James Remembers Tura Satana (1938-2011)

One of the great personalities of cinema has passed away this weekend. Tura Satana, the iconic actress from Russ Meyer’s equally iconic film Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, died on February 4th due to heart failure.

Born Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi in Hokkaido, Japan, Tura had the gift of showbiz in her, considering her father was a silent actor in Japanese film and her mother was a circus performer of Cheyenne and Scots-Irish descent. Moving to Chicago at a young age, she was tormented by students for being Asian (being it was right after World War II) and for being fully developed physically at a young age. Something that sounds more like a movie than real life, she was raped by five men at the age of nine and the judge let them go. Rumors of a pay off were there and she vowed vengeance. Tura learned aikido and karate and actually went after each man to show them she wouldn’t be a victim, only letting them know who she was afterward.

“I made a vow to myself that I would someday, somehow get even with all of them.”

Getting sent to reform school because of the rape, she became a leader of a gang, with leather jackets and all the trimmings (echoing a later performance). Married at the age of 13, this was a brief fling and Tura left for Los Angeles to try her hand at blues singing. This didn’t work out and she started posing nude for silent film star Harold Lloyd, who did not know she was underage. Lloyd was the one who convinced her to get into showbiz and myself as a fan… I thank you Harold Lloyd.

She was mainly a dancer, burlesque being the main driving point for her living, and this is how she continued to get noticed for small roles in TV (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and cameos in movies, such as Irma La Douce and Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?. In 1965, she was seen by Russ Meyer and he, being a lover of women of exceptional attributes, wanted her to star in his new movie.

The iconic role of Varla was given to Satana, which Meyer and screenwriter Jack Moran both agreed upon right at her audition. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is definitely a film that isn’t for everyone, but is a very important film in the history of cinema, mainly for the fact that it was one of the first times society saw women being violent, aggressive and sexual which of course was mainly a male dominated format in film. In tight black clothes and kicking the crap out of men and women alike, Varla is a character women still emulate today, be it in other films and even in the music scene (there is a band named Tura Satana).

Satana still, in my opinion, made Varla a character that is complex, and something that wasn’t common in a Meyer production: honest. To this day, people know the film mainly because of her and that alone shows the power of her screen presence. So much so, that Meyer regretted never using Satana again in any of his future films.

A few other films of note that she did were The Astro-Zombies, which I still say is only watchable because of Satana being in it. She worked with Ted Mikels again in the film The Doll Squad, about an elite squad of female agents who are tracking down international criminals. Quentin Tarantino, being a huge fan of Satana, even referenced this in his film Pulp Fiction, when Mia (Uma Thurman) speaks about her failed TV pilot, Fox Force Five.

She wasn’t as prolific in film as you’d think, which is a shame because she was such a presence in general. Tura Satana is an icon because in such a limited filmography, she made an impression of film goers everywhere, be it high class art film or b-movie bonanzas. Being a genre film fan myself, I was saddened immensely when I heard of her passing from Shade Rupe this morning, who interviewed her for his book Dark Stars Rising (which I recently spoke about in an Episode 2). Reading through it again, her interview was one of my favorites, mainly because it gave more back story to her than what most of us knew from what the screen showed.

She was a beautiful person, who lived an extraordinary life. One that won’t be forgotten and someone we will always miss. Tura Satana, here at the Criterion Cast, your family and friends are in our hearts.

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