Ashai Shinbum: Book Review: Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom

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Bruce Calvert

Jun 30, 2007, 6:43:37 PM6/30/07

Weekend Beat/ Book Review: Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational


Sessue Hayakawa:

Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom

By Daisuke Miyao

Durham, North Carolina: Duke Univ. Press

ISBN 978-0-8223-3969-4, 379 pp, $23.95

Today, the notion that an actor who is neither white nor from an Anglophone
country might be a top Hollywood star can only be seen as fantastic. In the
early part of the last century, however, Cecil B. DeMille maintained that
Sessue Hayakawa (1899-1973), born and raised in Chiba Prefecture, was "the
peer of such bright stars as Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart and Mary
Pickford," and the eminent director seems to have been right.

In 1916, Hayakawa was, for example, "ranked number one in the Chicago
Tribune popular star contests," and in a poster advertising "A Mammoth
Triple Feature Program," reproduced in Daisuke Miyao's "Sessue Hayakawa:
Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom," the space accorded to Hayakawa is
equal to that devoted to Hart and Charlie Chaplin, indicating that, Miyao
notes, "Hayakawa had ... by 1917 achieved star status equal to that of
Chaplin and Hart."

How was that possible in an age that--we would like to believe--was less
tolerant and multicultural than our own?

Miyao's consideration of Hayakawa's career moves us some way toward an
answer to this question and also suggests that it was as surprising then as
it would be now for an Asian male's star to shine as brightly as Hayakawa's.

Miyao's scrupulous reading of each of Hayakawa's major films makes this
clear. It is through these analyses that we see not only how unlikely
Hayakawa's success was, but also how the fad among American housewives for
"the use of Japanese motifs, decorative style and objects in the Western
home" combined with contemporary ideas about race and "the yellow peril" to
make it possible for Hayakawa and the savvy producers for whom he worked to
capitalize on the moment.

Hayakawa's first great success, "The Cheat," was released in 1915. He played
only a supporting role, the villain, but the notice from Variety sums up the
critical consensus: "The work of Sessue Hayakawa is so far above the acting
of Miss [Fannie] Ward and Jack Green that he really should be the star in
the billing for the film."

Hayakawa was talented but as he was Japanese, he needed to channel this
talent into vehicles that American audiences would find acceptable. The
box-office success of "The Cheat" made it a template according to which many
of Hayakawa's subsequent films were constructed.

Tori, the seemingly refined, sensitive art dealer played by Hayakawa in this
film, encapsulates perfectly the anxiety many Americans felt toward
Japanese. In his "white duster cap, casual tweed suit and bow tie," Tori
appears assimilated enough to be unthreatening, but in other scenes the
"Japanese-style dressing gown" he wears "serves to represent the Japanese
traits that are hidden behind the Westernized surface," notes Miyao, an
assistant professor of Japanese literature and film at the University of

Contemporary viewers would have had no doubt that it was precisely these
traits that were responsible for Tori's attempt to force the heroine, Edith,
to become his mistress. In the end, Edith is saved by her white American
husband and, at a time when "the increased presence of women and immigrants
in the workplace and spheres of commercialized leisure" threatened white
masculinity, many in the audience would have felt relieved that order had
been restored.

Hanging over "The Cheat" (and virtually every film in which Hayakawa played
opposite a white leading lady) is the threat--for so it was then
perceived--of miscegenation. That a nonwhite man might act on his desire for
a white woman was unforgivable; that he might desire a white woman and
suppress that desire, however, could be seen as noble. This was the thinking
underlying many of the Hayakawa films in which he was not a Torilike
villain, but rather a Japanese doing his best to adopt "white Anglo-Saxon
Protestant customs."

In "Hashimura Togo" (1917), for example, Hayakawa plays Togo, an immigrant
earnestly trying to Americanize himself. Togo is smitten with the white
middle-class woman who employs him, but as soon as he understands that she
is in love with a white doctor, he relinquishes his desire and does his best
to defend her throughout the tribulations she undergoes.

Togo, then, is a Japanese who successfully assimilates, and whose sexual
menace is neutralized; thus, in "Hashimura Togo," we see the second of the
two templates to which many of Hayakawa's films conformed. We see also, in
the good immigrant Togo, the role that Hayakawa was forced to present to the
American public as his "private life."

Miyao's illuminating discussion of this blurred line between reality and
fiction recurs in his consideration of "The Bridge on the River Kwai"
(1957), a film in which Hayakawa was, once again, a nefarious Japanese
villain, a role which, more than 40 years after "The Cheat," still resonated
enough with American audiences that Hayakawa was, for the first time,
nominated for an Academy Award. (IHT/Asahi: June 30,2007)
Bruce Calvert
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