Still today, Tura Satana’s influence can be glimpsed in popular culture, even if the people inspired have no clue as who she really is. An unique figure in American entertainment, I can find no other celebrity that could compare. Her main contention to glory is of course Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, classic cult-movie directed by Russ Meyer. But why not start at the very beginning? Fasten your seat belts, though, because this could be a memorable rollercoaster ride.
Tura Yamaguchi was born in July 10, 1935 (or is it 1938?). Sometimes after the end of WWII, after moving to Chicago, she was raped by five thugs. This prompted her to learn martial arts, mainly karate. She soon became main honcho of a gang of teenage girls. Tura admits to having been a rebellious juvenile delinquent, as many teased her about her oriental heritage (the war was still fresh in many memories). In fact, the father was from Japan and the Philippines and the mother was American Indian and Scots-Irish. She kicked everyone’s ass in reform school (but also learned how to knit!). At 13 years of age, she got married (a fixed union by the two families involved) with a guy of 17! This relationship would of course not work out.
Tura became soon after an exotic dancer in Los Angeles. The single thought of enjoying the sight of a very young and big-breasted Oriental hoochie-cooching on stage seemed to dissipate the patriotic elan of many American males: she turned out to be a real success. In that time, dancers traveled from city to city, to propose a more elaborate production than the ones seen in these more sordid times (no lap dances or Champagne Room nonsense). It’s a complete tragedy that no existing film footage of Tura performing her craft with real passion exists. Here are some famous names that Tura worked with in those years: Rose Le Rose, Maxine Martin The Skyscraper Girl, Tempest Storm, Candy Barr and Stunning Smith the Purple Lady. Hummm…
At 19, Tura became pregnant, but she would still dance for the upcoming eight months! In general, a typical week of work earned her around $15,000. She still thinks that this experience was the best school she could ever learn in, even if she sometimes found guys hiding in closets in her hotel rooms. Fearless, she disposed of them in her own personal fashion. Of course, like many starlets of the era, Tura began a relationship with Elvis, for a few months, as the King lived his life to the fullest. Oddly, his future spouse, Priscilla Presley would begin later to display a Tura look (hair, makeup, etc.)!
We now arrive at the start of the sixties; this is when Tura finally exposed her fabulous figure on film. There were some television appearances on Hawaiian Eye, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Greatest Show On Earth with Jack Palance, Valentine’s Day, Burke’s Law, etc. For the movies, she played a dancer (what else?) in Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963) with Dean Martin and Elizabeth Montgomery. The same year, she could be seen briefly as a Paris prostitute in the musical Irma La Douce with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine. She came back in 1965 as a dancer in Our Man Flint, a riotous James Bond spoof starring James Coburn.
It’s very soon after that the role of a lifetime came her way: Varla in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Seeing this as an opportunity to play a real character instead of being mere decoration, Tura accepted the challenge. Results: an aggressive female character (for the time), very sexual in a different way, enjoying some very quotable dialogue. Let’s note that Tura executed all her stunts and fights herself. With great relish. The movie’s success was not instant: a cult would form in the years to come from word of mouth. There even was a rock band in the nineties named Tura Satana. Some lines from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! were heard in White Zombie tunes. Even the Cramps were inspired by the movie (and particularly by Tura).
Astro-Zombies in 1969 was her first horror film. Sadly, it’s pretty shoddy. Director Ted V. Mikels (who still lives to this day in a castle with ten women!) saw Tura on stage and enjoyed the fact that she beat up a female patron who just threw her an ashtray by jealousy. So she played a spy named Satana, sharing the screen with veteran John Carradine, who took a shine to her during shooting. But the film remains juvenile and disappointing (but can be enjoyed for a few laughs), even with super-sexy Tura wearing a slit skirt and smoking languidly.
Her last film for a while was from the same Mikels, The Doll Squad (1973), famous for supposedly inspiring the creation of TV sensation Charlie’s Angels. The Doll Squad, in fact, presents the right-doers of a group of female adventurers battling it out with a megalomanical intend of ruling the world (and why not?). Soon after this shoot, tragedy struck as Tura was shot down by a former possessive lover with a gun. Needless to say, there was a forced period of convalescence. Tura became employed in an hospital, then found work as a dispatcher for the LAPD! In 1981, she broke her back in a car crash, which resulted in two years in and out of hospitals and many operations. She was married to a retired L.A. cop and has two daughters. She has her own website and fan club. In 2002, Tura made a comeback to movies in Mark of the Astro-Zombies, alongside Brinke Stevens, Liz Renay and John Carradine’s disembodied head (?).
Her humor and honesty in interviews are pure delight. If only she could have shot more films. If many still think of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! as a Ed Wood kind of filmmaking (which it isn’t), how can we not admit that it was ahead of its time, still today? Can you find me a similar production with three female characters with so much presence? I can only think of The Heroic Trio, but still at another end of the spectrum. In my brain, there are many classic cinematic images: Greta Garbo’s closeup in Queen Christina, Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building, Toshiro Mifune in any scene in Seven Samurai… and Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! whupping the butt of that stupid guy in bermudas. I demand her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now.
1963 Irma la Douce; Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed? 1965 Our Man Flint; Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1969 The Astro-Zombies 1973 The Doll Squad 2002 Mark of the Astro-Zombies 2008 Sugar Boxx