After making his name in films like The Wrath of the Gods and The Cheat, matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa was ready for a change. “Such roles are not true to our Japanese nature …,” he explained in the March 1916 issue of Photoplay. “They are false and give people a wrong idea of us. I wish to make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are.” When he said this, the Japanese-born actor was about to reach the peak of his superstardom, which had begun in 1915 with the sensational success of his appearance as a sexy but villainous Japanese art dealer in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat. Despite his popularity, Hayakawa was not fully satisfied with the star image that was created by Jesse L. Lasky’s studio. Lasky took a double-barreled approach that made Hayakawa an embodiment of exotic Eastern culture, typified by his restrained acting style, and simultaneously a model minority, an immigrant assimilated into the American way of life. Hayakawa was also concerned about the Japanese American communities’ unfavorable reactions to his work. Right after the release of The Cheat, the Japanese American newspaper Rafu Shimpo severely criticized Hayakawa’s character in the film. So, in March 1918, aiming to better represent his own culture and hoping to restoring his reputation among Japanese people in the U.S., Hayakawa established his own independent film production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, with director William Worthington. At the launch of Haworth, Hayakawa declared that he would introduce authentic Japanese characters in his films. Moving Picture World reported in July 1918 how he was going about it: “Hayakawa sent several of his company to Japan … to film scenes for the initial production. They have just returned, bringing with them about four thousand feet of film taken in Tokio and Yokohama and in the wonderfully beautiful Mt. Fujiyama region.”
Nevertheless, Hayakawa was also aware of the expectation of him from general audiences in the U.S. Hayakawa’s chosen method—obtaining images from Tokyo, Yokohama, particularly Mt. Fuji, as well as geisha districts—was hardly original. Many early travelogue filmmakers sent to Japan did the same thing to cater to the exoticism-searching gaze of European and American audiences. Later, in 1960, Hayakawa confessed in his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way … to Peace, Happiness and Tranquility, “I was not about to change away from the type of picture which had earned me my fame and following [when I established Haworth].” The Dragon Painter was typical of Hayakawa’s balancing act between authenticity and exoticism, between his response to the Japanese spectator and his awareness of the American audience. The power structure of the Hollywood film industry at this time also played a vital role in the Haworth strategy. While Hayakawa was aiming for an authentic Japaneseness, his distributor, the Robertson-Cole Company, which was expanding its influence as a leader in independent film distribution, pressured Haworth to produce films that would appeal to a wide audience.
The Dragon Painter was the first of Robertson-Cole’s new series billed as “Hayakawa Superior Pictures.” The distributor promoted the film as if it represented an authentic Japan. Moving Picture World reported in September 1919, “In this setting the village of Hakone, Japan, was duplicated even to its famous Shintu [sic] gates. Each setting is so naturally beautiful that it is hard to realize the perfection of the interior detail. The picturesqueness of ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’ has been fully retained in The Dragon Painter.” In truth, the scene of Hanake (a fictional place intended to evoke Hakone) combines footage of the actual location in Yosemite Valley dressed with Japanesque objects, including a torii, the Shinto shrine gate, without a shrine.
In addition, the home of the heroine Umé-ko (Tsuru Aoki) is filled with objects typical of the current vogue for Japanese things: a garden with a torii, a footbridge, stone lanterns, and a peacock in front of a small shrine; a room with tatami mats, fusuma (sliding panel doors), shoji, paintings of both Mt. Fuji and a dragon; as well as paper lanterns. Umé-ko wears a luxurious kimono and the beautiful hairstyle of an unmarried woman known as a shimada. After making up in front of a Japanese-style vanity, she dances a Japanese dance with a silver fan in front of flowers arranged in a Japanese style, while her housemaid plays the shamisen and Japanese drums. Even after she marries, she keeps wearing her long-sleeved kimono, which married women traditionally do not, and her shimada hairstyle, which should have changed to the less showy marumage of married women.
The garden where Tatsu and Umé-ko have a romantic interlude was photographed on location at the Japanese Tea Garden in Coronado, California. (In real life, Coronado was Sessue and Tsuru’s favorite vacation spot, so the romance in the film was authentic to their relationship.) This garden was created in 1902 (and moved in 1905), not by a Japanese architect but by an Australian, George Turner Marsh, who had also played a significant role in building Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco in 1894. The Dragon Painter craftily displays the exotic and picturesque Japan that many American audiences were accustomed to. No wonder Kinema Junpo, a well-regarded Japanese film magazine, pointed out to its readers in April 1922 that the film “did not show either contemporary or actual Japan” and would have preferred if the film were shot in the real Hakone and in the currently modernizing city of Japan.
The Dragon Painter was based on a 1906 story written by Mary McNeil Fenollosa, who lived in Japan for several years and had written a study of the famous 19th-century artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Her husband, the collector and historian Ernest Fenollosa, taught art in Japan from 1878 to 1890 and his Japanese art collection became the basis of the Japanese art collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he headed the Oriental Department. Fenollosa played an influential role in exposing middle-class America to the Japonisme vogue that had started in France among Impressionist artists fascinated by ukiyo-e, the Japanese technique of woodblock prints. McNeil Fenollosa’s novel was a conscious reflection of Japonisme. Her story tells of a young painter named Tatsu (played by Hayakawa) fixated on finding the dragon princess who he believes is hiding under the surface of a mountain lake. An older artist, Kano Indara, becomes impressed by Tatsu’s paintings and invites him to become his apprentice. (Kano Indara’s name is a clear reference to the Kanō school, the oldest and most influential school of Japanese painting.) Tatsu is reluctant until he meets Kano’s beautiful daughter Umé-ko and becomes fixated on her instead.
Near the beginning of the film, look for a scene clearly inspired by the art of ukiyo-e. In a high-angle shot, Tatsu paints near a waterfall. The waterfall is so gigantic and white in the foreground it makes an astonishingly strong contrast to the dark forest landscape behind it. The shot looks like a famous 19th-century ukiyo-e by Hiroshige or Katsushika Hokusai.
Also watch out for a gorgeous painting being admired by Europeans at an exhibition of Tatsu’s work toward the finale of the film, now crisply visible in the new restoration by Eye Filmmuseum, the George Eastman Museum, and SFSFF. It is a rather large painting, of a man, a woman, and two dragons, done in a markedly different style from the usual ink paintings (called sumi-e) that have been shown up to this point in the film. Rather, it resembles the European-influenced style of Japanese American painter Toshio Aoki who had adopted Tsuru when she was a little girl. He had already died by the time of The Dragon Painter, but the inclusion of this painting, which art historian Chelsea Foxwell has speculated is his work, might have been a tribute from his daughter and son-in-law.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by the Masaru Koga Ensemble (Masaru Koga, Andrew Jameson, Lewis Patzner, Frank Bockius, and Stephen Horne)