In the classic silent film The Cheat (1915), Sessue Hayakawa plays Tori, a successful Japanese fine arts dealer and ivory broker in New York, who attempts to seduce Edith, a flighty young “smart set” married society woman. In a scene that is shocking for its violence even today, during his attempted rape of Edith, Tori presses a red-hot iron brand onto her alabaster skin until it sizzles. The depiction of Tori's brutality and sexuality was enhanced by his subtle facial expression resembling a noh mask, the exotic Japanese decor of his private chambers that is the scene of the sexual assault, and the powerful chiaroscuro lighting of the scene. The Cheat was a hit in America and Europe and sensationalized Hayakawa's image as a sadist whose gentle demeanor and refined manners concealed his true character.
While the film accorded Hayakawa superstar status as the first non-Caucasian matinee idol in Hollywood, Japanese communities in the United States and Japan were disturbed by the representations of Asian masculinity and Japanese national character that he was expected to perform on the screen at a time of intensifying anti-Japanese sentiment in America. Hayakawa left Hollywood in the early 1920s—he denied that he was forced out by anti-Japanese sentiment—taking his acting career to England, France, and Japan. He made something of a Hollywood comeback in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and continued acting until 1967 in America, France, and Japan. However, there has been no book-length critical study of Hayakawa's international stardom until now. Daisuke Miyao's long-awaited book Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom deconstructs this nearly century-old monolithic image of the Japanese silent film star in Hollywood.
As Miyao explains in the introduction, Hayakawa embodies overwhelmingly convoluted issues, among them celebrity culture, gender, class, sexuality, race, diaspora, nation, and Orientalism in America and Japan. Having such a complex superstar as the subject, Miyao focuses on Hayakawa's career in the mid- and late 1910s, a period that marks the formative years of mass culture and the Hollywood studio system, the discovery of Japanese art and interior decor, intensifying anti-Japanese sentiment in America, and Westernization and imperialism in Japan. Framing “silent cinema” as a critical category that requires an investigation of modern life and cross-media culture at large, Miyao regards the dissemination of Hayakawa's star image and the proliferation of screen culture as integral components of modern life in the 1910s, which has yet to be fully explored in the context of a transnational and non-Western star.
The author dynamically mobilizes rich English and Japanese primary sources, including films, ads, pictorial images, and discourses in film magazines, newspapers, and autobiographies, and deploys robust analysis to develop nuanced arguments. The book, as a result, successfully conjures up the intricate processes of producing and consuming a Japanese superstar who thrived despite the prevailing racial and cultural hierarchy of the times. Hayakawa himself, studio executives, and non-Japanese and Japanese audiences in the United States and Japan all helped construct the malleable star images and utilized them differently and strategically in order to advance their own interests.
The body of the book is divided into four parts. Part I begins with an analysis of The Cheat, directed by renowned filmmaker Cecil B. de Mille at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Miyao then traces the beginning of Hayakawa's career, from 1914 to 1915, which unveils the American imagination of Japanese masculinity, landscape, art, and Buddhism in his films and other media. Parts II (Lasky-Paramount, 1916–18) and III (Haworth Pictures, 1918–22) look into Hayakawa's engagement with particular production studios. While Lasky-Paramount strategically tailored Hayakawa's exotic images in accordance with the sociopolitical currency, Hayakawa attempted to control his own star image and films as an entrepreneur and agent by establishing his own production company, Haworth, in 1918. These two parts, and the epilogue on Hayakawa's work from the 1920s to the 1950s, reveal that Hayakawa also took a part in constructing his refined villainy image, iridescent racial profile, and persona of an Americanized Japanese star proud of his nationality by tailoring his ethnicity, nationality, and subtle acting style on screen and in media images according to each script and societal demand.
In part IV, Miyao carefully analyzes the reception of Hayakawa in the Japanese media in America and Japan. Many Japanese in America (and also in Japan), influenced by contemporary racial and cultural politics, were highly nationalistic and welcomed Hayakawa's entrepreneurship at Haworth as a symbol of a Japanese man's success. However, their opinions and reactions to Hayakawa's Americanization were diverse. Many writers in America endorsed it, expecting him to be a role model for Japanese immigrants’ assimilation. Some demanded a much more honorable representation of the Japanese man, in order to counter the prevailing tide of white supremacy. In Japan, meanwhile, the media saw Hayakawa's Westernized Japaneseness as a national shame.
A remarkable change occurred during World War I as Japan discovered the power of cinema. The modernist advocates of the Pure Film movement supported it as a necessary evil to communicate to the world powers that Japan was modernizing. Supporters saw Hayakawa's nonhistrionic and mime-like acting as an ideal way to achieve their goal of the autonomy of cinema from kabuki-style theatrical arts; however, they later criticized him for not providing them professional and financial support. The chapter shows how opinions in Japan regarding Hayakawa's status constantly oscillated between the two extremes of national shame and national hero.
Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom brings superb research and historical rigor to Hayakawa, an underrated Japanese silent film star, and to transnational film spectatorship during the early years of Hollywood. The book and its bibliography are inspirational for furthering the critical studies on other lesser-known Japanese cosmopolitan figures in early Hollywood, such as Hayakawa's wife and actress Tsuru Aoki, a bit player Sojin Kamiyama, and actor and cinematographer Henry Kotani. Miyao's book makes an unparalleled contribution and is an exemplary model for bridging the fields of cinema studies, Asian American studies, and Japanese studies.