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sessue hayakawa in the nineteen-tens and twenties.


FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: SESSUE HAYAKAWA, 早川 雪洲.
BORN: JUNE 10TH, 1886. MINAMIBŌSŌ, CHIBA, EMPIRE OF JAPAN.
NOTABLE PICTURES: THE CHEAT, 1915. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, 1957. TOKYO JOE, 1949. THE DRAGON PAINTER, 1919. SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, 1960. DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, 1931.
HISTORY: FIRST ASIAN LEADING MAN IN HOLLYWOOD.

TRIGGER WARNING: A MENTION OF SUICIDE.

BEGINING. 

I. Born KINTARO HAYAKAWA 早川 金太郎, Hayakawa Kintarō, in the village of Nanaura, now called Chikura, in the city of Minamibōsō in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on June 10th, 1886. He grew up in a large family with five siblings, and from a young age, his parents intended him to become an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Though this wish was cut short. As a student at the naval academy, he attempted a dare, swimming to the bottom of a lagoon, and in turn, rupturing his eardrum. This, of course, led him to fail the physical exam given by the navy. This mark in his life caused a rip between father and son, with his father feeling an overwhelming amount of disappointment, shame, and embarrassment. The strain of shame Kintaro (Sessue) felt became almost too much to bear, and the eighteen-year-old attempted seppuku 切腹, a ritual suicide, in which one stabs themself in the stomach and draws the blade from left to right, slicing the stomach open. This ritual suicide was done to restore honor for the person performing it and to their families as well.

On the evening of the ritual, he entered a shed on his parents' property and prepared the venue. He put his dog outside and attempted to uphold the samurai tradition, by stabbing himself more than thirty times in the abdomen. The dog outside the shed began to bark, which brought Kintaro's parents to the scene that was about to take place, his father used an ax to break apart the door, ultimately saving his son's life.

After recovering from the suicide attempt, Kintaro moved to the United States. What he did next is up to debate. Some report that he studied political economics at the University of Chicago, to fulfill his parent's new wish that he become a successful banker, in which he graduated in 1912. Other reports, such as Daisuke Miyao's, who is a professor of Japanese language and literature at UC San Diego, has reported that there are no existing documents or records of Sessue ever even attending the University of Chicago, non in course enrollments, roasters, and so forth. He would somehow end up in California, either to board a transpacific steamship that would take him home to Japan after graduating (if he did) or after studying for at least a year, leaving his studies to help his older brother, who was working in San Francisco at the time. 

His acting career to some, was probably apart of a string of odd jobs: ice cream vendor, waiter, dishwasher, etc. No matter how he ended up in California, one thing remained true to both stories, a fascination for acting soon blossomed, after he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo. It was also around this time that Kintaro became Sessue 雪洲 Sesshū, which means "snowy field" in Japanese. 

He then found himself in productions, one of which caught the attention of Tsuru Aoki, a member of the acting troupe. The product was called The Typhoon, it showcased Sessue's enthusiasm and natural acting abilities, and Aoki made sure that Thomas H. Ince, a film producer, saw the performance, after which Ince decided to turn the play into a silent film with the original cast. 

THE TYPHOON (1914) was successful and two additional pictures were quickly produced by Ince, THE WRATH OF THE GODS (1914), which co-starred Sessue's new wife, Aoki, and the 1914 picture, THE SACRIFICE. With Sessue's now rising career, he was offered a contract, making him a part of the Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures).


"VALENTINO BEFORE VALENTINO".

One of Sessue's most known silent films, made for Famous Players-Lasky was THE CHEAT (1915), directed by the Cecil B. DeMille. The picture co-starred Fannie Ward, as the love interest. The picture would go on to turn Sessue into a romantic screen idol and a full-fledged film star. According to Stephen Gong, the executive director of San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media, "It caused a sensation. The idea of the rape fantasy, forbidden fruit, all those taboos of race and sex—it made him a movie star. And his most rabid fan base was white women." The All-American Clark Gabel type was far into the future, at this point in cinema, the "exotic" interests brought thousands of women, mostly white women, pushing into packed theaters each week. With his "broodingly handsome" good looks and packed theaters, he brought in $3,500 a week at the height of his fame in 1919.

"WHITE WOMEN WERE WILLING TO GIVE THEMSELVES TO A JAPANESE MAN. WHEN SESSUE WAS GETTING OUT OF HIS LIMOUSINE IN FRONT OF A THEATER OF A PREMIERE SHOWING, HE GRIMACED A LITTLE BECAUSE THERE WAS A PUDDLE. THEN, DOZENS OF FEMALE FANS SURROUNDING HIS CAR FELL OVER ONE ANOTHER TO SPREAD THEIR FUR COATS AT HIS FEET."
- MIYATAKE TOKO, A CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHER IN THE EARLY 1900S, LOS ANGELES.

By the time 1917 rolled around, he had built his castle-style mansion, in Hollywood, (demolished in 1956) and was known for driving a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow, and throwing lavish parties, with a well-stocked bar before Prohibition took effect in 1920. 

During the early 1920s, Sessue began acting in more westerns and action films, and though he was sought after for roles, he became dissatisfied with being typecast as the villain or the "exotic" leading man that never got the girl in the end. Being dissatisfied he formed his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation. Though it's funding isn't clear, as Sessue himself has stated two versions: one is that a fellow University of Chicago alumnus, William Joseph Connery, introduced him to A.B.C. Dohrmann, the president of a china and glassware company who was willing to pay one million dollars to establish the production company, another version was that Connery's own parents provided the million dollars.

Many areas of American society were overpouring with feelings of anti-Japanese sentiment, with the nationalism rising from World War I and World War II. The forbidden lover and never the true leading man left him feeling underworked and sensitive to how these roles would portray Japanese people. He was quoted, "SUCH ROLES [THE TYPHOON, THE CHEAT] ARE NOT TRUE TO OUR JAPANESE NATURE. THEY ARE FALSE AND GIVE PEOPLE A WRONG IDEA OF US. I WISH TO MAKE A CHARACTERIZATION WHICH SHELL REVEAL US AS WE REALLY ARE." He is now considered the Valentino before Valentino (Rudolph Valentino), nine-years his junior, both born outside of the U.S., as well being cast as the forbidden love, and both popular for their time. In fact, he was asked to star in the very picture that catapulted Valentino to stardom, THE SHEIK. He refused the role, not wanting to portray another "forbidden villain lover" role.

Haworth Pictures would go on to produce 23 films, earning two million by 1920. Sessue was involved in almost the entire production of the films produced, starring in them and contributing to writing, design, editing, and directing. His Zen-influenced acting was hailed by critics and audiences. He sought out to bring a new kind of acting into films, the "absence of doing" instead of the then-common and more popular broad, exaggerated gestures and poses.

In 1918, Sessue hand-picked American actress Marin Sais to appear opposite of him in a series of pictures, the first being the racial drama THE CITY OF DIM FACES, followed by HIS BIRTHRIGHT, also in 1918. At the time his fame rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, and Douglas Fairbanks.



SESSUE HAYAKAWA AND TSURU AOKI IN THE DRAGON PAINTER.

1922.

Sessue's reasoning for leaving Hollywood in 1922, is stated with a handful of explanations. The growing anti-Japanese sentiment, business difficulties, and a ruptured appendix on the set of THE SWAMP in 1921. A handful of tabloids reported that Aoki had attempted suicide, and on top of it, Sessue believed there was an attempt on his life by Robertson-Cole Pictures Corporation, who had also been accused of supporting anti-Japanese legislation, an attempt to collect insurance funds, which all lead Suessue to sue the studio. 

Once he left the United States, he performed in Europe and Japan. Starring in THE GREAT PRINCE SHAN in 1924 and THE STORY OF SU, also in 1924.  In 1925, he wrote a novel, THE BANDIT PRINCE, and adapted it into a short play. In 1930, he performed a one-act play in front of Great Britain's King George V and Queen Mary. He became more known and more loved in France, where audiences flocked in hundreds to see him. His French debut was the 1923 picture, LA BATAILLE,  which was a critical and financial success. Europe as a whole found him "sensational", wherein Russia he was labeled one of the "wonderful actors" of America. 

His home-land was also never far from reach in his mind, he produced and worked in Japan often, producing a Japanese-language stage version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS. With all this international fame, he established himself as the first non-Caucasian actor to do so.


For a more personal look into his life, he married performer Tsuru Aoki on May 1st, 1914, she would go on to co-star in several of his pictures. Sussue's first-child was born in New York, 1929, to a white actress named Ruth Noble. She would sue for custody of the boy but lost the case. Once Sessue and Aoki adopted the child, his name changed from Alexander to Yukio. He was raised and educated in Japan. The couple would adopt two more children, both girls: Yoshiko, an actress, and Fujiko, a dancer. Aoki would pass in 1961.

Like Rudolph Valentino, Sessue was known for his "athlete's physique and agility." He was known for his discipline and martial arts skills, in fact, a 1917 profile on him 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 Japanse, being five feet seven and a half inches in height, and weighs 157 pounds."


THE FILMS OF SESSUE HAYAKAWA WILL BE THE NEXT WRITTEN POST IN THIS SERIES OF HAYAKAWA. AS WELL AS HIS CAREER IN TALKING PICTURES.


"I AM NOT A CHINK. I AM A JAPANSE GENTLEMAN. AND THE WORD 'CHINK' IS NOT FIT TO BE SPOKE!" - Sessue Hayakawa, in reply to one of his company's distributors upon being referred to by the aforementioned racial slur in public.