Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
Daisuke Miyao

Sessue Hayakawa:
Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007
ISBN 978-0-8223-3969-4 (paperback), pp. xvi, 379. Price: US$24.95

reviewed by Yves Laberge

  1. Professor Daisuke Miyao (from the University of Oregon) has written an extensive portrait of the Asian American actor Hayakawa Sessue (1886–1973), who was perhaps during the silent era—and even before Rudolph Valentino—the ultimate masculine star on the screen in the USA. Although his name is almost forgotten nowadays, older film lovers might remember one of his last appearances (but not his best) in the role of the aging Japanese camp commander Sato in the famous movie The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), directed by David Lean. A very handsome man, Sessue Hayakawa (or sometimes spelled 'Sesshū Hayakawa') was born in Japan and retired there; he is not remembered as such as a 'Japanese actor' in Japanese films (even though he did quite a few in Japan), but he is rather seen as a Japan-born actor who mostly played Asian characters in Hollywood movies and also in some European films (especially in France). His real name was Kintaro Hayakawa, and some sources (including the actor himself) have sometimes indicated that he was born in 1889.
  2. In the first decades of cinema, Sessue Hayakawa was an immense, charismatic actor in countless movies, mainly melodramas; his memorable performance in the classic movie The Cheat (1915), directed by Cecil B. De Mille, skyrocketed him at the level of a cult figure, especially for female audiences. At some point, Sessue Hayakawa was as famous as Charlie Chaplin during the 1920s, and remained quite popular until his fall in the mid-1920s, even in countries like Germany (pp. 3, 261). In itself, Sessue Hayakawa's life was fascinating: for instance, we learn that he went to France in 1937 to work on Max Ophuls' scandalous Yoshiwara (1937), in which he played a spy. But oddly, when so many French citizens tried to leave Europe during the Nazi Occupation between 1940 and 1944, 'Hayakawa stayed in Paris during World War II and made nine films,' including a remake of The Cheat, titled Forfaiture (1937), this time directed by Marcel L'Herbier (p. 271). Later, back to Hollywood, Sessue Hayakawa even played with Humphrey Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1947), which is now available on DVD. But his roles became less and less important; during the mid-1960s, he retired in Japan and became a Zen Buddhist priest.
  3. This book—the first one published under the sole name of Daisuke Miyao—is probably adapted from his Ph.D. thesis and uses multiple disciplinary approaches borrowed from Asian-American studies, ethnicity, comparative studies, cultural history, men's studies, and media studies. It is not an 'Art book' as such since there are very few illustrations, all in monochrome. The fifteen chapters give a chronological but partial account of Sessue Hayakawa's career, mainly during the silent era, but the author avoids the biographical style as he focuses on many issues related to fan cultures, gender, race, spectatorship. Furthermore, Daisuke Miyao successfully initiates a constructive dialogue between various comments from the past and his own interpretation of the significances and social conventions from almost one hundred years ago. At some point, for some decision-makers in the movie industry, the actor Sessue Hayakawa was an interesting way to depict, if I may say so, the character of 'an acceptable non-White' that still was precisely situated into the racial hierarchy that existed during the early twentieth century in the USA. Indeed, a film critic wrote in 1914 in the North American Review that 'We need the Orientals among us for our refinement and best development' (p. 116). In other words, as Daisuke Miyao argues about Forbidden Paths (1917), the character played by Sessue Hayakawa 'occupies a more morally civilized and socially Americanized position than the other nonwhite people' (p. 116). Nevertheless, Sessue Hayakawa could play equally as well ambiguous or evil characters, depending on stories and roles.
  4. In many chapters, especially in the second half of the book, I particularly appreciated the rich sociological dimensions brought in the author's analysis regarding the movie industry of the 1910s, for example when he discussed the films that depicted an 'idealized process of Americanization of Japanese men' (p. 236), or how Hollywood producers planned and selected the roles for their movie stars in concordance with their public image: 'in the context of legitimization of cinema, film studios ascribed their stars with images consistent with middle-class morality, even when they played villainous roles' (p. 117). Elsewhere, another interesting discussion recalls the consequences of yellow journalism, which created some panic related to the 'yellow peril' in the early twentieth century (p. 33). Finally, chapter 15 investigates Hayakawa's image and reputation in his native Japan, where he was often considered by many Japanese observers as being 'too much like an American' (p. 260). Other passages related to stereotypes and to the anti-American sentiment in Japan in 1924 are instructive as well for anthropologists and sociologists alike (p. 260), like the pages that mention the 'anti-Japanese sentiment in American society in general' which existed during the 1920s and culminated during World War II (p. 223).
  5. Some commentators quoted on the back cover have praised this book because the author used an impressive variety of recent scholarly publications and often referred to some old critics from the 1920s (like French author Louis Delluc), but the author also consulted—among many sources—various 1920s newspapers published in the USA, in Japan, in Europe, adding as well accurate quotes taken from a few vintage publications in Japanese made in the USA by the Asian American community.
  6. This Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom is not meant to be firstly a book centred on gender studies, it is rather a monograph about an actor whose popular image in silent movies often implied some issues related to gender, 'racialized bodies,' female audiences, and fan cultures. According to the author, the young Sessue Hayakawa appeared to be 'a playboy of the East,' who was 'characterized as an object for white female gazes' in movies such as An Arabian Knight (1921) (p. 193). In an important passage pointing out how stories from the Victorian era could sometimes be sensual or even passionate—as long as their plot was remote or from the past in order to be 'socially approved,' Professor Daisuke Miyao even defines Sessue Hayakawa as 'preceding Rudolf Valentino' in exotism and popularity (p. 193). Regarding the theme of masculinities through the prism of exotism, chapter twelve features an interesting theoretical discussion related to the masculine models and the specific gendered audiences targeted by some of the 1920s Hollywood films staring idols like Sessue Hayakawa and Rudolf Valentino. Here, Professor Daisuke Miyao refers to the lesser-known writings of scholars like Gaylyn Studlar (which I was not aware of) in order to emphasise that 'public discourse posited women as the primary participants in America's new consumer culture, in which "the consumption of cultural forms of masculinity" also emerged' (p. 191). At that time, feminine audiences were defined as a new market and target: a popular actor such as Rudolf Valentino 'became a star with his image of a "woman-made man" or a "creation of, for, and by women"' (p. 191). In other words, in silent movies like An Arabian Knight (1921), the young 'Hayakawa was represented as a fascinating consumable ethnic other for the white female spectators' (p. 192).
  7. Obviously, because it focuses on masculinities, stardom, reception and audiences, this overlooked book will be useful for undergraduates in Asian American studies, Japanese studies, cultural studies, film history, but also in gender studies and cross-cultural studies. Perhaps one could ask if this book centred on so many vintage feature films might be useful for a potential reader who had never seen any of the movies with Sessue Hayakawa? I would think so. Even though there are now a variety of early films with Sessue Hayakawa that are available on DVD (about a dozen), I think any social scientist could easily follow Professor Miyao's demonstration without relying on any background in film studies. The descriptions of the selected movies are detailed and precise. The author's style is clear and well documented. In his epilogue, he synthesises Sessue Hayakawa's image as 'a middle-ground position between the civilized and "Oriental menace",' as formulated in a 1949 edition of the Newsweek magazine (p. 271). But Daisuke Miyao gives a deeper analysis in his epilogue, finding the appropriate terms when he is writing about Hayakawa's ambiguous role in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), who is playing once more 'the middle-ground image between civilized but primitive, refined but brutal, authoritative but vulnerable, masculine and feminine, Westernized and Japanese' (p. 278). This is one of the best ways to explain how Hayakawa could create such a fascination for many generations of moviegoers.
  8. However, Professor Daisuke Miyao's monograph does not pretend to be comprehensive or to stand as the definitive essay on Sessue Hayakawa; and as a consequence, many of his films are overlooked or just mentioned without any analysis. In fact, most of this book concentrates on only one decade, that is during the 'golden years' between 1914 and 1924 when Sessue Hayakawa was at his peak and working all the time. Although it would be impossible to cover extensively a long career of more than one hundred titles in just one single monograph, I would have been curious to learn more details related to the numerous movies Sessue Hayakawa shot in France after his heyday, like Malaria (1942), Quartier chinois (1945), Le cabaret du grand large (1946), in order to understand how his Japanese image would have been reproduced, reconstructed or deconstructed outside America. Some of these French films were very successful in France, but they were not discussed much by scholars and they are not even mentioned here in this book (except in the filmography, p. 335). I suppose some of these titles are very rare and can only be found in some cinémathèques. Only one film from that French period of Sessue Hayakawa is available on DVD nowadays and can only be bought in France: Macao, l'enfer du jeu (1937), directed by Jean Delannoy. For the same reasons, I would have liked more details about some of the feature films in which the aging Sessue Hayakawa played a minor role, like the burlesque comedy The Geisha Boy (1958), directed by Frank Tashlin, starring Jerry Lewis (see some interesting comments in the epilogue, on p. 279). I would argue that for many of his contemporaries, Sessue Hayakawa's image was so familiar in the first half of the twentieth century that his character could automatically bring to mind a set of characteristics, psychological traits and clichés from his previous roles, thus avoiding the screenwriter the task of having to define and situate with nuances the character that he played. Even if it might sound odd, I conclude that this 379 page book seems too short! This comment proves there are still many elements to investigate regarding Sessue Hayakawa's story. These two quibbles aside, Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom can be seen as an unequalled reference on this fascinating actor who remains the epitome of the mysterious Japanese character in the first half of the twentieth century. It received the '2007 Book Award in History' from the Association of Asian American Studies, and it was well deserved.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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