XOTV WEEKLY: Golden Hollywood’s forbidden leading man
Born Kintaro Hayakawa in 1886 Chiba, Japan, the rest of the world would know him as Sessue Hayakawa --- “The Cheat,” “The Dragon Painter” and “The Beggar Prince.” He was a sex symbol of old Hollywood and a gifted actor with an artist’s flair: the first Asian actor to achieve widespread stardom in the United States.
Originally intended to join the Imperial Japanese Navy per the request of his father, Hayakawa failed the navy’s physical exams, preventing him from taking service. Instead, he traveled to the United States, enrolling in the University of Chicago to study banking. By 1912, Hayakawa relocated to Los Angeles, where he began acting at the Japanese Theater in Little Tokyo. Moving from stage productions to silent films, Hayakawa’s first string of movies --- “The Typhoon” and “The Cheat” --- were box-office successes. In both, he played Japanese characters. In “The Typhoon,” Hayakawa is a Japanese diplomat engaged in a tryst with an American wife whom Hayakawa’s character murders in a jealous fit. In “The Cheat,” he plays a Japanese businessman who holds a white woman in debt in exchange for affection. Hayakawa’s roles reflected the era’s prevailing anti-Asian sentiment. Hayakawa was pigeonholed into playing villains and exotic lovers during the peak of his career between the 1910s and ‘20s. But that didn’t curb his popularity with white audiences, especially white women, who were the subjects of his on-screen romances. Hayakawa was certainly handsome, and his 80+ film career can attest to his brooding leading man chops.
“On top of harsh immigration and anti-miscegenation laws that targeted Asians, Hayakawa was unable to pursue American citizenship.”
But as a Japanese national at the height of Yellow Peril, exotic roles were all the work afforded by studios. Before 1930, on-screen romances with mixed couples were acceptable, though charged with stereotypes of Asian men as domineering, sinister and lusting for white women. By 1923, Hayakawa would leave Hollywood to act in Europe and Japan, unsatisfied with the same typecast characters he was expected to play in the States. By 1934, the Motion Pictures Production Code, which outlined subjects and symbols to be avoided in the early days of film, became enforceable. Among prohibited topics was miscegenation; this prevented Hayakawa from acting in the romantic roles from which his stardom came to be. On top of harsh immigration policies and anti-miscegenation laws that targeted Asians, Hayakawa was unable to pursue American citizenship. Ultimately, Hayakawa’s career would see revitalized success in the years after World War 2. Though still relegated to villainous characters, their portrayals were softened. Notably, Hayakawa played Colonel Saito in the 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” (opposite the legendary Alec Guinness, whose portrayal of a captured British officer juxtaposes the culture of leadership between West and East) for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Though largely obscure considering his lifetime success, Hayakawa was one of cinema’s first cases of Asian representation, albeit representation inundated with the time’s racist sentiments.
Today, anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional, and Asian Americans continue to be among the fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in the country. But amidst these gains in the past century, Asian representation in modern media leaves much for want. The last Asian actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor was Ben Kingsley for his 1983 role as Mahatma Gandhi, and even the weight of “Parasite’s” 2019 victory as the first South Korean Best Picture and director Bong Joon-Ho’s win as the first Asian Best Director hinges on the very noticeable rarity of Asians and Asian Americans on the screen. But despite these shortcomings, today’s Asian cinema is turning towards a new sense of identity, one that underscores the fundamental differences between the cultures of the West and East and what it feels like to be caught in the crossroads of an identity conflict. Would we still have “Parasite” without the trailblazing of Sessue Hayakawa? It’s likely, considering that “Parasite” deals with the globally pervasive nature of class conflict and that Hayakawa’s roles reflect an archaic social structure that modern viewers would struggle to stomach. But I think we should remember Hayakawa for what his success said about the Asian American experience: that we have what it takes to be the stars of the story.