Sessue Hayakawa’s name is not uttered with the same nostalgic awe as are those of Gilbert and Valentino. Yet, in his day his cinematic presence made the ladies swoon as much as any other silent screen lover. The Japanese-born actor starred opposite many popular leading ladies, among them Florence Vidor and Blanche Sweet. He built an ostentatious house in the heart of Hollywood where he hosted parties fueled by illicit Prohibition-era liquor. He was a sought-after matinee idol, the first choice to play The Sheik, a role which made Valentino’s career. His understated acting style, which he credited to his Zen and kendo training, influenced a generation of silent film performers. No Japanese or Asian-American actor had so captured the imagination of American moviegoers, and gained such control over his career, as Hayakawa did during the peak of the silent era. But what is most remarkable about his stardom is that he achieved it in a time when being Japanese incited mostly prejudice and fear.
In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, the first time an Asian army had defeated a European power. Inflammatory headlines such as “How Japanese Crowd Out the White Race” appeared in Hearst-owned newspapers across the country, feeding fears of the “Yellow Peril.” The Exclusion Acts against Chinese immigration had been in place since 1882, and by 1906 Theodore Roosevelt had come to a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan, limiting entrance of Japanese workers into the U.S. By the time of Hayakawa’s debut on the silent screen in 1913, California had passed legislation restricting land ownership by the Japanese.
At the same time, Americans had a fascination with an idealized version of Oriental culture. Japan, in particular, filled the Western imagination with cherry blossoms, geishas, and tea ceremonies. Winnifred Eaton, under the pseudonym Onoto Watanna, wrote romance novels populated by Japanese and Eurasian heroines. Wallace Irwin’s Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy (1909), originally serialized in Collier’s magazine, spawned two sequels and became the basis for one Hayakawa film, 1919’s Hashimura Togo. Thomas Ince’s “Oriental Productions,” many of which featured Hayakawa and his future wife Tsuru Aoki, attracted large audiences. At the Brooklyn premiere of Ince’s The Wrath of the Gods, or the Destruction of Sakura-Jima (1914), a riot broke out when fans couldn’t get tickets.
Hayakawa had not been destined for the silver screen. He was born Kintaro Hayakawa in 1889 into an important political dynasty. His father was governor of Chiba province and he expected his son to carry on the family tradition; Kintaro dutifully enrolled in the Japanese naval academy, but was soon kicked out for having committed a prank that damaged his hearing. The humiliated 18-year old attempted seppuku (ritual suicide) to cover the shame he had brought on his family. After a long convalescence and a year studying Buddhism, fate intervened. As Hayakawa tells it, he spotted a shipwrecked boat, rushed to help, and met Americans for the first time. He became enchanted with the idea of going to the United States. His family reluctantly allowed him to leave home.
He enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he studied political science. After completing his studies, Hayakawa made arrangements to return home and travelled to Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to board a Japan-bound boat. The night before his departure, he attended a play in Little Tokyo. He was so upset by the bad acting and poor direction that he convinced the theater director to allow him to stage his own production. Tsuru Aoki, a Japanese-born actress raised in San Francisco who was a member of the acting troupe, was so impressed with Hayakawa’s abilities and enthusiasm that she enticed starmaker Thomas Ince to see the play, The Typhoon, about a Japanese man corrupted by the West. Ince immediately signed Hayakawa to appear in a screen version of The Typhoon (1914) and featured him in The Wrath of the Gods (1914).
Hayakawa soon moved on to the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, doubling his salary. In 1915, he starred in Cecil B. Demille’s The Cheat, a defining film in Hayakawa’s career, in which he plays a villainous merchant who extorts sex for money from a frivolous white socialite with a secret gambling habit. Eventually, Hayakawa’s character is killed, leaving the socialite safe in the arms of her Anglo husband. Other films for Lasky (later Paramount) maximized Hayakawa’s star power in formulaic stories that allowed audiences to thrill to his sex appeal while safely watching him die by the end of the picture. Sought after for roles, but dissatisfied with the parts, Hayakawa formed his own production company, financed by a college mate. He engaged a stable of actors, most notably Tsuri Aoki (whom he had married in 1914), and hired William Worthington to direct, thus creating the Haworth Pictures Corporation.
At Haworth, Hayakawa chose material, wrote scenarios, and supervised much of the production and editing. He hoped to escape stereotypical stories by making Japanese customs and history accessible to American audiences, but many of his productions also reinforced an idealized image of Japan. The Dragon Painter (1919), filmed in Yosemite Valley and costarring Aoki, mourns the erosion of Japanese traditions. Other films, including The Tong Man (1919), continued to exploit crime drama and miscegenation plots, with one difference: Hayakawa now got the girl. After making 23 independent pictures, he found himself faced with a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment then sweeping California. The final blow came on the set of The Vermillion Pencil (1922), when his distributor Robertson-Cole made an attempt on his life in an effort to collect on his insurance policy. Hayakawa and Aoki shortly left Hollywood for Japan, New York, and Europe, just before a series of discriminatory laws further restricted Japanese immigration, land ownership, and intermarriage.
In France, he appeared in Marcel L’Herbier’s Forfaiture (1937), a remake of The Cheat, and starred in several “Orientalist” films, including Max Ophuls’s Yoshiwara (1937). When World War II broke out, Hayakawa, a Japanese national, was stranded in occupied France. He made a few more movies but mostly earned a living by selling his watercolor paintings.
After the war, Hollywood rediscovered Hayakawa, who costarred with Humphrey Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1949). More Hollywood character parts followed, mostly “Yellow Peril” villains. Hayakawa rose above these new stereotypes in his most remembered role as Colonel Saito in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). A Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination provided crowning moments in a career nearing its end. His final screen role was in the 1966 animated film The Daydreamers, for which he provided the voice of “The Mole.” He died in 1973 after spending his final years in Japan as an acting coach and Buddhist priest. He is much celebrated in Japan, where he attained little success as a movie star. In 1988, a stage musical about his life opened at Theatre Apple in Tokyo, resurrecting the story of his stardom in America, where today he is much in need of revival.
THE ART OF THE BENSHI
Tokyo-based historian and writer Midori Sawato studied to become a benshi under Shunsui Matsuda, who began performing katsuben (silent film narration) as a boy. He became an avid proponent of preserving the art of the benshi, or silent film narrator, unique to Japanese silent-era cinema.
Benshi performance grew from the Japanese theater tradition of noh and kabuki, which featured orchestral accompaniment and a narrator. Early Japanese cinema consisted of filmed performances of stage plays, featuring kowairo, who stood offscreen to deliver the dialogue of the play’s text, Saburo Somei, an actor and kowairo, is credited as the first benshi. He went beyond simple narration to create voices and personalities for the characters in the films, and he integrated his performance into the movie’s plot.
The popularity of benshis grew as their live performances connected audiences to both Japanese films and foreign imports, whose intertitles were rarely translated into Japanese for local audiences. In 1920, a group of filmmakers sought to break away from filmed stage plays and called for the elimination of the kowairo and benshi. However, the narrators, often more well-known than film performers, banded together to preserve their art and livelihood. Eventually, the use of kowairo was abolished in favor of benshi, and Japanese cineastes began adopting foreign techniques of directing and editing and incorporated the use of intertitles for exposition and dialogue.
Benshis remained a strong force in Japanese cinema until well into the 1930s. However, the inevitable dominance of sound film production in Japan meant the last of the benshi by 1939, until Matsuda Films, founded by Shunsui Matsuda in 1952, began a revival of Japan’s silent cinema. Today, Midori Sawato’s work can be seen on Japanese broadcast television, and she tours the world bringing the art of the benshi back to life.
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with live music by Mark Izu Ensemble and live Katsuben Performance by Midori Sawato