Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom

Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom

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by Daisuke Miyao

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While the actor Sessue Hayakawa (1886–1973) is perhaps best known today for his Oscar-nominated turn as a Japanese military officer in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), in the early twentieth century he was an internationally renowned silent film star, as recognizable as Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks. In this critical study of Hayakawa's stardom,


While the actor Sessue Hayakawa (1886–1973) is perhaps best known today for his Oscar-nominated turn as a Japanese military officer in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), in the early twentieth century he was an internationally renowned silent film star, as recognizable as Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks. In this critical study of Hayakawa's stardom, Daisuke Miyao reconstructs the Japanese actor's remarkable career, from the films that preceded his meteoric rise to fame as the star of Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) through his reign as a matinee idol and the subsequent decline and resurrection of his Hollywood fortunes.

Drawing on early-twentieth-century sources in both English and Japanese, including Japanese-language newspapers in the United States, Miyao illuminates the construction and reception of Hayakawa's stardom as an ongoing process of cross-cultural negotiation. Hayakawa's early work included short films about Japan that were popular with American audiences as well as spy films that played upon anxieties about Japanese nationalism. The Jesse L. Lasky production company sought to shape Hayakawa's image by emphasizing the actor's Japanese traits while portraying him as safely assimilated into U.S. culture. Hayakawa himself struggled to maintain his sympathetic persona while creating more complex Japanese characters that would appeal to both American and Japanese audiences. The star's initial success with U.S. audiences created ambivalence in Japan, where some described him as traitorously Americanized and others as a positive icon of modernized Japan. This unique history of transnational silent-film stardom focuses attention on the ways that race, ethnicity, and nationality influenced the early development of the global film industry.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Fascinating . . . an exceptionally rich and provocative study of race and national imagery at the beginnings of the Hollywood film industry.”—Richard Peña, Program Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Professor of Film Studies, Columbia University

“Sessue Hayakawa has not received the attention he deserves as one of the most popular and prolific stars of the American silent screen, and this book brings a wealth of material to light. Without replicating existing research, Daisuke Miyao makes an important contribution to three developing areas within film studies: new approaches to the history of early silent film, studies of the impact of Asian Americans on Hollywood, and studies of transnational links among various film industries around the world.”—Gina Marchetti, author of From Tian’anmen to Times Square: Transnational China and the Chinese Diaspora on Global Screens, 1989–1997

“This is the definitive work on Sessue Hayakawa. It is a work of great originality, a truly unique attempt not only to give a thorough account of the career of one of the first and most unusual stars of silent cinema but also to approach Hayakawa from the perspective of his identity as an ethnic Japanese gaining worldwide stardom. That Daisuke Miyao is able to interrogate not only Japanese sources but the Japanese-language newspapers in the United States makes this perhaps the most thorough—and complex—treatment of the ethnicity of a movie star ever offered by a film historian. And Miyao’s placing of Hayakawa’s stardom within the context of the political and cultural relations between the United States and Japan is nothing less than masterful.”—Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity

Sachiko Mizuno

Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom brings superb research and historical rigor to Hayakawa, an underrated Japanese silent film star, and to transnational film spectatorship during the early years of Hollywood. The book and its bibliography and inspirational for furthering the critical studies on other lesser-known Japanese cosmopolitan figures in early Hollywood. . . .Miyao’s book makes an unparalleled contribution and is an exemplary model for bridging the fields of cinema studies, Asian American studies, and Japanese studies.”
Freda Freiberg

“This book is a welcome addition to the literature on Orientalism, romance and the ‘Yellow Peril’ in Hollywood cinema, which has hitherto given scant attention to Hayakawa and his significant role in the silent cinema. The author’s bilingualism, assiduous research and wide-ranging scholarship have enabled a refreshingly comprehensive account and informed analysis of the reception of the star and his films in both Japan and America.”

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Duke University Press Books
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a John Hope Franklin Center Book
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6.13(w) x 8.88(h) x 1.20(d)

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Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3958-8

Chapter One


The Transnational Success of The Cheat and Its Race and Gender Politics

on December 13, 1915, a film titled The Cheat, produced at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and starring Fannie Ward, a renowned stage actress in New York and London, was released in the United States. The Cheat soon achieved big box office success and opened a gate for the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa to become a "full-fledged star." Before the success of The Cheat, Hayakawa had already appeared in many films, but it was The Cheat that paved the way for him to achieve superstardom.

In The Cheat, a rich Japanese art dealer on Long Island, Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa), offers money to Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward), a white middle-class woman, who has invested money from the Red Cross Fund and eventually lost it, in exchange for her body. When Edith tries to return his money after her husband's success in the stock market, Tori assaults her and brutally brands his mark on her shoulder. However, Edith fights back and shoots Tori in the shoulder. Knowing everything, Edith's husband decides to be arrested on a charge of attempted murder in order to save her name. During the trial, Edith confesses the truth, and the excited court audience attacks Tori in the end.

Not very many reviewers and audiences were impressed by the film's leading actress. What fascinated them most was the supporting Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa. The New York Times insisted, "Miss Ward might learn something to help her fulfill her destiny as a great tragedienne of the screen by observing the man who acted the Japanese villain in her picture." Variety agreed: "The work of Sessue Hayakawa is so far above the acting of Miss Ward and Jack Dean that he really should be the star in the billing for the film." Moving Picture World (MPW) noted that Hayakawa had "a prominent role" in The Cheat and added, "It is rumored he is soon to be starred by the Lasky Company in a big feature production." Sessue Hayakawa thus became an overnight sensation to the moviegoers in America.

Cecil B. DeMille, the director of the film, recalled later that The Cheat was "Sessue Hayakawa's first giant stride on the road that made him within two years the peer of such contemporary bright stars as Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Mary Pickford." The New Orleans Times in February 1916 reported how prominent Hayakawa was after the release of The Cheat: "Undoubtedly the greatest success ever scored by a Japanese actor on [sic] American moving pictures was that of Sessue Hayakawa in the Lasky-Paramount production of "The Cheat," and so strong an impression thot [sic] make on New Orleans spectators that when the Japanese appeared for the moment on the screen in the part of a valet in "Temptation," at the Crescent, a murmur of recognition such as we have never known to greet any other player went through the audience-a most sincere tribute." Similarly, Wid's Films and Film Folk Independent Criticisms of Features pointed out that Hayakawa was used in an inappropriate way in a minor role in Temptation (Cecil B. DeMille, 30 December 1915), the film that was released right after The Cheat: "Our Jap friend, of 'The Cheat' fame, is brought in for a very small 'valet' part at the finish. I think this is wrong. That boy is too big and too clever to be shoved into such films to do a small bit. It hits you in the eye like it would be to see Blanche Sweet come into the film as a maid."

The Lasky Company dared not miss this opportunity. Right before the release of The Cheat, the studio head, Jesse L. Lasky, praised The Cheat as "one of the very best" films ever made, even though his claim should have contained a promotional intention. He said he was "so impressed by his [Hayakawa's] performance" that he "immediately signed him for a long term" contract. After the box office success of The Cheat, the company came to recognize Hayakawa as its new potential moneymaker and to undertake a specific strategy to establish, publicize, and promote his star image.

Motion Picture News (MPN) reported on 15 April 1916: "Partly in response to the hundreds of requests from exhibitors and photoplay goers all over the United States, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company announces that it will present as a star early in May the well-known Japanese screen player, Sessue Hayakawa, in a photoplay production entitled 'Alien Souls.' Hayakawa's work in 'The Cheat,' in which he appeared in leading support of Fannie Ward, stamped him immediately as a proficient figure in motion pictures." Lasky spent five months before releasing the first star vehicle for Hayakawa, Alien Souls (Frank Reicher, 3 May 1916). This long five-month gap indicates the extent of Lasky's well-prepared publicity for the company's new star. When Alien Souls was finally released, reviews of the film appeared in various local papers such as the New York Sun, Philadelphia Telegraph, Detroit News, Evening Wisconsin, Louisville Times, Springfield Mirror, Cleveland Daily, Atlanta Constitution, Los Angeles Examiner, Chicago Tribune, Toledo Blade, and Washington Star, and they unanimously called Hayakawa a "star." After Alien Souls, Hayakawa's star vehicles were released in approximately two-month cycles.

But stardom has more than a national perspective, and Hayakawa, like Charlie Chaplin, was one of the first stars whose international reputation forms an essential part of his story. American spectators were not the only ones who were immensely impressed by Hayakawa in The Cheat. Hayakawa's performance was sensationally received in Europe and in Japan. In France, when The Cheat opened at the Omnia Pathé Cinema in Paris in the summer of 1916, French intellectuals were "dumbfounded" by Hayakawa and the innovative aesthetics of The Cheat. On 3 June 1918, the drama critic Louis Delluc claimed, "No one actually wanted to see anything in it [The Cheat] except the Japanese.... [The film] inspired nothing but pro-Japanese polemic." In Excelsior, on 7 August 1916, the renowned poet, novelist, and essayist Colette reported, in an excited tone, on the impact of Hayakawa's performance in The Cheat on many artists:

In Paris this week, a movie theater has become an art school. A film and two of its principal actors are showing us what surprising innovations, what emotion, what natural and well-designed lighting can add to cinematic fiction. Every evening, writers, painters, composers, and dramatists come and come again to sit, contemplate, and comment in low voices, like pupils. To the genius of an oriental actor is added that of a director probably without equal.... We cry "Miracle!" ... Is it only a combination of felicitous effects that brings us to this film and keeps us there? Or is it the more profound and less clear pleasure of seeing the crude ciné groping toward perfection, the pleasure of divining what the future of the cinema must be when its makers will want that future ...? ... This Asiatic artist whose powerful immobility is eloquence itself. Let our aspiring ciné-actors go to see how, when his face is mute, his hand carries on the flow of his thought. Let them take to heart the menace and disdain in a motion of his eyebrow and how, in that his life is running out with his blood, without shuddering, without convulsively grimacing, with merely the progressive petrifaction of his Buddha's mask and the ecstatic darkening of his eyes.

As mentioned in the introduction, Hayakawa's acting, which Delluc and Colette fervently described, inspired certain French intellectuals to generate a concept, photogenie, the unique aesthetic qualities that motion picture photography brings to the subject it films. For them, the concept of photogenie was the basis of a new idea of film as a unique art form, thus Hayakawa of a new form of acting. According to Delluc, using the camera and the screen, photogenie changes "real" into something else without eliminating the "realness" and makes people "see ordinary things as they had never been before." It is a mystical and theoretically incoherent concept due to the fact that photogenie is "designed to account for that which is inarticulable, that which exceeds language and hence points to the very essence of cinematic specificity." Yet, such a theorist as Delluc believed that the cinema would give viewers access to a realm beyond everyday experience and show them the souls of people and the essence of objects. The concept of photogenie later became a significant theoretical basis of the French impressionist film movement, filmmaking that "displayed a fascination with pictorial beauty and an interest in intense psychological exploration." As a result, by 1921, French intellectuals achieved a consensus that The Cheat's "revelation actually initiated the greater French public's education about the cinema."

This enthusiastic reception of Hayakawa in France had a certain connection to the popularity of Madame Sadayakko, a Japanese actress. Sadayakko, who was in fact the aunt of Hayakawa's wife, Tsuru Aoki, was sponsored by the popular dancer Loie Fuller in the 1900 Exposition in Paris, together with her husband Kawakami Otojiro, who tried to modernize Japanese theater by dissociating it from the dominant world of kabuki and pleasure quarters. Sadayakko's geisha dance and act of dying and Kawakami's act of hara-kiri, which were in fact added at the request of Fuller, were sensationally received not only by the popular audience, but by some intellectuals and artists, including the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin. Moreover, their acts were captured by a motion picture camera, which was another sensational form of entertainment at the Paris Exposition. After the Kawakami troupe returned to Japan, even Japanese-style dresses became fashionable in Paris. They were called "Yacco" style because Sadayakko always wore a kimono at parties. Sadayakko's fame was such that Guerlain introduced a perfume called "Yacco."

Without Sadayakko, Kawakami, and Aoki, Hayakawa would never have entered the film business. In 1899, when Aoki was eleven, she went to the United States as a part of the Kawakami troupe. It was the first time a Japanese theater troupe had toured in the United States. Aoki stayed in the United States as an adopted daughter of Aoki Toshio (Hyosai), an artist in San Francisco, and later, after Aoki Toshio died, of Louise Scher, a journalist at the Los Angeles Examiner. Aoki started her film career much earlier than Hayakawa and quite possibly introduced him to an influential producer in early Hollywood, Thomas H. Ince.

In 1925, the filmmakers Henri Fescourt and Jean-Louis Bouquet dated "the origins of the cinema around 1915-1916, with the appearance of the first good American films," and stated that "the most striking was The Cheat." In 1937, Marcel L'Herbier remade The Cheat, entitled Forfaiture, using Hayakawa in the role of a Mongolian prince who attracts a French engineer's wife and entraps her using her gambling debts. The images behind the opening credits of Forfaiture, a compilation of notable scenes with Hayakawa from The Cheat, clearly indicate the immense popularity of Hayakawa and The Cheat in France. Forfaiture thus presupposed the viewers' knowledge of the original.

Moreover, Excelsior, on 28 August 1917, reported that The Cheat was about to be staged as an opera. André de Lorde of the Théatre du Grand Guignol and Paul Milliet wrote a music drama based on The Cheat, for which Camille Erlanger wrote the music. The opera, entitled La Forfaiture, was in fact produced by the Opéra-Comique in 1921, after Erlanger's death, and became the first opera to be based on a motion picture scenario, even though the opera was not successful and played only three times. Colette's reaction to this announcement of the stage production of The Cheat, written in a conversation style, indicates how highly she valued Hayakawa's eloquent performance. Colette's insight even predicts Hayakawa's future, his loss of popularity after talking pictures arrived:

"And who will play it? Have they already found people worthy of taking over for Hayakawa and Fannie Ward?" "Ah ... that's the difficulty. What do you think of Mary Garden for the role played by Fannie Ward?" "Mary Garden would be fine. And the Japanese?" The friend of film leaned forward, with an anxious face: "The Japanese, the Japanese ..." He looked at me steadily. "It's strange," he said, "the Japanese ... I don't conceive of that role, you understand, as being sung. Or, let's say there'd be very little singing. One would need a great artist capable of mime. Gesture, stage presence ... Very little voice. No vocal effects, no melodic phrases. Everything in recitative. But silence, you understand, above all, silence. Jean Périer, perhaps ..." "Of course. Besides"-I insinuated with a poisonous sweetness-"really, the Japanese has nothing to say in the story." "That's quite right. My opinion exactly. He has nothing to say. The first, the glare, that's the whole role. I see so clearly what's needed. I can see it as if I were there." "I think you were there. Wait, one moment, I have an idea. Supposing that the Japanese, in your opera, were made evil, seductive, and ... mute?" "Mute?" "Mute. As mute as a screen. He could, by mime, make himself understood just as easily-perhaps better-and then ..." "I've got it, I've got it!" the friend of film cried. "We'll get Hayakawa to create the role in the opera!" "I hoped you'd say that." "Magnificent! Magnificent! That takes a weight off me ... It's foolish, perhaps, but the idea of hearing the role of the Japanese sung ... and even that of the woman, if it comes to that, in the great scene, the struggle between Fannie Ward and Hayakawa, I can't yet imagine how they would exchange the lines 'Be Mine!' 'No, never!' 'You swore it!' 'Pity, pity! Oh, the villain-!' and so on." "I share your apprehension. One could, though, get around the difficulty with those cries ..." "How?" "One could arrange, for example, a silent scene, very rapid, in the style of that lovely scene in the film ..." "Of course ..." "... and since the scene would be silent, there wouldn't be any difficulty in having it played by Fannie Ward ..."

Hayakawa's performance in The Cheat was sensationally received by Japanese spectators, too. However, the tone of the Japanese reception was not as favorable as that of the American and French ones. Japanese communities in the United States severely protested The Cheat, insisting that the Japanese character in the film was depicted unfavorably. On 23 December 1915, right after The Cheat was released at the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, started a campaign against the film. Hayakawa wrote in his autobiography, "Recalling my experiences in making this picture [The Cheat] brings to mind the opposition my playing the role of the villainous Japanese stirred among those of my nationality in Los Angeles and throughout the country after the film was released. For portraying the heavy, as screen villains are called, as a Japanese, I was indignantly accused of casting a slur on my nationality."

The Rafu Shimpo criticized The Cheat by insisting that the film "distorted the truth of Japanese people" and would "cause anti-Japanese movements." A report in the Rafu Shimpo noted, "The film depicts Japanese people as outrageously evil.... This film would have a bad influence on people, living in places where there are not so many Japanese. They would come to think that the Japanese people are extremely savage. The film destroys the truth of the Japanese race. It is unforgivable for Japanese actors to appear in such a film, even for money."


Excerpted from SESSUE HAYAKAWA by DAISUKE MIYAO Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Daisuke Miyao is Assistant Professor of Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon. He is a coeditor of Casio Abe’s Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano and a co-translator of Kiju Yoshida’s Ozu’s Anti-Cinema.

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Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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