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Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom, by Daisuke Miyao. Duke University Press, 2007, 380 pp., with 23 illustrations, $23.95 (paper)

Kintaro Hayakawa (1886-1973), born in modest circumstances in Chiba, went on to have an extraordinary and unexpected life elsewhere. Now renamed Sesshu (Sessue) Hayakawa, he became an internationally known Hollywood actor, one of the three “most famous and celebrated,” along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

The first of the ethnic matinee idols (Rudolph Valentino, half a decade later, was the second), Hayakawa proved popular mainly with those who went to the movies most — American women. Many were the theories thought up to account for this amazing admiration, including one critic’s opinion that the actor appealed “to a latent female urge to experience sex with a beautiful but savage man of another race.”

If this was so, another of the reasons for such attraction to films — which illustrated what was then defined as miscegenation and was still against many state laws — was that it amounted to safe sedition. In the words of Miriam Hansen, it (like the later Valentino cult) had a subversive effect against “the socially imposed dominance-submission hierarchy of gender roles, dissolving subject-object dichotomies into erotic reciprocity.”

Hayakawa made more than 40 Hollywood films and played a variety of exotic heroes. In all of them he was the dashing if sometimes villainous lover, yet all these roles were invariably portrayals of Japanese as seen through Western eyes. Of consequence, though he was later to appear in a number of Japanese films, he was never successful in his native country.

His early American films were not popular in Japan because Hollywood decorated him with Japaneseness at the very time that Japan was busy Americanizing itself. His later films were not popular because Hayakawa was thought to be too thoroughly Americanized during the nationalist trend that was then coming on strong in Japan.

As Daisuke Miyao, the author of this new monograph on the strange career of Hayakawa, states, his “transnational stardom was a site of constant conflicts and struggles over the ownership of the image of Japan (and America) . . . on Japanese self-images in the world and on the volatile social and cultural interactions between Japan and the United States.”

Hayakawa himself tried to control his image. In 1918 he said he wanted to portray a Japanese “as he really is and not as fiction paints him.” As for his prior roles, he said, “they are false and give people a wrong idea of us.”

So they did. In the film that made him a sudden star, a Cecile B. DeMille melodrama called “The Cheat” (1913), Hayakawa, a Japanese art dealer, brands the lovely white shoulder of actress Fannie Ward with the same iron he uses on his other artistic possessions.

Various reasons were given for the sudden stardom. One authority mentioned “mass masochism,” while another said it was because Hayakawa was such a fine actor and that Miss Ward had better look to her laurels. No one at the time much talked about the film as a reflection of the international situation. Was Japan friend or foe? Was the Yellow Peril real? Was American womanhood in danger?

The fluctuating state of Japan-U.S. relations certainly reflected intentions. When “The Cheat” was released, it was politically expedient for the villain (lynched at the end) to be Japanese. When the silent film was re-released with new dialogue titles in 1918, political problems had simmered down and Japan was a trusted postwar ally. Hayakawa was (according to the new titles) no longer Japanese but a Burmese ivory king.

It is the political environment that most interests Miyao in his scholarly and definitive interpretation of Hayakawa and his films. The book is not a biography in any narrow sense of the word; nor is it intended to be. It is a study of racial imagery during Hollywood’s beginnings, of early political expediency at the movies, and the rise of an American genre, the “domestic melodrama that eventually supported white American patriarchy.”

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