There’s a new book out on one of the most intriguing of silent film stars, Sessue Hayakawa. Daisuke Miyao’s Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Duke University Press) tells the history of the Japanese actor who rose to fame in Hollywood in the silent era, ultimately gaining lasting fame for his role as the camp commander in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Hayakawa was born in Japan in 1889, where he became a stage actor. He moved to the USA aged 19, then went back to Japan to form an acting troupe which toured America in 1913. Film producer Thomas Ince gave him a contract. He was an immediate success in titles such as Typhoon (1914) and Cecil B. De Mille’s subtly sadistic The Cheat (1915). His wife Tsuru Aoki often co-starred alongside him. He left America in 1922, eventually settling in France, making occasional films. He died in 1973, having received an Oscar nomination for Kwai.
Miyao’s book focusses on the Japanese racial identity in American film, and how Hayakawa’s great appeal (he had a strong female following) was a mixture of the vogue for the refinements of ‘Japonisme’ and crude fears of a ‘yellow peril’. It’s an important history.