by Chris MaGee
Just this past week I picked up tickets for the upcoming Cinematheque Ontario season and one of the films on my list this time around was David Lean’s “Bridge n the River Kwai”. It has been years since I first saw it, a long time before I was so enraptured with Japanese cinema, so the casting of Sessue Hayakawa as Col. Saito, the head of a Japanese work camp during the Second World War, would have been lost on me. Not so now and it was picking up those tickets that made me decide that it was about time I write something about the extraordinary life and career of one of the biggest stars of the silent era.
Most of you will have at least heard of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks or Rudolph Valentino, but how many people nowadays would include Sessue Hayakawa in that list. Not many, but not many people even remember Hayakawa, a Japanese actor who starred in over 80 films, whose popularity rivaled that of his other silent film contemporaries and who in 1915 was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood with a salary of $5,000 a week, the equivalent of almost $50,000 a week now.
But even before Hayakawa set foot on a sound stage his life was already remarkable. Born in 1890 in Minamibosō city, Chiba Prefecture Kintaro Hayakawa was groomed from a young age for life as a naval officer by his governor father, but after suffering a ruptured eardrum during a swimming accident his hopes for a military career were dashed. The shame that this brought on the Hayakawa family was too much for the 18-year-old Kintaro who attempted ritual seppuku. Obviously the attempt was unsuccessful, but having suffered over 30 self-inflicted stab wounds to his abdomen it was a miracle he survived.
It was decided that a career in finance would be the next best career for Kintaro so in 1911 he came to the United States to study political economics at the University of Chicago , but it was while vacationing in Los Angeles that Hayakawa was to discover his true calling. It was during this break from his studies that he started taking part in amateur stage productions at a theatre called The Japanese Playhouse under the name of Sessue Hayakawa. One of these productions, a play called “The Typhoon” was seen by Hollywood producer Thomas Ince who wanted Hayakawa to reprise his role on screen. Hayakawa thought he was joking so he demanded a $500 dollar a week salary. Ince called his bluff and the university student got his $500 a week and the start of a legendary career.
Through films like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” (1915) and Marshall Neilan’s “The Jaguar’s Claws” (1917) Hayakawa built up the screen persona of a mysterious, exotic leading man, so much so that he was originally considered for the role in “The Sheik”, a part he turned down and which went on to launch the career of one of cinema’s biggest heartthrobs, Rudolph Valentino. It was after he formed his own production company, Hayworth Films, in 1918 that Hayakawa started to gain real critical success. His role in William Worthington’s 1919 drama “The Dragon Painter” in which he played a wild artistic genius tamed by a lovely woman, played by his wife Aoki Tsuru (pictured above in a still from the film) is still viewed as one of the highlights of his career. But of all his roles Hayakawa himself felt that his Oscar-nominated performance as Col. Saito in “Bridge on the River Kwai” was his proudest moment as an actor.
Hayakawa went on to guest appearances U.S. television programs as well as starring in the 1960 live-action Walt Disney "Swiss Family Robinson", but started to take fewer and fewer roles after his wife’s death in 1961, and in 1966 he left the money and fame behind. He retired from acting all together, returned to Japan and became an ordained Zen monk. He died in 1973.
I told you it was an extraordinary story. If you want to learn more about Sessue Hayakawa check out this article as well as Jeff Adachi’s 2006 documentary about Asian actors in Hollywood ”The Slanted Screen”. Also check out the clips below:
Scene from “The Cheat” (1915)
The opening scene of “The Dragon Painter” (1919)
Scene from “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)