Born in Japan to an actor father and a circus performer mother, Satana’s family moved to California in 1942 when she was 6 years old — just in time to be sent to the Manzanar internment camp. After WWII the family moved to Chicago, where Satana, at age 9, was gang raped by five men who were never brought to justice; she learned martial arts to protect herself. She became a dancer, and then an actress, appearing on TV shows like Burke’s Law, Hawaiian Eye, and the Man From U.N.C.L.E.
But her big break was in a Russ Meyer film made under the working title The Leather Girls, but renamed before release to something far more memorable: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Meyer told Satana to play “Varla” with “raw strength,” Satana said later. That came easily to her: “I was getting rid of a lot of anger,” she said later. “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.” She said she essentially played herself. The film, Meyer admitted, was “a loser, absolute loser” on its 1965 release. But the Varla character became a new base point for strong women characters, and the film became a cult hit in the 1990s. “Loaded with sex and violence to the point of parody,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 2004, “which may be the point.” (Ya think?!) Pussycat is “not only the best movie ever made,” said filmmaker John Waters, “but the best movie that ever will be made.” Satana died February 4 in Reno from heart failure. There was dispute over her birth year, but her manager said she was 72.