Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa (Wikipedia)

Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese actor. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s. Hayakawa was the first actor of Asian descent to achieve stardom as a leading man in the United States and Europe. His “broodingly handsome” good looks and typecasting as a sexually dominant villain made him a heartthrob among American women during a time of racial discrimination, and he became one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood.[3][4][5]

After being expelled from the Japanese naval academy and surviving a suicide attempt at 18, Hayakawa attended the University of Chicago, where he studied political economics and quarterbacked the school’s football team. Upon graduating, he traveled to Los Angeles in order to board a scheduled ship back to Japan, but decided to try out acting in Little Tokyo. There, Hayakawa impressed Hollywood figures and was signed on to star in The Typhoon(1914). He made his breakthrough in The Cheat (1915), and thereafter became famous for his roles as a forbidden lover. Hayakawa was one of the highest paid stars of his time, earning $5,000 per week in 1915, and $2 million per year through his own production company from 1918 to 1921.

Hayakawa’s popularity and sex appeal (“his most rabid fan base was white women”) unsettled many segments of American society which were filled with feelings of the Yellow Peril. With two World Wars taking place throughout his career, and rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, the types of roles that he usually played were gradually “taken over by other actors who were not as threatening as Hayakawa in terms of race and sex”.  Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922 and worked in Japanese and European cinema for many years before making his Hollywood comeback in Tokyo Joe (1949).

Of his talkies, Hayakawa is probably best known for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Hayakawa starred in over 80 feature films, and three of his films (The CheatThe Dragon Painter, and The Bridge on the River Kwai) stand in the United States National Film Registry.

Hayakawa was born Kintaro Hayakawa (早川 金太郎 Hayakawa Kintarō) in the village of Nanaura, now part of a town called Chikura, in the city of Minamibōsō in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on June 10, 1886.[9][10][11]

From an early age, Hayakawa’s family intended him to become an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy. However, while a student at the naval academy in Etajima, he swam to the bottom of a lagoon (he grew up in a shellfish diving community) on a dare and ruptured his eardrum. The injury caused him to fail the navy physical. His father felt shame and embarrassment by his son’s failure and this drove a wedge between them. The strained relationship drove the 18-year-old Hayakawa to attempt seppuku (ritual suicide).[10]One evening, Hayakawa entered a shed on his parents’ property and prepared the venue. He put his dog outside and attempted to uphold his family’s samurai tradition by stabbing himself more than 30 times in the abdomen. The barking dog brought Hayakawa’s parents to the scene and his father used an axe to break down the door, saving his life.[12]

After he recovered from the suicide attempt, Hayakawa began to study political economics at the University of Chicago to fulfill his family’s new wish that he become a banker. While a student, he played quarterback for the football team and was once penalized for using jujitsu to bring down an opponent.[12][13][14]

Hayakawa graduated from the University of Chicago in 1912, and subsequently made plans to return to Japan.  (Some sources conflict as to the extent to which he attended the university.) He traveled to Los Angeles and awaited a transpacific steamship. During his stay, he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and became fascinated with acting and performing plays. It was around this time that Hayakawa first assumed the stage name Sessue (雪洲 Sesshū), meaning “snowy field” (雪 means “snow” and 洲 means “north field”).  One of the productions in which Hayakawa performed was called The TyphoonTsuru Aoki, a member of the acting troupe, was so impressed with Hayakawa’s abilities and enthusiasm that she enticed film producer Thomas H. Ince to see the play. Ince saw the production and offered to turn it into a silent film with the original cast. Anxious to return to Japan, Hayakawa tried to dissuade Ince by requesting the then-astronomic fee of $500 a week, but Ince agreed to his request.

The Typhoon (1914) became an instant hit and was followed by two additional pictures produced by Ince, The Wrath of the Gods (1914) co-starring Hayakawa’s new wife, Aoki, and The Sacrifice (1914). With Hayakawa’s rising stardom, Jesse L. Lasky soon offered Hayakawa a contract, which he accepted, making him part of Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures).

Hayakawa’s second film for Famous Players-Lasky was The Cheat(1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMilleThe Cheat co-starred Fannie Ward as Hayakawa’s love interest and was a huge success, making Hayakawa a romantic idol and sex symbol to the female movie-going public. With his popularity and “broodingly handsome” good looks, Hayakawa commanded a salary that reached over $5,000 a week in 1915. In 1917, he built his residence, a castle-styled mansion, at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Argyle Street in Hollywood, which was a local landmark until it was demolished in 1956.

Following The Cheat, Hayakawa became a top leading man for romantic dramas in the 1910s and early 1920s. He also diversified his body of work with Westerns and action films. Sought after for roles, but dissatisfied with being constantly typecast, Hayakawa decided to form his own production company. He borrowed $1 million from William Joseph Connery—a former classmate at the University of Chicago and son of James Patrick Connery, who in turn was a former business partner of Will H. Hays of the Teapot Dome Scandal—and formed Haworth Pictures Corporation in 1918.[18]

Over the next three years, Hayakawa produced 23 films and earned $2 million a year. Hayakawa had total control over his material; he produced, starred in, and contributed to the design, writing, editing, and directing of the films, which were highly influential in the American public’s perception of Asians. Critics hailed Hayakawa’s understated, Zen-influenced acting style. Hayakawa sought to bring muga, or the “absence of doing”, to his performances, in direct contrast to the then-popular studied poses and broad gestures. He was one of the first stars to do so.

In 1918, Hayakawa personally chose the American serial actress Marin Sais to appear opposite him in a series of films, the first being the racial drama The City of Dim Faces (1918), followed by His Birthright(1918), which also starred Aoki. His collaboration with Sais ended with Bonds of Honor (1919). Hayakawa also appeared opposite Jane Novak in The Temple of Dusk (1918) and Aoki in The Dragon Painter (1919). He became one of the highest paid stars of the era, earning $2 million per year through his production company from 1918 to 1921. Hayakawa’s fame rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Hayakawa drove a gold plated Pierce-Arrow and entertained lavishly in his “Castle”, which was known as the scene of some of Hollywood’s wildest parties. Shortly before Prohibition took effect in 1920, he bought a large supply of liquor, leading him to joke that he owed his social success to his liquor supply. During this period, Hayakawa lost $1 million during a single evening gambling in Monte Carlo, and shrugged off the loss.

Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922.  The next decade and a half saw him perform in Japanese and European cinema. In London, Hayakawa starred in The Great Prince Shan (1924) and The Story of Su (1924). In 1925, he wrote a novel, The Bandit Prince, and adapted it into a short play. In 1930, Hayakawa performed in Samurai, a one-act play written specifically for him, in front of Great Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary. Hayakawa became widely known in France, where audiences “enthusiastically embraced” him and made his French debut, La Bataille (1923), a critical and financial success. German audiences found Hayakawa “sensational” and in Russia he was considered one of the “wonderful actors” of America.  In addition to numerous Japanese films, Hayakawa also produced a Japanese-language stage version of The Three Musketeers. In the initial decades of his career, Hayakawa established himself as the first leading man of Asian descent in American and European cinema. He was also the first non-Caucasian actor to achieve international stardom.

Hayakawa later transitioned into doing talkies; his sound film debut came in Daughter of the Dragon(1931), starring opposite Chinese American performer Anna May Wong. Hayakawa played a Samurai in the German-Japanese co-production The Daughter of the Samurai (1937). The same year, Hayakawa went to France to perform in Yoshiwara (1937), but ended up trapped in the country and separated from his family when the German occupation of France began in 1940. Hayakawa made few films in the following years, but financially supported himself by selling his watercolor paintings. He joined the French Resistance and helped Allied flyers during World War II.

In 1949, Humphrey Bogart‘s production company located Hayakawa and offered him a role in Tokyo Joe. Before issuing a work permit, the American Consulate investigated Hayakawa’s activities during the war and found that he had in no way contributed to the German war effort. Hayakawa followed Tokyo Joe with Three Came Home (1950), in which he played real-life POW camp commander Lieutenant-Colonel Suga, before returning to France.

After the war, Hayakawa’s on-screen roles can best be described as “the honorable villain”, a figure exemplified by his portrayal of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Hayakawa earned a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor; he was also nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. After the film, Hayakawa largely retired from acting. Throughout the following years he performed guest appearances on a handful of television shows and films, making his final performance in the animated film The Daydreamer (1966).

After retiring, Hayakawa dedicated himself to Zen Buddhism, became an ordained Zen master, worked as a private acting coach, and authored his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way.

Hayakawa was in a unique position due to his ethnicity and fame in the English-speaking world. Due to naturalization laws of that time, Hayakawa would be unable to become a U.S. citizen. and because of anti-miscegenation laws he could not marry someone of another race. In 1930, the Production Code came into effect which forbade portrayals of miscegenation in film. This meant that unless Hayakawa’s co-star was an Asian actress, he would not be able to portray a romance with her.

Throughout Hayakawa’s career, many segments of American society were filled with feelings of the Yellow Peril due to circumstances surrounding World War I and World War II. This left Hayakawa constantly typecast as a villain or forbidden lover and unable to play heroic parts that would typically be given to white actors such as Douglas Fairbanks.  Hayakawa’s popularity and sex appeal (“his most rabid fan base was white women”) upset many American men and exacerbated the Yellow Peril sentiments.

Hayakawa is historically seen as a precursor to Rudolph Valentino: both were foreign-born, typecast as exotic or forbidden lovers, and wildly popular during their time.[. With the rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, the types of roles that Hayakawa usually played were gradually given to more Western-looking actors such as Valentino “who were not as threatening as Hayakawa in terms of race and sex”.

In more than 20 films for Famous Players, Hayakawa was typecast as either the dangerous villain or the exotic lover who in the end would turn his female love interest over to the “proper” man of her own race. This typecasting was the reason Hayakawa established his own production company in 1918, near the height of his American fame. At the time, he stated he wanted to be shown “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 [Asians].” Hayakawa desperately sought to show a more balanced and fair portrait of Asians. In 1949, he lamented, “My one ambition is to play a hero.” In his autobiography he observed, “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”

Hayakawa’s early films were not popular in Japan because many felt that his roles portrayed an image of Japanese men being sadistic and cruel. Many Japanese viewers found this portrayal—which made him popular in the U.S.—insulting. Nationalistic groups in particular were censorious.[40] Some Japanese believed that Hayakawa was contributing to increased anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S., and regarded him as a traitor to the Japanese people. After Hayakawa established himself as an American superstar, the negative tone in the press that regarded him as a national and racial shame almost completely disappeared, and Japanese media started publicizing Hayakawa’s cinematic achievements instead.

On May 1, 1914, Hayakawa married fellow Issei and performer Tsuru Aoki, who co-starred in several of his films. Hayakawa’s first child, a son, was born in New York in 1929, to a white actress named Ruth Noble. The boy was known as Alexander Hayes, but the name was changed to Yukio after Sessue and Aoki adopted the child and took him to be raised and educated in Japan. Later, Hayakawa had two daughters with Aoki: Yoshiko, an actress, and Fujiko, a dancer. Aoki died in 1961. Hayakawa later returned to Japan and dedicated himself to Zen Buddhism, becoming an ordained priest.

Physically, Hayakawa possessed “an athlete’s physique and agility”. A 1917 profile on Hayakawa stated that he “is proficient in jiu-jitsu, an expert fencer, and can swim like a fish. He is a good horseman and plays a fast tennis racket. He is tall for a Japanese, being five feet seven and a half inches in height, and weighs 157 pounds.”

Hayakawa was known for his discipline and martial arts skills. While filming The Jaguar’s Claws, in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit, with 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of filming, the extras drank all night and well into the next day. No work was being done, so Hayakawa challenged the group to a fight. Two men stepped forward. Hayakawa said of the incident, “The first one struck out at me. I seized his arm and sent him flying on his face along the rough ground. The second attempted to grapple and I was forced to flip him over my head and let him fall on his neck. The fall knocked him unconscious.” Hayakawa then disarmed yet another cowboy. The extras returned to work, amused by the way the small man manhandled the big bruising cowboys.

Hayakawa’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hayakawa retired from film in 1966. He died in Tokyo on November 23, 1973, from a cerebral thrombosis, complicated by pneumonia. He was buried in the Chokeiji Temple Cemetery in Toyama, Japan.

Many of Hayakawa’s films are lost. However, most of his later works, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Jerry Lewis comedy The Geisha Boy in which Hayakawa lampoons his role in The Bridge on the River KwaiSwiss Family RobinsonTokyo Joe, and Three Came Home are available on DVD. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Hayakawa was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street, in HollywoodLos Angeles, California.

A musical based on Hayakawa’s life, Sessue, played in Tokyo in 1989. In September 2007, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective on Hayakawa’s work entitled: Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met. Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima had planned to create a biopic entitled Hollywood Zen based on Hayakawa’s life. The script had been allegedly completed and set to film in Los Angeles, but due to constant delays and the eventual death of Oshima himself in 2013, the project went unrealized.

Hayakawa’s image as a sex symbol is often remembered for its stark contrast to the stereotypically desexualized image of Asian men later in the film industry.

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