“You can still be feminine and have balls.” – Tura Satana
She was born in Hokkaidō, Japan in 1935 to a silent movie actor and a contortionist who performed with the circus. She’s of Japanese, Filipino, Scotch-Irish, and American Indian heritage. Her family spent time at the Manzanar Relocation Camp in Southern California before they were relocated to Chicago during World War II. Satana grew up on the Westside, in what she calls “The Mafia Section of town.”
Hers was the only Asian family in the neighborhood. As a result, she suffered daily harassment from other schoolchildren that forced her to continually have to fight her way to and from school. She also blossomed early – by age nine she was wearing a size 34C bra – a matter that made grade school life even worse.
At the age of nine, Satana was assaulted and raped by five men. They were caught and arrested, but never prosecuted. It was rumored that the judge had been paid off with a $1,000 bribe. She was sent off to reform school for “enticing” them – the victim had been blamed.
Her father taught her self-defense and she went on to earn a green belt in aikido and a black belt in karate. In Jimmy McDonough’s Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film, Satana says, “If I could help every woman this has happened to, I would. It is in your spirit to conquer this degradation.”
Satana made a vow to herself that she would get even with each and every one of her attackers. Over the course of several years, she tracked each one down, and she kicked their asses.
After her assault, she was in a girl gang that was for the protection of females in the neighborhood (initiation rites included piercing your ears with a knife). A few years later, at the age of 13, she was briefly married to a 17-year-old in an arranged partnership. After their divorce she moved to Los Angeles, got a fake ID and worked as a blues singer and nude model. At age 15 she began her career as a burlesque dancer in Calumet City, Illinois.
Satana dated Elvis in the 1950s – a relationship that was kept quiet for obvious reasons. He copied some of her dance moves, and even asked her to marry him, but she told him “No.”
Her first film role was in 1963’s Irma la Douce. She then appeared in episodes of Burke’s Law and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The part she’s most recognized for came in 1965’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in which she plays Varla – the thrill-seeking, vicious, and deadly leader of a girl gang of go-go dancers.
Satana has said: “There are a great many similarities between Varla and myself. Varla was an outlet for some of the anger I felt growing up. She was also a statement to women all over the world that you can be a take-charge person and still be sexy. She also showed the women world-wide that women don’t have to be weak, simpering females. They just go after what they want and usually get it.”
With it’s brash delivery of one-liners, cinematography as stunning as the cleavage on display, and sexually confident, if amoral, women, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a Grrrl on Film Recommended Cult Classic, as is another Satana venture, Ted. V. Mikels’s The Doll Squad.
The Doll Squad is a group of undercover female commandoes. They are recruited by their leader, Sabrina Kincaid, to stop a diabolical plan to ensure world domination by an elite few. (It has something to do with rats infected with the bubonic plague – but plot isn’t really the point.)
The Dolls have varied areas of expertise; Sabrina engages them from a library, a dojo, a swim club, and a lab. She finds Satana’s Lavella in a burlesque club.
Readers, be assured that when female commandoes have black catsuits, white go-go boots, and exploding vodka on their side the day is always saved.
Both Faster, Pussycat! and The Doll Squad are of the so-bad-they’re-good variety – and both exhibit feminist potential. Take Faster, for example. Now, killing a man and kidnapping and drugging his girlfriend obviously aren’t activities we should take part in – but Varla, Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams) are women who define themselves, as they do as they please. And Varla, though terrifying, is the antithesis of the good girl image in popular culture of the later 1950s and early 1960s. Even today, we watch Varla – a character Satana made iconic – and want to believe we are capable of that kind of fierce self-confidence and sensuality.
The Doll Squad is admittedly a terrible, terrible film. BUT, though the characters themselves are underdeveloped, it features several strong female characters in action roles – and how often do we see that?
In a bit of pop culture trivia, Satana and Mikels’s allege that Aaron Spelling was inspired to make his quasi-feminist television series, Charlie’s Angels, after seeing the movie, but apparently Spelling denied this.
Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, told Entertainment Weekly that he’d give up five years of his life to work with Tura Satana and elsewhere has said that the influence of the Dolls can be seen in Kill Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Among the many projects he’s said he’s working on, is a remake of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – though it seems doubtful that anyone could match Satana’s vision.
Tura Satana is nothing if not a survivor. After making The Doll Squad she was shot in the stomach by an ex-boyfriend. She was in a car accident that broke her back. She’s worked in a hospital, managed a doctor’s office, and was a radio patrol operator for the L.A.P.D.
In 1995 she was interviewed by Sandra Bernhard for the USA Network series, Reel Wild Cinema talking about her career, working with Mikels and Meyer, and her part in Irma la Douce.
Most recently Satana can be seen in Sugar Boxx – an homage to Women in Prison films, with a cameo from Satana, and of course also Jack Hill – writer and director of The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, both of which starred Pam Grier (they also collaborated on Coffy and Foxy Brown).
Watch Tura Satana endorse Sugar Boxx here. If you don’t, she’ll kick your ass.