Tura! Tura! Tura!
ELVIS PROPOSED TO her and styled Priscilla in her image. Male cast mates crumbled before her. Playboy Playmates feared her. But after seeing her in Russ Meyer's 1965 masterpiece, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! as a teen, I just wanted to name my firstborn girl after her. Tura Satana Chun I liked the ring.
Satana's Varla, the knife-throwing, back-breaking, and ball-busting leader of a pack of hell-bent strippers including the kooky go-go-booted blond Billie (Lori Williams) and heavier-on-the-Italian-than-Chef-Boyardee Rosie (Haji) was unlike any other in the cinema. She was the butchest babe in the bunch, who killed men with her bare hands, barked orders, and suffered few fools. When a gas station doofus stares down her cleavage, leering, "Boy, that motor's still hot," the Valkyrie snarls back, "You won't find it down there, Columbus." She's "more stallion than mare," quips Stuart Lancaster, the lecher in a wheelchair who hopes to prey on the girls and their teenybopper captive Linda (Susan Bernard) before the women prey on him for his hoarded cash. All you could do was pray: Booted, buckled, and buxom, the formidable Satana/Varla became an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino (where else does Kill Bill's Pussy Wagon roll from?), John Waters, Divine (check the sketchy eyebrows), and countless little girls looking for a superheroine, part all-consuming id, part wrathful goddess.
When I call the 66-year-old Satana, née Tura Yamaguchi, at her Reno home, I find her still taking care of business: ordering around a repairman, looking after an autistic grandchild, and coping with a fussy fax machine. "It's trying to tell me that I don't have any more memory," she complains. Her interview proves otherwise.
Bay Guardian: Did you know I wanted to name my daughter after you?
Tura Satana: As a matter of fact, I know of several little girls named either Tura or Varla. I'm flattered. I think it's because the character I play in that film empowered women so much. Varla was a person who was looking to get her own thrills at that time in her life. Russ [Meyer] just liked to have the women in his films play roles that made them look stronger than what they were. Fortunately I got to play who I was! I actually always saw myself as a very independent female.
BG: How did you get involved in Faster, Pussycat?
TS: My agent called me and asked me to go for an interview. When he mentioned Russ's name, I said, "No, I don't do porn." He said, "No, this film isn't porn. There is very, very little nudity in it." I said, "OK, as long as it's not porn."
Russ was actually a very nice person. He wasn't very intimidating. He stayed behind his desk. He said, "I want you to read for the main lead in the picture." I said, "OK, how do you want to play it hard, soft, or what?" He said, "Just read it and see how you think she should be like." I read for him, and he said, "Oh, God, you definitely are Varla."
BG: What was it like growing up Asian in a tough neighborhood in Chicago?
TS: I'm half Japanese and Chinese, a little Filipino, Scotch Irish, and Cheyenne Indian. Yeah, I'm a Heinz 57. [Chuckles] Unfortunately, because I looked Oriental and had slanted eyes and everybody knew that my dad was Japanese, it was very hard growing up in the neighborhood especially right after the war.
BG: Was your family interned during World War II?
TS: Just my dad, my brother, and I, in Manzanar. I was there for two and a half years, and then they relocated most of the Japanese families to the Midwest, so they were nowhere near any oceans and couldn't send radio signals to any of the Japanese fleet. They just took everybody, anybody that looked Japanese, anybody that was part Japanese. They took my dad because his last name was Yamaguchi definitely Japanese. Mother was Scotch Irish and Cheyenne Indian. She took a job close by so she could come and see us but was never allowed inside the camp. I think I was four or five years old.
It had a lot to do with shaping my attitude toward life. I knew I had to be able to take care of myself when I grew up. There wasn't going to be anyone else around to do it.
BG: How did you come to learn judo, karate, and aikido?
TS: My father taught me martial arts when I was about nine, right after I was raped by five guys. I was coming home from a bakery for my mom, at night. These five guys, ranging from the ages of 17 or 18 to 21, were in car, grabbed me as I went by, took me to some garage or building, and proceeded to rape me, each one taking their turn. So my dad said I would never, ever get caught like that again. The boys were caught, and the oldest one's father was wealthy enough to pay off a judge to get the boys off, and I went to reform school because I tempted them.
Like I said, back then, feelings toward Japanese Americans and Japanese, period, were so very high. A lot of people didn't care one way or another whether I was guilty or not. I was elected to get punished for what the Japanese did in the war.
BG: Meyer learned his craft as an Army cameraman during World War II. Did he know what you went through?
TS: No, he never found out about that till after we were sitting around, having dinner after the film was done. He said, "I gotta do the story of your life one of these days."
BG: How did you start dancing?
TS: I became a dancer because nobody would let me become a singer. Nobody wanted to hear my voice, really, even though I have four octaves, and everyone said I had a great voice. Everybody preferred that I show off my figure.
I was dancing at the Follies Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Some producers and directors came in from Warner Bros. Studios. I got a card backstage after the routine, and they said they wanted me for a part in a TV show. I said, "Sure you do." [Laughs] I was very skeptical about all that. [Satana eventually appeared on Hawaiian Eye, as well as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and in films like Irma la Douce, Our Man Flint, and The Doll Squad.]
BG: From there you went to Faster, Pussycat did you end up improvising off the script?
TS: Yes, I loved the fact that Russ would let us do our own dialogue. He had dialogue from the '40s and maybe '50s, which was not what it should have been in the '60s. It didn't jibe with what was going on. Also, I told him some of the dialogue didn't fit this character, and he said, "Well, I think it does." I said, "Well, I don't, and I'm the one that has to say it." [Laughs]
Susan Bernard had her mother on the set when we first started, and her mother was a typical Hollywood mother. "My daughter's not getting enough dialogue, not getting enough film coverage." I finally told him, "If she doesn't go, I'm leaving."
I decided I'm going to have to make this little girl hate my guts, because talking to her is like talking to a blank wall. I warned everybody ahead of time. Stuart Lancaster even said, "God, this girl is like a paper bag." Had a great body, but she just had no talent when it came to acting. So I said, "The one way to get something from her was to make her deathly afraid of me." But in the process I never realized I was making Lori Williams afraid of me at the same time! Years later, she told me, "I was scared shitless," and I said, "Why? I told you what I was doing," and she said, "Yeah, but you were very convincing!"
BG: Well, you were playing yourself.
TS: I was getting rid of a lot of anger! A lot of things when I was growing up and as young girl that anger I kept inside of me all those years I think I finally let it loose.
BG: What other challenges did you have to deal with during Faster, Pussycat?
TS: The adverse conditions we were shooting in July through September, in the desert, and it's 120 in the shade, if you could find any. All of us got very suntanned. The worst part of it was my suntan a total outline of my outfit. I think it cooked off the first layer of my skin. We stayed in rinky-dinky motels. I found a tarantula and had that for a pet for a while. He loved to climb into my hair.
As long as you aren't threatening to them, they won't bother you either, unless they're hungry, and 9 times out of 10, they don't want to eat anything bigger than they are. The first time I found him, he was crawling up my hand, on my glove. Normally I don't care for bugs at all. But this one was big and furry he didn't bother me that much.
In between takes, I'd try to teach some of the guys how to fall and tumble to keep from getting hurt. Of course, Ray Barlow [who plays the all-American boy who tussles to the death with Varla] didn't want to learn everything. I had to do all my scenes in slow motion so the camera could catch everything and make it look real. He was afraid I was going to hurt him, and believe me, I came to the point where I really wanted to! Not that I did I just dislike anybody who's a wuss, and that's exactly what he was. He was afraid of everything. If I had a tarantula on me, he'd go 10 miles away.
BG: It sounds like you aren't afraid of much.
TS: Pretty much. If it needs to be done, I get it done.
BG: It's like that moment from the film, with Barlow ...
TS: "I don't try anything I just do it."
It doesn't hurt to try things, as long you learn from them. My father always told me, "If you're going to live life, you might as well live it the right way and learn something new every day." That's what I do.
BG: What have you learned lately?
TS: I've learned that I'm not invincible. I'm not a superwoman. I had to have a pacemaker put in last year because my heart was beating too fast. I found out I do have my limitations but not many.
Tura Satana will be interviewed by Peaches Christ at Midnight Mass screenings of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Fri/1 and Sat/2, Bridge Theater, 3010 Geary, SF. $10. (415) 751-3213, www.peacheschrist.com.