Kintaro Hayakawa, known professionally as Sessue Hayakawa, was a Japanese actor. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s. Hayakawa was the first actor of Asian descent to achieve stardom as a leading man in the United States and Europe. His "broodingly handsome" good looks and typecasting as a sexually dominant villain made him a heartthrob among American women during a time of racial discrimination, and he became one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood.
After being expelled from the Japanese naval academy and surviving a suicide attempt at 18, Hayakawa attended the University of Chicago, where he studied political economics and quarterbacked the school's football team. Upon graduating, he traveled to Los Angeles in order to board a scheduled boat back to Japan, but decided to try out acting in Little Tokyo. There, Hayakawa impressed Hollywood figures and was signed on to star in The Typhoon (1914). He made his breakthrough in The Cheat (1915), and thereafter became famous for his roles as a forbidden lover. Hayakawa was one of the highest paid stars of his time, earning $5,000 per week in 1915, and $2 million per year through his own production company from 1918 to 1921.
Hayakawa's popularity and sex appeal ("his most rabid fan base was white women") unsettled many segments of American society which were filled with feelings of the Yellow Peril. With multiple World Wars taking place throughout his career, and rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, the types of roles that he usually played were gradually "taken over by other actors who were not as threatening as Hayakawa in terms of race and sex". Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922 and worked in Japanese and European cinema for many years before making his Hollywood comeback in Tokyo Joe (1949).
Of his talkies, Hayakawa is probably best known for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Hayakawa starred in over 80 feature films, and two of his films (The Cheat and The Bridge on the River Kwai) stand in the United States National Film Registry.
in the village of Nanaura, now part of a town called Chikura, in the city of Minamibōsō in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on June 10, 1889.
From an early age, Hayakawa's family intended him to become an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy. However, while a student at the naval academy in Etajima, he swam to the bottom of a lagoon (he grew up in a shellfish diving community) on a dare and ruptured his eardrum. The injury caused him to fail the navy physical. His father felt shame and embarrassment by his son's failure and this drove a wedge between them. The strained relationship drove the 18-year-old Hayakawa to attempt seppuku (ritual suicide). One evening, Hayakawa entered a shed on his parents' property and prepared the venue. He put his dog outside and attempted to uphold his family's samurai tradition by stabbing himself more than 30 times in the abdomen. The barking dog brought Hayakawa's parents to the scene and his father used an axe to break down the door, saving his life.
After he recovered from the suicide attempt, Hayakawa began to study political economics at the University of Chicago to fulfill his family's new wish that he become a banker. While a student, he played quarterback for the football team and was once penalized for using jujitsu to bring down an opponent.
Hayakawa graduated from the University of Chicago in 1912, and subsequently made plans to return to Japan.
He traveled to Los Angeles and awaited a transpacific steamship. During his stay, he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and became fascinated with acting and performing plays. It was around this time that Hayakawa first assumed the stage name Sessue (雪洲 Sesshū), meaning "snowy field" (雪 means "snow" and 洲 means "north field").
On May 1, 1914, Hayakawa married fellow Issei and performer Tsuru Aoki, who co-starred in several of his films. Hayakawa's first child, a son, was born in New York in 1929, to a white actress named Ruth Noble. The boy was known as Alexander Hayes, but the name was changed to Yukio after Sessue and Aoki adopted the child and took him to be raised and educated in Japan. Later, Hayakawa had two daughters with Aoki: Yoshiko, an actress, and Fujiko, a dancer. Aoki died in 1961. Hayakawa later relocated back to Japan and dedicated himself to Zen Buddhism, becoming an ordained priest.
Physically, Hayakawa possessed "an athlete's physique and agility". A 1917 profile on Hayakawa stated that he "is proficient in jiu-jitsu, an expert fencer, and can swim like a fish. He is a good horseman and plays a fast tennis racket. He is tall for a Japanese, being five feet seven and a half inches in height, and weighs 157 pounds."
Hayakawa was known for his discipline and martial arts skills. While filming The Jaguar's Claws, in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit, with 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of filming, the extras drank all night and well into the next day. No work was being done, so Hayakawa challenged the group to a fight. Two men stepped forward. Hayakawa said of the incident, "The first one struck out at me. I seized his arm and sent him flying on his face along the rough ground. The second attempted to grapple and I was forced to flip him over my head and let him fall on his neck. The fall knocked him unconscious." Hayakawa then disarmed yet another cowboy. The extras returned to work, amused by the way the small man manhandled the big bruising cowboys.
His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Hayakawa retired from film in 1966. He died in Tokyo on November 23, 1973, from a cerebral thrombosis, complicated by pneumonia. He was buried in the Chokeiji Temple Cemetery in Toyama, Japan.
Many of Hayakawa's films are lost. However, most of his later works, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Jerry Lewis comedy The Geisha Boy in which Hayakawa lampoons his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe, and Three Came Home are available on DVD. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Hayakawa was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street, in Hollywood, California.
A musical based on Hayakawa's life, Sessue, played in Tokyo in 1989. In September 2007, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective on Hayakawa's work entitled: Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met. Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima had planned to create a biopic entitled Hollywood Zen based on Hayakawa's life. The script had been allegedly completed and set to film in Los Angeles, but due to constant delays and the eventual death of Oshima himself in 2013, the project went unrealized.
Media professor Karla Rae Fuller wrote in 2010:
What is even more remarkable about Hayakawa's precedent-setting career in Hollywood as an Asian American is the fact that he is virtually ignored in film history as well as star studies. ... Furthermore, the fact that he reached such a rare level of success whereby he could form and run his own production company makes his omission from the narrative of Hollywood history even more egregious.
Hayakawa's image as a sex symbol is often remembered for its stark contrast to the stereotypically desexualized image of Asian men later in the film industry.
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