Cinema can't keep up with Hayakawa's strides
Reprinted from an NJ.com article
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Progress is never a straight line.
Gains are made and lost, breakthroughs braked by backlashes. Lasting change is less a result of revolution than evolution -- minds slowly won, hearts gradually softened.
Which is why the enlightened past can sometimes feel like the far-off future.
Today, Asian actors are coldly marginalized. Yet 90 years ago, one of Hollywood's biggest stars was Japanese. He co-starred opposite white actresses. He even ran his own production company -- a first for a minority performer.
His career as an American leading man ended before the silents did. He recaptured his old celebrity only once, decades later, getting an Oscar nomination for playing the Colonel in "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
And yet Sessue Hayakawa still seems far ahead of us today.
"He really is sort of extraordinary," says Stephen Gong, the executive director of San Francisco's Center for Asian-American Media. "Yet, in some ways his rise is understandable. ... The machinery was finally in place to create stars, and Hayakawa was seen as very exotic."
"Hollywood was in its early stages," says Daisuke Miyao, an assistant professor of film at the University of Oregon. "People were still experimenting, trying to acquire some legitimacy as an art form. And I think Hayakawa was one of those experiments."
If so, it's an experiment we're still studying.
Duke University Press published Miyao's "Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom" last year. Harrington Park's Milestone Films has just released a restored DVD of Hayakawa's delicate 1919 romance, "The Dragon Painter." And looking at these old films, one only realizes how backward the present seems.
"I think if Sessue Hayakawa were alive today, he'd be shaking his head," imagines Jeff Adachi, director of "The Slanted Screen," a documentary on Asian stereotypes. "'He'd be saying, 'I laid all the groundwork -- what happened?'"
In most Hollywood movies, Asian men are invisible. And those are the better Hollywood movies.
Crude comedies feature men with impenetrable accents. Action films feature stoic heroes, who rarely get a kiss. Stereotypes of bespectacled grinds abound. Japanese characters are particularly forgettable, even though their country's own films are often crammed with kinky sex and violence.
"The Japanese businessman, bowing to everyone in 'Lost in Translation,'" says Ryo Nagasawa, the film program officer at the Japan Society. "I don't think the Hollywood image goes beyond that." That's one reason her group regularly spotlights Japanese imports. (Its current series, "No Borders, No Limits," focuses on the wild action pictures of the Nikkatsu studio.) "Film is one of the best ways to show how people really live in other countries," she adds.
Programs like hers -- or a separate yakuza series from the Asia Society and the Japan Foundation, "Gamblers, Gangsters and Other Anti-Heroes" -- show a variety of characters. So do the anime, manga and J-horror that have become such an influence on American popular art. Yet even as Hollywood remakes Japanese films, it shows little interest in hiring Asian actors. (Asian actresses face different problems, pigeonholed as dragon ladies or geisha girls.)
Some observers remain sanguine about all of this. Author Ian Baruma, who curated the yakuza series, admits Asians don't figure prominently in American movies. "But why would they," he rhetorically asks. "Most Hollywood films are pitched to achieve the maximum appeal. The Asian-American audience isn't particularly significant, demographically."
Which is true. But which is also what makes Hayakawa so interesting. Because at a time when the Asian-American audience for Hollywood films was even smaller, a Japanese man emerged as a major star.
"It wasn't as if there were Japanese-Americans packing theaters in 1915," Adachi says. "The theaters were filled with white women. This new matinee idol appealed to everyone." ÂÉ
American Asian idol
Sessue Hayakawa wasn't supposed to be an actor. Born in 1889 to a prominent Japanese family, he was headed for a career in the Imperial Navy when a ruptured eardrum invalided him out of the naval academy; a failed suicide attempt only added further embarrassment. He left home in disgrace.
He ended up settling in Los Angeles and doing local Japanese theater; discovered by movie producer Thomas Ince in 1914, he then moved onto pictures, playing not only Asian characters but Native Americans and Arabs. Then, the following year, he made "The Cheat."
An early feature from Cecil B. DeMille, it unabashedly exploited what would become directorial trademarks: sexuality, sadism and a quick third-act sermon that made it all palatable. Hayakawa played a handsome businessman who lends a desperate white woman money, then brands her as his property.
"It caused a sensation," says Gong. "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 Cheat" brought criticism from Japan -- Hayakawa was called a "national traitor" -- but opportunities in Hollywood. By 1918, Hayakawa had his own company, and a new niche as an exotic hero. The industry's first minority mogul, he cavorted at Monte Carlo, drove a gold-plated car and paid himself $200,000 a picture.
Yet in a few more years, it was all over.
As the '20s began, long-simmering xenophobia and warnings of the "yellow peril" came to a boil. Hayakawa made a few bad business deals; later he would hint that enemies had put a price on his head. Whatever the truth, he left Hollywood in 1921, finally resettling in France, where he remained during World War II.
After the war ended, Hayakawa began making American movies again, re-emerging as a character actor with "Tokyo Joe." He did some TV, and studied Zen Buddhism. He died in Tokyo in 1973; his achievements as an Asian in Hollywood remain original.
Sadly, they also remain unique.
The stereotyping that led Hayakawa and the American-born Anna May Wong to leave for Europe in the Â¤'20s only intensified during the Â¤'30s. Caucasians were cast as Asian heroes; Asians were allowed to play the villains. There were plenty of those after World War II began, too, and a generation of actors -- chiefly Chinese-Americans -- filled the parts.
For contemporary American audiences, still reeling from Pearl Harbor and Bataan, these movies weren't racist propaganda, but morale-building melodramas. Modern audiences may view them differently. Yet what remains fascinating is that the new Japanese stereotype was just a coarsened version of "The Cheat."
Yes, these Rising Sun villains were monstrous. Yet their monstrous qualities were also primitively masculine ones -- rage, cruelty, lust -- and they were still presented as symbols of power. Unlike Hollywood's other minority characters -- particularly African-Americans -- Japanese males, however evil, were still seen as men.
"In his book 'Orientalism,' Edward Said wrote that the colonizing force is seen as the dominant male power," says Gong. "I think there's something to that. When you see, say, Chinese males in (Hollywood) movies, it's a very feminized depiction. But the Japanese are treated with more respect. Of course, with World War II, it morphs into fear. But right from the start they're viewed differently."
That ended at Hiroshima.
Because, along with the de-militarization of Japan, came Hollywood's de-sexualizing of all Asian male characters. Although the old cliches still applied to war films (even if the villains were now the "Red" Chinese), the more common image was of the asexual nerd. Bruce Lee had to leave America to become a star; the warriors of "The Last Samurai" required the services of a battle-scarred Tom Cruise.
There were exceptions -- from George Takei on "Star Trek" to Masi Oka on "Heroes" -- but after decades of being seen as dangerous and dominant, Japanese characters seem practically gelded (reinforced by plotlines that typically pair Asian actresses only with non-Asian males). One stereotype has replaced another.
Of course Hollywood films stereotype everyone -- whether it's evil executives or absurdly effeminate gay men. Yet Asian males often come in for rougher treatment -- with crude jokes about dog-eating, or Pidgin English -- than other, long-denigrated minorities.
You can see it even in a current movie like "Be Kind Rewind." A goofy parody of bare-bones filmmaking, it features Jack Black mimicking stars like Jessica Tandy. When he finally goes too far -- smearing on dark makeup to portray Fats Waller -- he's rightly greeted with horror, and taken aside for a stern talking-to.
Yet when he tapes back his eyes to mimic Jackie Chan, the racial buffoonery passes without notice.
"I think that is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the reality of what we see in Hollywood," Adachi says. "The Asian community has not been as proactive as the African-American community, and there's a lesson there. ... But I do feel a shift. There are more Asian-American actors now, more directors. I think there's a new generation coming up, I do. ... It's just tragic that it's taken so long."
For more about Asians in film:
"Gamblers, Gangsters and Other Anti-Heroes" is presented through April in New York at the Asia Society; visit AsiaSociety.org for more information. "No Borders, No Limits" is presented through May in New York at the Japan Society, visit japansociety.org. "The Dragon Painter" is available on DVD from Milestone Film and Video; visit milestonefilms.com.
All content © 2006 by Jeff Adachi/AAMM Productions. áPermission is granted to legitimate press agencies to use this material in reviews, event calendars and the like with attribution.