual road being built in China by Japanese interests, with all the controversy that such a project causes in the Chinese village society of the time. The Japanese civil engineer argues with a Chinese landowner to give up part of his land so the road can be built which will benefit everyone in the future. The messages in this film skillfully portray the Japanese as altruistically trying to modernize a piece of China (which at the time, sorely needed the modernization). Of course, the road would benefit both Japanese and Chinese if only they could've 'gotten along together'. Sadly, history showed otherwise. 

China Nights was shown all over Asia: Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea (as well as China, Japan and USA). 

Here are some stills from China Nights:
one of the best known stills from "China Nights", is below:

Yoshiko provides a light for Kazuo's cigarette while they take a languorous boat-ride in the final scene:

In any case, all these films involved a fairly obvious Japanese agenda, and every one of them had a simple romance story: a Chinese damsel (gunyang) played by Li Xianglan eventually falls in love with a strong and good-hearted Japanese soldier or sailor played by the famous Japanese heart-throb actor, Kazuo Hasegawa. 

another striking photo of both actors:

And each film had it's blockbuster songs; many of which became 'evergreen' standards of modern Chinese music. 
Here is Hamako Watanabe singing Shina no Yoru (has all the lyrics, etc) Hamako Watanabe version. 
And here is Yamaguchi singing it in her role as a most beautiful bride in China NightsYoshiko Yamaguchi version:

So while the songs were (and still are) universally beloved, her roles in the movies provoked Chinese reactions which ran the gamut from 'who cares about the movie story, the songs are fantastic,' and 'everyone knows she's part Japanese' through 'she's a Chinese consorting with the enemy and deserves to be executed for it'. 


I think we also have to acknowledge the pain of Chinese people who experienced first-hand the inhumanity and cruelty of Japan's army - understandably for these people there can be no accommodation or official appreciation of Li Xianglan, and it is left to the rest of us (who thankfully did not have to endure these horrendous actions) to write her praises.


Looking back at the decision which faced Li Xianglan at the beginning of her film career, one can posit that it was Faust-like: she had to make a pact with the devil of 'friendship film' screenplays in order to utilize the singing, linguistic, and other abilities she had worked very hard perfecting for many years. Who at the age of eighteen or nineteen and being a true bi-cultural person, would've rejected these roles and opted instead for an unknown future? - a future in which (1) opportunities for educated women were few, (2) opportunities for female degradation and dissolution were great, and (3) where support from Japanese interests might be withdrawn as retribution or even worse. And unlike some of her critics who have never made mistakes at a young age (and who accuse her of 'shape-shifting or being a colonized 'tool'), she did not have a crystal-ball or a wizard sitting on her shoulder to warn her about future events. 
(the above picture shows Yoshiko standing next to a "Takarazuka maiden", ie, one of the performers of the troupe of the same name.)

Iit is not accurate to say about her above controversial films (as some detractors have) that she was 'masquerading as a Chinese woman' and 'hiding her true nationality'. An actress who speaks both Chinese and Japanese perfectly in the same movie is not hiding anything to astute observers. Her memoir makes clear she enjoyed becoming Chinese in spirit, loved the culture, and wore the qipao dress (or cheongsam) as a Chinese woman would.
To those who can hear, her reality was much more complex; she was a true "born and bred in Manchuria" young woman, who did not hide her love of both Japan and China. In a certain sense, she was not hiding, but revealing herself in those 'continental trilogy' films. I believe a historical perspective will be kinder to her than current critics are.

the above video contains a beautiful, slow version of Suzhou Serenade, sung in Japanese as Li Xianglan walks slowly around the arch-bridge, pining for her lost lover:  Soshu Yakyoku
At this site: see the same bridge as it looks today.
and here's the wrap photo of the whole film-crew:


Yoshiko Yamaguchi, 94, Actress in Propaganda Films, Dies.
I wonder if the New York Times (which blared this disparaging headline to the world on Sept. 22, 2014) has even watched one of her films, fully appreciated one of her love songs, or realizes she made those films at the age of 19 and 20, in a different era, during war time.  

I wonder if they had a similar headline for the famous American baseball player:
Joe Dimaggio, 84, Huckster for Mr. Coffee, Dies. 

It's easy to parrot the word "propaganda" if your intent is to belittle someone's long career. Fortunately the article under the headline was more fair to Yoshiko in summarizing her amazing journey through life.


So let's examine something of what these 'propaganda' films actually conveyed to viewers.
On the face of it, each story was a simple romance, and in keeping with mores of the day in Asia, contained nothing prurient or even remotely racy. The stars acting in the films never even kiss one another, and there is little of the romantic 'realism' found in western films of the day. Instead, one finds a girl able to speak Chinese and Japanese fluently, who sings beautiful songs like a nightingale, and who seems to be in a musical play or a travelogue rather than a serious 'propaganda' or Mata Hari' story:

The point of each of these tales seems to be that a beautiful and singing Chinese woman who speaks perfect Japanese eventually falls in love with a handsome Japanese soldier - of course the Chinese who were subject to Japanese military brutality were hurt and offended by this and never accepted for a minute the underlying message. As intended 'propaganda', the films were abject failures, however, as unintended 'provocation', a great success. 

[here is a scene of Kieren (Yamaguchi) walking through her parents destroyed village and it shows an actual destructed Chinese area - realism, not propaganda!]

The Slap heard 'round the world, in "China Nights" 
the scene begins at about minute 41:00 in the below links to the movie:

This most famous moment of the three 'continental' films' occurs when Yoshiko is slapped across the face (viciously and very hard) by her co-star Kazuo Hasegawa:

He confirmed later that [because Yoshiko had acted so well the part of an ungrateful brat] he actually slipped into character during the heat of the moment, and really meant to slap her!  Yoshiko "saw stars, heard ringing in her ears, felt great physical pain, collapsed" and genuinely fell to the ground: 
  you can tell she is truly shocked and hurt,
but she recovers enough to be able to complete the scene, which ends with her running to Hasegawa's knee and asking for his forgiveness:

Yoshiko had never been struck in her life, and to be slapped in the face like that, on camera was absolutely traumatic for her. She almost lost the conscious ability to proceed with her lines.

We can only make educated guesses as to what may have led up to this scene: the director privately speaking to Kazuo prior to the scene, saying "you know you have to really hit her so we can get a realistic reaction from her." The script-writer mistakingly thinking to himself "this scene will perfectly symbolize Japan's attitude of love for China, how Japan then realizes it should not have mistreated China, and how China should respond to our enlightened way." 
Kazuo himself may have had some sub-conscious lingering issue connected with the fact he was a former "onnagata", ie, a male actor playing female roles in the Kabuki theater; now that he was playing a male, perhaps he had 'over-cooked' the slap. Maybe he had a deep-seated jealousy of the fact that Li Xianglan's femininity was effortless whereas all his work and technique in "iroke" (the Japanese art of amorous seduction) was by comparison with her, a real woman, relatively useless. 
Hasegawa himself 40yrs later told Li Xianglan he honestly thought she was Chinese [which may have added to the force of his blow].

In any case, the people in charge were tone-deaf as to how the average Chinese (or anyone not Japanese) would feel about this scene; it was one thing to see make-believe romance between actors, but it exceeded the bounds of taste to see a man abuse a woman, never mind a Japanese character actually abuse a Chinese one. And then, to have Li react by asking forgiveness - well all this just goaded the Chinese resistance into even greater hatred for Japan. 

This scene still goads her feminist critics today, who have no respect for Yoshiko's strength and independence and ability to recover from life's blows. More about this later.

And so, in just these two minutes of film time, was how Li Xianglan's life affected for the worse, and how she was almost executed for it after Japan lost the war. These few minutes gave her a lifetime of tears and guilt (and they provided New York City audiences recently with the opportunity to snicker at this girl who 'allowed herself to be used' by Japan's film policy). 
I wonder how many of these brave ridiculing types would've dealt with this man, the head of the film studio, Masahiko Amakasu (a man who was famously complicit in the political murder of three people, various subterfuges in Manchuria, and a ramrod straight-up militarist):

I don't see how we can fault a 19/20yr old fledgling actress for accepting the direction of the men around her, some of whom were more than twice her age. And I also believe she was too hard on herself in subsequent years, given her young age and the extraordinary times she lived through. 

The ending scenes of "China Nights" does contain a humorous episode recounted here by Yoshiko: her despondent character slowly walks into the water intending to drown herself out of sorrow, but as she does so, some enterprising leeches start to attach themselves to her legs! and the expression on her face then turns to real (and not acted) anguish!


My recollection is that when America or Britain made 'propaganda' films, these films depicted the enemy as heartless, cruel, and stupid, with no love lost between the protagonists. In contrast to these, the Japanese-produced films which Xianglan performed in had a realism about the conflict (Japanese vs Chinese) and for the most part a gentle positive message: China and Japan were similar, and so alike that love was possible and even desirable between them. [Ed. Wow - what kind of evil propaganda is this?]  

And the unintended consequences of these films which showcased the talent of Li Xianglan, was to create more love between people of all nationalities and left us with a library of musical gems and films which show how China used to look: can you name any other 'propaganda films' which achieved so many positive outcomes for humanity as a whole? 

Take for instance, the recent Hollywood films "Zero Dark Thirty" and "American Sniper", both propaganda films extolling American military virtues. Neither of these films will produce anything memorable or even a fraction of the overall good that Li Xianglan's films did.

how one of her fans views her "China Night" film and her singing:

HATTORI, Ryoichi  
The well-known singer Noriko Awaya 淡谷のり子 is mentioned several times in Yamaguchi's memoirs. Noriko's 1937 song "Farewell Blues" by R. Hattori (a famous composer) was banned during the war because of it's "unpatriotic and decadent music that threatens to demoralize Japan's fighting spirit". Yamaguchi and Noriko would sing it to troops at the front lines who (despite the ban) often requested it. It would often reduce many of them to tears. Despite what we think of the troops and their actions, we must admire the pure musicianship in this song:

Opening the window
And the harbor came into view
With the pier lights of foreign vessels.
Where will you be heading this time,
Riding the squall of love,
And the evening wind and waves,
With your grieving heart and ill-fated love,
Along with the sorrowful notes of the blues?

"Farewell Blues" sold at the unbelievable rate of fifty thousand copies a day!

But Hattori "wrote his best song and poured his heart and soul into it for the sake of Li Xianglan" (in her movie China Nights). 
It was called Suzhou Serenade:

In your arms,
Dreamily I listened to
The songs from the boats,
And the singing of the birds.
As spring blossoms scattered,
Along the waterfronts of Suzhou,
The willows gently wept,
As if unable to bear the sight.

The inspiration for this beautiful song was not Suzhou, but apparently the West Lake's Zhongshan Park in Hangzhou: 

Ryoichi Hattori was inspired to write Suzhou Serenade (or Nocturne) by Chinese music he heard during travels in China, and he "styled it after a sweet American love song". He further said "the arrangement of the melody makes it neither an indigenous Chinese nor a Japanese tune, it has an appetizing Western feel to it, but it's still an Oriental melody, wouldn't you agree? Speaking as the composer, I too find this mixture of Japanese, American, and Chinese elements simply irresistible!" [Ed. yes Ryoichi, yes, and even more yes!] 

The song truly is a lullaby to the human race, given to us by a group of creative people caught-up in the agonies of wartime. And apparently these musicians and composers were a complete mix of races, an egalitarian crew governed by what sounded best in the music. Millions of fans throughout Asia voted with their hard earned money and bought these records.  

As an example of the great effect the Suzhou Serenade can have on people, listen to how a noted man of letters named Akira Iwasaki recalls hearing the song while in prison:
"one evening, a song managed to waft it's way into our prison cell, coming from a radio somewhere. The tempo was quite slow, and the singing of the young woman became more and more alluring. A hushed silence quickly fell over everyone in the cell, violent and vulgar men though they were. Prisoners with stubbly beards all listened with their eyes closed; some even with tears streaming down their faces. . . . something strange had happened to all those intimidating and filthy characters; we were all dreaming of a world far away as our bygone memories began to stir up bittersweet emotions. Even after the song ended, for a while no one spoke a word. That was how I first heard The Suzhou Serenade. A newcomer to the cell later told us the singer was Li Xianglan."
this is Iwasaki and Yoshiko in better times after the war:

this shot is with her co-actor Suji Sano:

Starting from about 1940, Yoshiko started making more films with Japan based film production companies, and she was splitting her time evenly between China and Japan. 

In order to publicize the emerging star of Li Xianglan in Japan, the Man'ei company issued the following press release (an accurate description of the rising star):
"Her name is pronounced "Ri Koran" in Japanese and "Li Xianglan" in the Manchurian language. Born in 1920, she has just now reached the adorable age of 21. She possesses a unique presence that dazzles her many Japanese fans with her modern exotic charm, and she is now visiting Japan again.
Raised in Beijing as the beloved daughter of the mayor of Fengtian, she speaks fluent Japanese just by virtue of attending a school for Japanese children. So what we have is truly a representative gun'yang (maiden) from an Asia on the rise, a woman who speaks the three languages of Japanese, Manchurian, and Chinese with remarkable dexterity.
While her musical talents have long been recognized along with her beauty, as it so happens, her singing broadcasted on Fengtian (Shenyang) Radio stations instantly produced impassioned acclaim like a whirlwind across the land of Manchuria. Promptly invited to join the Manchurian Film Association, she soon made her glorious debut as an actress. Bursting upon the scene like a comet across the sky, it is truly beyond imagination to fathom the degree to which her striking brilliance has enhanced the developing state of Manchurian films!"
here she is in about 1941, Taiwan, where she had (and continues to have) a great fan base:

concerning Taiwan and Li Xianglan, there is the influence on Chinese modern literature of a
famous intellectual named Liu Na'ou, (b.1905 - 1940 d. by assassination)

he was murdered in Shanghai in Sep 1940, by either government agents or gang members (no one knows for sure). The fact he was born and raised in Taiwan, was partial to the Japanese while working in Shanghai, and was so influential in film culture while advocating a new approach to film-making; all these factors drew the attention of the authorities and the powerful gangs of Shanghai. 
You have to wonder how it is that someone like Yamaguchi (who was very close to Liu) was able to avoid a similar fate: the answer to this concerns the fact that she was (and had to be) very secretive at the time about her background. If she was not careful, she would have been in mortal danger from a variety of vicious sources - including the Japanese secret police (Kempeitai 憲兵隊) who did not look favorably on her relationships with Chinese, and the Chinese secret police and gangs who suspected she was a 'hanjian' (ie, traitor). 
This is Liu's famous book of short stories which had such a tremendous effect on Chinese intellectuals and also film production, "Urban Landscape":

how one academic views his career:

rumours still continue to fly about Li Xianglan's relationship with Liu Na'ou (since they were both involved in the film industry, and he had opened his own film company). she is quoted as saying when he was murdered on Sep 3, 1940: "that day I waited for him, but he did not arrive". A 1991 interview of Yamaguchi appears to confirm that indeed, they were lovers.
After the war, Yoshiko visited (swept) his gravesite located in Tainan, Taiwan (according to an article by the Taiwanese author Chenpeng Ren in 2012 - he had translated her biography into Taiwanese). 
I found another source that mentions her 1943 visit with his prominent family (Li Xianglan is seated to the left of Liu's mother): :Link to Taiwan article:
these next two photos were in the Liu Na'ou photo album:

from an article by Donna Ong in CINEJ journal:
and from another page:


1941: Yamaguchi was on location in Korea for the film You and I (Kimi to boku), produced by the Press Division of the (Japanese) Korean Army. When ordered to appear at a local police station, she found herself face to face with her 'parents'!: an elderly Korean couple named Lee. They were absolutely convinced she was their long-lost daughter "who had been kidnapped and taken to Manchuria at a young age". Xianglan even had a mole on her left wrist in the same location as their daughter had! 
1941: The Nichigeki Theater Riots
The three Continental films of Li Xianglan were box-office hits in Japan, fanning the desires of 'Japan-Manchurian friendship' which the films promoted. It was decided to take advantage of her current popularity by arranging a series of shows at the Nichigeki Theater in Tokyo (the white cylindrical structure in center of photo below):

this theater was one of the largest in Asia, having a maximum capacity of 3,000 seats:

Li Xianglan would appear in her movie costumes and sing the same songs live which featured in the films. Titled "The Singing Ambassadress Li Xianglan: For Japanese-Manchurian Friendship in Commemoration of our National Foundation Celebrations", these shows would commence on Japan's 'Independence Day' (called National Foundation Day). There would be three shows per day for a one week period. What could go wrong?

Well, for one thing, this was a time before advance ticket sales, before crowd control measures of even a rudimentary nature, and without any accurate idea of how many fans would show up in person to buy tickets at one of only two or three sales windows .  .  . and the general populace of young adults was starving for entertainment due to the oppressive rules which had clamped down on such 'frivolous' activities during a state of war.    

Then, there was this meeting of the various parties involved in putting on the show, where one right-wing party threatened "to call in the Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) if necessary in order to stop Li Xianglan's performance." And this was handled by Yoshiko herself who simply said "the matter has already been decided upon by the Manchurian Film Association and I'm going through with my performance no matter what happens." Whereupon, the bluffing party 'folded his cards' and agreed to let the show go on as planned. But just in case, Yoshiko was provided with a 'tall, dark, and handsome' personal body guard by the name of Eisui Kodama, "a good Kyushu man" just like her father. (more about him later)

On the chilly morning of February 11th, 1941, Li Xianglan and Kodama were surprised to find throngs of people already collecting outside the theater:
they tried going around to the back of the building where the dressing room entrance was, but "found themselves tightly squeezed into a complete standstill. At this point, Kodama was getting concerned for the safety of Li Xianglan (who was sensibly bundled up in fur coat and wearing a face-mask as people often do in Tokyo). 
The crowd itself was getting angry at Li and Kodama who were trying to push their way to the back entrance, thinking they were 'jumping the line': "Hey! this is the line for those with tickets. Go to the other end if you want yours. Queue up from the back!" and yelled ferociously "Don't cut in from the side! Don't push!"  

Eventually, Kodama had to call in reinforcements; he went and got a bunch of the theater guards who bodily lifted Li onto their shoulders, formed a flying wedge and knocked open the door to the dressing rooms. At that point, the queue line had run around the theater seven and a half times, an unanticipated deluge of hungry fans eager to see their film idol in person. Henceforth known as the "seven and a half" incident. 
This next photo was taken at a sold-out concert in Taiwan where she had tremendous success: 

(This phenomenon, of live theater performances of her hit songs being mobbed and sold-out, would repeat itself throughout Asia wherever Li Xianglan performed; people just could not get enough of her charismatic presence and hit songs on stage. It's clear from accounts of eye-witnesses that this girl had 'it', she was a bonafide superstar. She expressed something indescribably modern and romantic to her young fans everywhere).

But to continue our story at the Nichigeki theater, when eleven o'clock came around, it was show time, and what a show it must have been! from Yoshiko's memoir:     
Preparing to make my entrance from stage right (audience's left), I asked Kodama to give me a tap on the back to jostle me onto the stage, and in subsequent performances, he'd do the same since it calmed my nerves. The curtain stayed closed as the orchestra played the introduction to That Lovely Star from the movie Song of the White Orchid. Wearing a purple velvet Chinese dress with a white cape across it, I got into a silver horse-drawn carriage in the middle of the stage and waited in the darkness. As the introduction neared it's end, the curtain went up smoothly and the spotlight focused directly on me. As the illumination spread out across the stage, the audience could see me emerge from the luminous glow as I stood inside the carriage.

With that, the audience erupted in a roaring cheer that shook the very foundations of the theater. With horse-bridle bells ringing in the background, I began to sing the song: [this is the closest thing we have to a recording of her Nichigeki performance of That Lovely Star:] 

she continues: meanwhile I was filled with excitement at the frenzy of the audience. The crowd applauded enthusiastically during and at the end of the song with the bridle-bells receding in the distance.
Then I had a quick change of costume before I hid under the leaves of a banana tree which was center stage. Covering my face with a large feather fan, again I waited in the darkness until the strains of Suzhou Serenade could be heard; the spotlight came up on the fan concealing my face as I began to sing the song:

The audience burst into a tremendous uproar and started to applaud, only to immediately settle down into a hushed silence while I sang. Every change in my pose would inspire even more applause and after the song I went behind the stage. And so it went, the excitement from the audience continuing until the very last song of the program. 

The next song involved a re-creation of the movie set of China Nights on a rotating stage: in the first scene the 'uncivilized Chinese girl' releases a volley of curses at someone offstage, and slumping down, begins to sing; as the stage rotates during an interlude, Li Xianglan reappears dressed in a gorgeous Chinese cheongsam and continues the China Nights song:  

and then for the Red Water Lilies number, she performed a simple Chinese dance:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg11c7h4x7Y   (from the movie Pledge in the Desert, the scenes are Peking, 1940)

for her next routine, Li Xianglan became a French-singing chanteuse wearing a white evening gown; leaning on a black grand piano, and coquettishly asking the audience "Tell me, why are you so quiet? Come now, let me hear them, your sweet words of love". 

her last number, delivered in a wine-red evening dress, was The Drinking Song from La Traviata, and for this one she was accompanied by a whole chorus. 

This is not Li Xianglan's version but it has the romantic words to this song in subtitles:   
when it came to the chorus, the audience at Nichigeki rose to their feet, linked arms and gave a rousing chorus so loud it rocked the theater. After the show ended, a young girl presented Li Xianglan with a bouquet of flowers (see picture above).

see 1941 entry regarding the riots:

It was not until the following day, February 12th, that the full story of the 'riotous fan behavior' was reported in all the major newspapers. 

The Asahi Shimbun was especially critical of the event, being that several of it's vehicles had been smashed up in the melee: 
"it is sad to write about such matters, but our report also wants to convey the wish that this is the last time we will ever see such chaos again. In the blink of an eye, the jostling fans flooded the square in front of the building and the surrounding roads. The crowd didn't bother to queue up or do anything of the sort. The swarming scene of tens of hundreds of people wrestling one another to be the first to the two or three ticket booths then turned into scuffling brawls. Woman screaming with cuts on their foreheads, students angrily pushing forewards, vehicles rocking left and right as they were shoved by the crowd, the situation growing worse to the point where some women and children had to climb up onto the roofs of the cars in order to escape the crush of the mob." 

This was how the newspaper accounts went (and this was also Yoshiko's 21st birthday!). And so for the rest of her life, on every birthday, she was able to chuckle about how she 'brought the house down' at the Nichigeki theater . . . and made a lot of young people very happy while doing it. (did I forget to mention the fire-hoses brought out to try and control the unruly mob?)

The Nichigeki Incident (as it has come to be known) was a social phenomena involving some one hundred thousand fans in all, and has been researched accordingly. It's most popularly known as "the seven and a half rings" around the theater incident. Some newspapers reported that Li Xianglan had not received her proper entertainer's permit, and in an amused fashion she recalls having to go to the police and reveal her real name and place of birth (Kishima in Saga Prefecture). The official in charge was surprised too by this revelation, saying "Ah, that's why her Japanese is so good!"   
It seems from her memoir that she enjoys 'tweaking' the nose of authority, and she certainly accomplished this by being the fabulous star reason for the Nichigeki riots.

In a closing note to this episode, Yamaguchi describes how "she awoke one morning and found herself famous" during the Nichigeki performances. And somewhat sadly she adds, "being famous did not change me in the least - I was exactly the same person, but just because I became popular meant I was compelled to isolate myself in an inconspicuous room to eat a solitary meal."


Following the Nichigeki Incident, Yamaguchi stayed the rest of the year in Tokyo, which would have been the balance of the 1941 year. The Pearl Harbor attack occurred on Dec. 7, 1941. 

Matters of the Heart
At about this point in her memoir, Yamaguchi broaches the delicate subject of 'matters of the heart', and with the same candor that runs throughout her work. The above personal security guard named Eisui Kodama apparently did become quite close to her. 

However, her professed first love was a "tormented relationship" with a member of a high-class Japanese family. He wrote her a beautiful, intelligent, five page fan letter "in splendid Japanese" following her 1941 Nichigeki performance. 
named Ken'ichiro Matsuoka, he was a highly educated university law-student attending Tokyo Imperial University. The letter had some profound insights regarding her 'sense of self worth' vis-a-vis the 'national policy' of the state.

Of the many sentiments and thoughts the letter conveyed, Yoshiko was impressed by these: the worth of a human being cannot be measured by the uproar society generates or by the fame one acquires: it is not the same as what appears on the surface. Yoshiko comments with "I wonder if that was not meant as a cautionary remark to temper any puffed-up conceit I might have felt for being the recipient of such explosive popularity" [such as at the Nichigeki]. 

The letter continued: In a newspaper interview, you explained that you use the name Li Xianglan by chance. But you are not the one at fault, you are just being exploited by our national policy. Do take good care of yourself; in a time like this, the individual's worth is taken lightly like a plaything. This makes it all the more important that one not lose sight of oneself lest she becomes nothing more than the pawn of the nation and the circumstances of the time. You have a light shining in your heart. I trust you will always cherish it. 

It's quite possible that this letter planted some seeds of thought in Yoshiko's mind, especially after being slapped on camera and 'exploited by the national policy' for their own purposes with no apparent regard for the 'pawn' it had abused. The words "but you are not the one at fault" must also have echoed loudly in her mind while she was on trial in late 1945. 


At the time Yoshiko met Ken'ichiro, his father (pictured above), Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka was negotiating the Japan-Soviet Non-aggression Pact with Stalin; here is a picture of him and Stalin signing it in April 1941:

The senior Matsuoka was a key figure in the Japanese government over a long period of time. For instance, it had been him and his staff who walked out of the League of Nations inquiry into the Pingdingshan massacre of 1932 (noted elsewhere in this biography). The fact that a 12yr old Yoshiko had lived only a few miles from Pingdingshan, had witnessed the Japanese brutalizing Chinese partisans, and then eventually fell in love with the son of the same Matsuoka is just another fascinating twist of fate in her life. 

For more interesting facts about the senior Matsuoka see:


Yamaguchi's relationship with Ken'ichiro continued for several years, although it was made difficult because her popularity at this time had propelled her into a hyper-active life-style of continuous travel. 
When in Tokyo, she and her attendant Masako stayed in a mansion-sized apartment at the Imperial Apartments in Nogizaka; surrounded by western-style buildings in the Aoyama It-chome area. And who lived across the street? why it was the same painter Umehara who had painted her picture in Peking when she was in high-school. This is the general area in Tokyo where she lived then:
There are several locations on this map that Yoshiko tells us about. 
Ken'ichiro and her would go to eat at a good restaurant in Akasaka, sitting in a private back room to hide their rendezvous. Sometimes, they would go to Yoshiko's Nogizaka mansion-apartment, at other times they would stroll at night through the beautiful grounds of the Aoyama Cemetery (see left side of map and the below pictures): 

Yoshiko mentions romantic walks of an evening through this cemetery at cherry blossom time:
It's clear from how Yoshiko writes about this long-term affair that she had hopes it would lead to a marriage proposal sometime, but for some reason (whether it was the chaos of war-time or the fact she was dedicated to her work with all the travel involved, or the differences in their lives, education, and social standing) the proposal was not forthcoming in the early years when she would have welcomed it. 
When it did arrive (lukewarm) in about 1948, Yoshiko was by then a different person, having "escaped a death sentence" in China and that whole traumatic scene. It seemed she had to make a choice: marriage or career? She decided to "begin a new chapter in her life as an actress", and chose career; this at a time before the feminist movement even existed.


Yoshiko's relationship with Eisui Kodama began when he was assigned as her personal body-guard for the 1941 Nichigeki theater performances. He was the eldest son of a wealthy family and upon graduating from college in 1939 was sent to fight in the Soviet-Japanese war along the northern Manchurian-Mongolian border. the below picture of Kodama was retouched by Knoski: 

Nomonhan was the name of this particular killing field, and Kodama narrowly escaped death while many of his compatriots were not so lucky. You might see his face in the images of the soldiers in this video:

For those interested further in this 'battle in the middle of nowhere' involving tens of thousands of casualties on both sides, the below link has maps, photos, and a description of the battle. As the above video states, the Nomonhan battle which the Japanese army lost decisively had a great importance on subsequent events of WW2. One of the effects was to give more strength to Japan's naval forces which led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.   


You can sense in the way Yoshiko writes about him, that she liked him very much, but was not 'head over heels' in love.

Apparently, the relationship lasted for several years. 
Kodama eventually received his military orders to embark for the Philippines. A few days after, he goes to see Yoshiko on a dark 'blackout' night (the Americans were bombing Tokyo at this time). They face one another in a moonlit room. He says "I'll send you letters from the Philippines". Suddenly, she is siezed with heartache for him, and they both walk in the dark from Nogizaka to Roppongi:

Kodama tells her "I think you should go back now", but the moon was very beautiful that night, and Yoshiko "wanted to go wherever he wanted to go". He lived in an apartment near the Soviet Russian Embassy (which was built on Mamiana hill). So they both walked in silence to and from Mamiana to Nogizaka; there wasn't another soul on the streets. Well actually there was another soul: a policeman jumped out and yelled "Hey you! What do you think you're doing, a man and a woman walking hand in hand in this time of emergency!"

The next day, the cops caught her breaking the law again, this time by going to see Kodama off inside the Tokyo train station (people were forbidden to do this). She begged the cop to look the other way, and he did. The train to Shimonoseki started to move while Kodama bent his head to the side so it wouldn't bump the roof of the train, in his left hand a military sword in a cloth bag. It would be her last view of him.

In the early summer of that fateful 1945 year, came a letter from him mailed in October 1944 from Manila. All wrinkled, scuffed and dirty as though it had been sent to and returned from many locations, it was a miracle that it even reached Yoshiko. (some of the stamps looked like this):

Kodama wrote: "Here, the most popular figure is President Laurel, and the second most popular is Li Xianglan. Would you consider coming to the Philippines while you're enjoying such popularity? I offer to be your security guard again. I was very happy to learn about your fine reputation in such a faraway place. You must come, and I'll make arrangements." 

But by then, it was impossible for her to consider going to the Philippines, the battle of Manila having already taken place in Feb-Mar 1945:
for more on this battle see:

Later in 1949, Yoshiko was able to speak with Kon, one of Kodama's friends who knew him during those Manila battles. Kon and him would often get together in the evening to drink

and they would talk about Li Xianglan also. 

Kodama was "a real tough guy" and decided to make his last stand in the Manila Intramuros (the old walled fort, above, originally built by the Spanish). Hanging around his neck was a small locket containing a photo of Yoshiko.

a 1941 concert trip to Taiwan was a huge success. She posed here with a native (aboriginal) Taiwanese girl:

of course, a Taiwanese fan has investigated where this picture was taken! 
and here is the answer:


another photo taken in Taiwan at a film wrap:

Yoshiko with the great composer Chen Gexin:
Chen wrote one of the most popular Chinese songs to ever 'cross-over' to become a hit in the western world, it was called "Rose, Rose, I Love You". Yao Lee sang the hit song. Here's all about the song:

she was rumored to have had a brief relationship with him. The story goes that Chen wrote the famous hit "Too Late when we met" (ie, already married) at the time. The pictures below are of Chen, his wife and children:

Chen had a relatively short life. In 1938 he was arrested and tortured in Shanghai, refusing to give up the names of his friends in the anti-Japanese movement of the time. After the war he went to Hong Kong and led a nice life there, but was homesick for Shanghai. He went back to Shanghai in 1957 at a dangerous time for artists like him; classified as a rightist, he was sent to the Anhui Labor Camp and eventually died there of hunger and over-work in 1961 at age 47. His wife went to the prison site in 1962 to retrieve his ashes.
Chinese blog site about his Rough Life.  Another blog site.

In 1992 Chen's son met Yamaguchi long after Chen senior had passed away. She asked about Chen Gexin, and then said "Your father and I, ah well . . . . ".  In an even later television interview, she says with a chuckle that she almost married Chen, but didn't put this in her book because "the most important thing is not written in the book!"  According to another source, Chen had decided to marry his Chinese sweetheart instead of Yoshiko.

from the 1942 film "Winter Jasmine":

a link to the film "Winter Jasmine":


Shelley Stephenson has written a scholarly hit piece chapter titled "Her Traces Are Found Everywhere" about Li Xianglan (complete with interesting footnotes) in a book named Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943. 
From this chapter (and others of similar nature) we can get some idea of Li Xianglan's life during the early 1940's years. And Xianglan was a very hard worker indeed: we learn that she was diligent to a fault and typically working fifteen to sixteen hour days. 

At one point Yoshiko says "at my post, I must eternally study, study!" By this she meant continuous and daily voice, music, language, and acting lessons. She changes teachers in order to improve specific skills. I don't think any of her contemporaries worked as hard to perfect their artistry as she did. 
with Man'ei (Manchuria Film Corporation) personnel:

below, Li Xianglan is third from right:

Above: Bai Guang (one of the famous seven Shanghai divas) and Li Xianglan. 
On a side-note, Bai was living with Toru Yamaga, the intelligence agent who had maintained contact with Li through-out this time period). Yamaga was arrested by the Japanese military police in 1943 (perhaps due to his ex-lover Yoshiko Kawashima informing on him directly to Army Minister Tojo Hideki). Charged with ten offenses ranging from treason, spying, revealing national secrets, and using opium, he was court-martialed and sentenced to ten years in prison. Li Xianglan and Bai Guang tried to visit him there, but were refused. More on this story later, since it does not end here. 

This aspect of Li's life: the hard work it took to attain success, is completely overlooked in the many obituaries and summaries of her life. In a 1943 article, she urged all peoples of Asia to work together so as to enjoy future happiness. She closes the article saying "and now in my heart I can see: [I must] work diligently, diligently, diligently - for the art of film, and even more for the future peace and comfort of Greater Asia!".  

Can there be anyone out there who reads these words as 'Greater East Asia film sphere propaganda' and not the idealistic thoughts of a hard-working young woman? 

The emphasis in the press was on "the diligent artist Li Xianglan" (and not on her love life, as was the case with most other personalities). Typically, the press was unsuccessful at delving into her private life, perhaps because there simply wasn't that much of it to talk about. The reason for this, as accounts suggest, was that "Li is more in love with her work than with anything or anyone else". She also said at the time, "I don't want a lover; I like art, and art is my lover".

For Li, film-making and art alike are work; at times she appears "haggard" and "pallid", one photo is captioned "Ms. Li Xianglan - the bird, exhausted from flight, which longs for home?"

When she was not studying she was filming, giving interviews, making appearances at film-studio functions, and traveling by train, plane, and ship to places like Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and all over China. 

She was also welcomed by Russian fans: there are famous YouTube clips of her singing in Russian, and many Russian websites dedicated to her. Here is one:

One of the reasons for the 'mysterious' persona of Li, was simply that her energy and work-ethic kept her so busy that no one was ever able to get a completely stationary view of her. And she used that rarity of appearance to her benefit: the beauty, singing and linguistic skills gave her a world-class mysterious exoticism which has rarely been matched anywhere else in the world of film and music. No one at the time knew her complete story; although everyone had heard bits and pieces of tantalizing information. It wasn't until she wrote her biography in 1985 that the whole story was officially made known.

In the above Japanese 'friendship films', she would typically act in a scene or two, and then be off traveling to the next location for scenes in another and completely different movie. It was not a system like we have now of shooting just one movie at a time and becoming completely immersed in one story and then attending a gala showing of the movie. So there was no continuity in the filming, and Li never knew how she was being portrayed by the whole movie because she never saw any of the finished products of her work. When she did see them all the way through, many years later, it did cause her a lot of grief. 

It seems impossible by today's film-shooting practice, but Xianglan herself states that "I was so busy that I never saw [the films] from start to finish. I would just film the scenes that I was in, then rush off to the next location. For Eternity I went to Shanghai, and my Bush Warbler was in Harbin, so I didn't ever see one of the movies I was in all the way through. And when I saw them for the first time, when we were writing my book [My Life as Ri Koran], I cried. How could I have starred in such stupid movies! What could I have been thinking I wondered; I became desperate to the point that I lost sleep for months and even thought of suicide". 

She also said "I feel a great guilt for having played a Chinese woman useful for Japanese purposes". As a consequence of this, in her future life she became an outspoken critic of Japanese brutality during the war, a defender of people suffering under occupation, and an indefatigable champion of friendship, truthfulness about the war, and toleration between Japan and China. 

a scene from White Orchid:

But enough about all that for now: let's enjoy some more pictures of Li Xianglan:

one of her most memorable publicity shots:

perhaps her personal favorite photograph:

in the year 2010, it was sitting in Yoshiko's apartment during an interview with a delegation from Fushun:

from the same 'shoot': one of her most alluring and beautiful shots:


mid 1942: Yoshiko writes: "Until this time, the films in which I appeared were all sweet love romances heavily marketing the allure of the Chinese continent, and I was beginning to feel guilty about how my performances had after all been fantasies far detached from the realities of the continent and how the Chinese people actually lived. I can't recall how many times a film like China Nights had been the object of scathing criticism by my Chinese friends. I also realized that the films dedicated to so-called "Japanese-Manchurian Friendship" ended up satisfying none other than Japan's egotistical needs.Such frustrations prompted me to jump at a chance to play a rather unprepossessing role in an independent Man'ei production: The Yellow River." 

Normally I don't include reenactments of Li Xianglan's life from movies about her (the two main ones being made in 1989 and 2006). However, the 1989 movie has such a realism about it that I include it here to give the taste of how "Yellow River" was filmed in an active war zone. The clip begins with the famous scene of Yoshiko while on a train full of wounded and bloody soldiers:

The pink area of map shows the extent of Japan's military forces in about 1942:

The location of this film-shoot (Kaifeng-see above map) is in the same area where in 1938 the Nationalist Chinese army had 'blown the dikes' on the river, unleashing a man-made flood that had the effect of stalling the advance of the Japanese army, although it also eventually killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were caught in the floods. The death-toll was not so much from quickly drowning as it was from gradual disease and starvation. 
It was one of the most heart-rending military decisions ever made in history, to sacrifice one's own people, and it may have saved China from capitulating to the Japanese onslaught. 

The following episode is copied from Fumiko Halloran's review of Yoshiko's book "My Early Life as Li Xianglan":  http://www.japansociety.org.uk/29953/my-life-as-li-xianglan/
"She writes movingly about her visits to war zones in 1942. At that time she was working on an epic movie, “The Yellow River,” which took place near the frontline in Henan Province. Financed by the Manchurian Film Association, it was almost all a Chinese production. During the filming, the cast was in danger of being caught in the cross fire between the Japanese army and the Kuomintang or Communist Chinese forces. The theme was village life near the river in a place about to become a battlefield. When the production completed its work and left, Yamaguchi recalls that two extra train cars connected to theirs were filled with wounded Japanese soldiers covered with blood. Yamaguchi and another actress helped the medics attend to the wounded throughout the night. When the train stopped, even the dying soldiers wanted her to sing, so she jumped off the train and stood in a wheat field under the moonlight and sang old Japanese songs for the soldiers."

If the above scene had occurred in a modern movie, we would give an Academy Award to the actress who played the part of a singer whose voice was so angelic that men on their very deathbeds would only want to hear her singing as the last sounds in their ears. We begin to see why her life is called "legendary": she was not just "an actress"; her life story was larger by far than any story in her movies. 

taken in Japan 1940:

:her famous book-cover photo

of course she looks Korean in this photo!

This is a fascinating 1942 recollection by Yamaguchi's personal chauffeur named Zhang Xirong:         http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_a0586c370102vn0y.html

"There was a time, I also served as the driver of a famous movie star Rainbow Leung [ie, Li Xianglan], she used to live in Mukden Building Ho Tien biloutransliteration ), it was the biggest modern hotel in Shenyang, there are seven floors, more than 400 rooms, as well as meeting rooms of different sizes, there are elevators, and carpeted hallways. 

Fengtian Street building is separate from cinema "mainland Theater," I was often [driving] Xianglan to attend film screenings, and because at the front door [there are] always cinema fans and reporters gathered, so I always take Rainbow Leung so she can quietly [enter] the back door. Because I speak Japanese, in the car we have the opportunity to chat. Rainbow Leung, she was 22 years old, and I was 20 years old; she was very kind, very elegant, generous, and beautiful." 

to be cont'd: