The Japanese have a term for certain types of movies made outside the country featuring Japanese actors who play Japanese characters. It is kokujoku eiga. Eiga means “movies,” and kokujoku, derived from the words for “country” and “insult,” means “disgrace” or “denigration.” In other words, kokujoku eiga are movies that Japanese regard as shaming their nation.
The notion, in the past, was that any Japanese actor who portrayed a Japanese in an unflattering light was guilty of dishonoring Japan. The active principle here was: Don’t air dirty futons on foreign balconies.
The pioneer in this unashamed airing was Sesshu Hayakawa, the first Japanese actor to become a star in the United States. June 10 marks the 120th anniversary of Hayakawa’s birth. Let’s take a look at his life and times.
Sessue Hayakawa, as he was called in America, was a superstar of the silent era. His first big hit was in 1915, in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat,” in which he played a sadistic ivory merchant. Anyone who’s ever seen the film could surely never forget a scene in which he brands the swooning American heroine with a red-hot iron to ensure there are no disputes about whose girl she is.
No wonder that Hayakawa was regarded as a disgrace in his country. Japanese distributors refused to release “The Cheat,” and there was such an outcry that DeMille changed Hayakawa’s character from being Japanese to Burmese when the film was re-released in 1918.
This, though, failed to satisfy people in Japan, who saw Hayakawa as a “national humiliator.”
As for American moviegoers, they couldn’t tell one Asian from another anyway. The point to them was that the brander was an Oriental man and the brandee was an American woman — and in those days it wasn’t only the heroine, played by the lovely Fannie Ward, who swooned at Sessue’s searing gesture. Countless other ladies who saw the film would have loved to be on the receiving end of his hot iron.
Kintaro Hayakawa, his real name, was born into a very well-off family in 1889 in what is now Minami Boso City in Chiba Prefecture, where his father was the governor.
He went to the prestigious Imperial Naval Academy at Etajima in Hiroshima Bay, but was sent home as physically unfit due to a ruptured eardrum. Once home and feeling utterly humiliated, he tried to commit hara-kiri, but was saved when his father heard their dog barking in alarm.
After recuperating and receiving spiritual sustenance at a Zen temple, Hayakawa went off to the University of Chicago. Once in the U.S., though, he was waylaid in Los Angeles by a beautiful Japanese actress named Tsuru Aoki, whom he subsequently married, and was soon discovered by producer Thomas Ince who found him roles on the screen.
By the time “The Cheat” was re-released, Hayakawa was not only a heartthrob across America, but also a millionaire. He starred in some 20 films for Paramount as the “exotic villain.” He was also offered the heroic lead in “The Sheik” in 1918, but opted out and the part went to a newcomer named Rudolph Valentino, who became his exotic rival of the silent era.
Hayakawa settled in a mansion in Hollywood, producing movies through a company he co-founded until a dispute with a distributor eventually led to its demise. The distributor called Hayakawa a “Chink” in public, to which the Japanese actor-director-producer retorted: “I am not a Chink. I am a Japanese gentleman. And the word ‘Chink’ is not fit to be spoke!”
This, though, illustrates how pre- World War II Hollywood was every bit as racist as American society in general. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 severely limited immigration to the U.S. from Asian countries. In Hollywood, the Motion Pictures Production Code of 1930 forbade scenes of intimacy between people of different races — and remained in force until 1968.
By 1930, Oriental lady-killer Hayakawa was long gone from Hollywood. He had moved to New York, then on to London, where he performed on stage in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary, before moving to Paris. (He could also act in French.) In 1931, though, he was back in Hollywood, starring in his first talkie, “Daughter of the Dragon,” in which he played secret agent Ah Kee (evidently a Chinese, hence no kokujoku here) opposite fellow Asian performer Anna May Wong.
Returning to Europe in 1937, he appeared alongside Setsuko Hara in “Atarashiki Tsuchi” (“Daughter of a Samurai”), a German-Japanese co-production. Then, after hostiliies erupted in Europe in 1939, he eked out a living selling his paintings as one of only a handful of Japanese who spent the duration of World War II in Paris.
By war’s end Hakayama was truly scratching for a living. Then, out of the blue, an offer came to co-star with Humphrey Bogart in “Tokyo Joe.” Bogart, who had remembered Hayakawa from the silent era, located him in Paris, and the Japanese actor soon found himself in Hollywood again.
The following years saw him act in a number of successful films, including “The Geisha Boy” opposite Jerry Lewis and Shirley MacLaine; “Green Mansions,” with Anthony Perkins and Audrey Hepburn; and “Swiss Family Robinson,” in which he played a pirate named Kuala — again, thankfully, not an ethnically Japanese one.
But Hayakawa is no doubt best remembered for his portrayal of brutal Col. Saito in the 1957 British film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Hayakawa was the first and foremost Asian actor to forge a career abroad — this despite an acting style he himself termed muga (a Zen term for escaping the self by negating the ego), which was the epitome of economy and stillness.
From the 1930s, though, American moviegoers, many swooning ladies among them, had come to reject the silent exotic seducer for square-jawed, pearly-toothed, aw-shucks all-American good guys. This led to Hayakawa being marginalized in roles of swarthy villains and nasty militarists. Hollywood wanted its vulnerable all-American bombshells to fall into the arms of Alan Ladds and Clark Gables, who needed no branding iron to lay claim on them.
The term kokujoku eiga is now passe. Had it been so in Hayakawa’s day, he would have been hailed in his country as a conquering hero, not shunned as a cunning turncoat.
After Tsuru Aoki, with whom he adopted three children, died in 1961, Hayakawa returned to Japan, wrote his autobiography “Zen Showed Me the Way: To Peace, Happiness and Tranquility,” and became a Zen monk. He died in Tokyo on Nov. 23, 1973, and his star is now set on Vine St. in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Though Sessue’s star does not shine all the way to his native country, it is worth recalling, on the anniversary of his birth, how very brightly it once shone elsewhere.