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It is most likely that the most recent generation of film buffs remember the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as a character player whose portfolio was most distinguished by his Oscar®-nominated turn as the conflicted commandant Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Less well known is the fact that Hayakawa's tenure in Hollywood dated back to the silent era, and that he had then, in fact, fostered enough popularity as a leading man to grant him unprecedented commercial and creative clout for a performer of Asian ancestry. It's made all the more remarkable by the fact that he accomplished this in a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was very much prevalent in American society.
Within a few years of his star-making performance as the seductive art dealer in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915), Hayakawa had an independent production company in full swing, which turned out some 19 features in a three-year span. Furthermore, he was able to make and market thoughtful and intelligent filmic explorations of Asian culture and concerns that were free of the prevalent stereotypes that marked the major studios' output of the period. While much of his independent output has been lost to time, the late 1970s saw the rediscovery of a print of The Dragon Painter (1919), ensuring that a fascinating chapter of Hayakawa's legacy would live on.
The project was adapted from a popular 1906 novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa, an Alabama native who would become a lifelong devotee/proponent of Japanese culture. In a compelling, feral performance, Hayakawa assayed the title role of Tatsu, an addled young hermit living in the countryside, convinced of his betrothal to a princess who has been transformed into a dragon. Tatsu expresses these irrational longings in the form of ornate sketches; a cast-off set of these exquisite renderings captures the eye of the surveyor Undobuchida (Toyo Fujita), who recognizes that this eccentric artisan could be the answer to a good friend's prayers.
The aged, celebrated artist Kano Indara (Edward Peil, Sr.), last male in a line of distinguished painters, had despaired of finding anyone gifted enough to take on as a prodigy. Unobuchida wheedles Tatsu into a journey to Indara's home, promising that his long-lost princess will be present therein; upon his arrival, Indara's beautiful daughter Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa's real-life wife) is presented to him as such. The love-struck wild child agrees to the terms of a civilized life and apprenticeship under Indara, while Ume-Ko's sense of duty lets her sublimate her very real fear of this disturbed suitor to her father's ambitions.
In time, Ume-Ko's affections for the tamed Tatsu blossom. Yet, the creative spark that had once fueled Tatsu's artistic output seemingly dwindles by the day, due to his new-found contentment. It's left to Ume-Ko to break the grip of failure upon both husband and father with a desperate gambit to rekindle Tatsu's gift.
Hayakawa, the son of the governor of his native prefecture, had come to America in 1908 to study politics and economics at the University of Chicago, and what was supposed to have been a brief postgraduate visit to Los Angeles turned into a career on the stage. His self-produced production of The Typhoon came to the attention of producer/director Thomas M. Ince, who hired the entire company for a 1914 screen adaptation.
The direction on The Dragon Painter was ably handled by William Worthington, the co-founder of Hayakawa's Haworth Pictures. Haworth's viability as an ongoing concern ended in 1922 in the wake of a recession and Hayakawa's increasingly inflammatory disputes with his distributor, Robertson-Cole. Combined with the fact that California was then mulling the prohibition of property ownership by Japanese residents, the embittered actor abandoned Hollywood for stage and screen opportunities in Europe.
He would return to America briefly in the early '30s, and left again after being disappointed in the caliber of roles he was offered. After Humphrey Bogart lobbied for his casting in Tokyo Joe (1949), Hayakawa was intermittently active in U.S. film and television through The Daydreamer (1966). He spent his remaining years as an acting coach until his death in Tokyo at age 84 in 1973.
Director: William Worthington
Screenplay: E. Richard Schayer; Mary McNeil Fenollosa (novel)
Cinematography: Frank D. Williams
Art Direction: Milton Menasco
Music: Mark Izu (2005)
Cast: Sessue Hayakawa (Tatsu, the Dragon Painter), Toyo Fujita (Undobuchida), Edward Peil (Kano Indara), Tsuru Aoki (Ume Ko).
by Jay S. Steinberg