Thursday, October 7, 2010

Naomi Morinaga Kicks It Old School

I have lately been thinking a lot about Naomi Morinaga (森永 奈緒美 Morinaga Naomi), which is sort of appropriate when you realize that I am responsible for one of the top English language links pertaining to her. No, seriously! Fire up your favorite search engine and see where this cut & paste comic strip I did in 2003 falls in the results. According to Google, it currently ranks higher than her Wikipedia entry!

As you might gather, I was at one time quite taken with Naomi Morinaga, and I chose to satirize that in a series of comic strips. I can't say I was EVER as preoccupied as depicted there, but I still count her as my top celebrity crush. Why? Well, instead of just telling you, let me show you.



"Annie ni Omakase" by Naomi Morinaga

(Before you ask, yes, that is Naomi Morinaga singing. Though not terrible, it's obvious why music was not her call to glory.)

Naomi Morinaga is best known for her role as "Annie" in UCHU KEIJI SHAIDER ("Space Sheriff Shaider"). Naomi was only 20 years old at the time, and though she had been in the business since at least 1982, this would prove to be the moment that defined her career.

SHAIDER was the third space sheriff series, following GAVAN and SHARIVAN. The preceding two series had also featured heroic armored heroes with female assistants. The key difference was that Kenji Oba and Hiroshi Watari (stars of GAVAN and SHARIVAN, respectively) were both trained stuntmen and could carry fight scenes in their civilian identities until it was time for the guys in the suits. Hiroshi Tsuburaya, star of SHAIDER and grandson of Japanese SPFX master Eiji Tsuburaya, was most definitely not a trained stuntman. There were certain tricks that could help fake that to a degree, but there was no way Tsuburaya could equal Oba and Watari in that department.

Enter Naomi Morinaga. Previously, the female assistant's primary roles were to be pretty and pensive. It was rare for them to be called on for more than that. Morinaga was going to be different. Not only was she pretty, but she was also a trained stuntwoman. Therefore, it fell to her to carry the civilian identity fight scenes. You see all that crazy stuff in that video? She did it. Yes, even the rope swinging scene.

So Annie kicked serious butt, but she was still the sidekick. She consistently found herself at the bad guys' mercy, despite putting up an excellent fight, and had to be rescued by Shaider. This happened all the time. It seemed a bit unfair, considering she was doing the lion's share of the work and was also more charismatic than her heroic leading man. But that was the way it went, and really, it was a small amount of progress for such shows.

(Another parenthetical aside to mention that I have never worked out why Annie didn't rate her own special armor. After all, she was a space sheriff, too! Was it because her own planet was destroyed and thus she didn't rate one? Speaking of unfair...)

I can understand why SHAIDER played out the way it did, but it has always struck me as a missed opportunity on Toei's part. No disrespect to the late Hiroshi Tsuburaya, who was quite good in his role in spite of his limitations, but Naomi Morinaga really stole that show from him. I wish we could have seen the series reflect this and had the emphasis shifted more to Annie. I know it never would have happened, but it's the sort of thing that fires the imagination. Just think, Space Sheriff Annie as the pistol-packing, hard-driving, high-kicking female action star of the 1980s!

Morinaga's career had its ups and downs after SHAIDER. In the early to mid-1990s, she shifted into roles that were very far from Annie. Some folks have rather harshly and judgmentally characterized the phase of her career that led to things like TORIKO and the nude photobooks as a step down. The way I look at it, it's not much different than what a lot of American starlets do to get noticed. TORIKO was an erotic thriller. The books and layouts were, as far as I've seen, tastefully done. I have never seen anything that Morinaga did as degrading, and those that label it "pornography" may need to take a step back. The woman was in her 30s by that time, and the idea of continuing to put her body on the line doing stuntwork was probably looking less appealing. What's wrong with redefining your image?

(Final aside here : Though it is not a "dirty" movie by any means, TORIKO is exactly the sort of Japanese movie that I find incredibly maddening. The sad part is that Naomi is really quite good in it, her acting having improved markedly over the years. But even with her thespian skills and her undraped form, I still got rid of TORIKO. 'Nuff said?)

Naomi Morinaga has dropped off the radar now. The last I read, she had married, and presumably she retired afterward. Perhaps she's even begun a family. If so, good for her. She had a more interesting and notable career than many of her fellow Japanese actresses, and it seems as if she did it on her own terms. That's really the best that you can hope for sometimes.

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