Tura Satana Taught Me to Find Power in My Asian Identity
At times, I’d like a woman to be the one in pursuit.
This is The Curse, a column by Miyako Pleines about the poetry and persuasion of horror films.
The Astro-ZombiesFaster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
A Bay of BloodBlack ChristmasThe Texas Chain Saw MassacreHalloween
Satana and her family moved to the United States in 1942, a time when Japanese Americans were viewed with suspicion by many in America. After spending a few years incarcerated with her father and brother at Manzanar, a Japanese American concentration camp, she and her family moved to Chicago.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!The Astro-Zombies
MiseryFriday the 13thTeethKnock KnockDeath GameLet the Right One In
Incarceration at Manzanar affected my grandparents for the rest of their lives. Perhaps, for Tura Satana, freedom was found in the roles she assumed on-screen.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! takes place almost entirely in the desert, an environment Satana was deeply familiar with, having spent the early years of her life incarcerated at Manzanar—just like my grandfather. I have no way of knowing whether their paths ever crossed, but the fact that they were both there at the same time makes me feel closer to her. I often think about how incarceration affected my grandparents for the rest of their lives. After his release, my grandfather learned how to fly model airplanes, perhaps finding the kind of freedom that he had been deprived of by gliding planes over fields of corn. My grandmother found her autonomy in the earth, choosing to cultivate and tend to a robust garden for her entire life. Perhaps, for Tura Satana, freedom was found in the roles she assumed on-screen.
Satana had a fascinating life off-screen as well, in many ways challenging the limits imposed on what an Asian woman of her time could be. She was allegedly in relationships with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. In Chicago, she worked as a burlesque dancer and also acted as an informant for the FBI, providing information on the plans of Mafia regulars who frequented the nightclubs where she danced. Later in life, she did everything from nursing to working as a dispatcher for the LAPD. In the ’80s, in a twist of fate that Varla would most likely sneer at, she broke her back in a car accident and would need years to recover.
In an interview with artist and writer Mariko Tamaki, Satana once said, “I learned to be tough because of what life kept handing me. I could either go down for the count, or I could get up and kick ass.” This reminds me of a scene toward the end of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! when one of the men on the ranch asks Varla, “What do you want?” Without skipping a beat, she looks him straight in the eye, grins, and says, “Everything.”
Right before Varla and her gang infiltrate the desert ranch they will go on to rob and destroy, there is a moment when Varla drives her car up to one side of a barbed-wire fence. She gets out of her car, approaches the fence, and snips through the barrier with ease. She whips the fallen remnants of the fence off to the side before climbing back into her car and driving onto the white men’s property—through the gap she created for herself.
Every time I watch this scene, I am reminded of her time at Manzanar. She was a young girl then, not even ten years old, but I imagine even then she must have felt the desire to push against her constraints. As I watch her victoriously cutting through that barbed wire, for a moment she is no longer Varla, just Tura, finally able to break her way through. She makes me believe that I do possess power as an Asian American woman and reminds me to desire everything for myself.
Miyako Pleines is a Japanese and German American writer living in the suburbs of Chicago. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University, and her work has appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, the Ploughshares blog, and others. She writes a column about birds and books for the Chicago Audubon Society, and you can follow her on Instagram @literary_miyako. Links to her work can be found on her website, miyakowrites.com.