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Sessue Hayakawa

The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood

Sessue Hayakawa made his name playing a sadistic loan shark at the turn of the 20th century, but his fame was shortlived and the leading Asian male never truly returned

A man and a woman are alone in a room and the door is locked. She is a pre-Raphaelite Courtney Love, thin and fleshy with a babydoll face in a kinderwhore get-up, eyes rattling helter-skelter in her skull. He is treacherous as a melting glacier and twice as pretty in a haori thrown over a white waistcoat, mean-mugging her like a possessed Patrick Nagel poster.

“If you keep me here — I’ll kill myself,” says the woman. The man smirks and offers her his pistol — a true gentleman. She recoils, he laughs. She cowers, he regards her with cheerful contempt. A scuffle ensues and he wrestles her against the wall before dragging her by the hair to his desk. Holding her face-down, he rips off the sleeve of her dress and grabs the branding iron waiting patiently in the brazier. His face turns grotesque, her shoulder sizzles. He shoves her to the ground and there, seared into her white skin for all of America to see, is the mark he puts on all of his toys.

And that’s how Hollywood’s first male sex symbol was born. The man was actor Sessue Hayakawa, playing a sadistic Japanese loan shark in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent 1915 blockbuster The Cheat. The villain opposite comedienne Fannie Ward’s shopaholic socialite, he lends her $10,000 in exchange for a ravishing and brands her when she reneges on their deal. "The idea of the rape fantasy, forbidden fruit, all those taboos of race and sex – it made him a movie star,” said Stephen Gong, the executive director of San Francisco's Center for Asian-American Media in an interview. “And his most rabid fan base was white women.” They were especially hot and bothered by the branding scene, during which female audiences apparently erupted in screams and swoons. “Countless other ladies who saw the film would have loved to be on the receiving end of his hot iron,” quipped the Japan Times.

Predating Rudolph Valentino as “catnip to women” by several years, Hayakawa became America’s new leading man. The Cheat transformed him into a millionaire who threw opulent parties in his mansion-turned-castle and drove a gold-plated car. It launched a rockstar career playing villains and heroes alike. He enraptured audiences overseas too, often name-dropped in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. It was utterly unexpected, an Asian man dominating Western box offices the way he did, starting a production company to remedy the stereotyping of Asians, his sex appeal nailed firmly (albeit problematically) to his Asianness instead of his ability to emulate whiteness. It had never happened before, and it would not happen again for a very long time. Hollywood made sure of that.

Every few months or so, the Internet cracks open its roster of Hollywood heartthrobs and declares the most universally covetable one the Internet’s Boyfriend. Sayeth incumbent Internet’s Boyfriend Oscar Isaac, "[The Internet] never struck me as being into monogamous relationships. It's very promiscuous, the Internet." And how. At any given moment, the Internet can count on many different boyfriends with a vast array of traits. The Internet’s Boyfriend can be a tormented, psychosexual lumberjack, like Tom Hardy. If you prefer an Eton-bred gallant in the streets and a Machiavellian space trickster with daddy issues in the sheets, there’s Tom Hiddleston. The Internet’s Boyfriend can be aesthetically oxymoronic (Benedict Cumberbatch) or the recipient of a Faustian makeover (Chris Pratt) or, because it’s 2016, occasionally and conditionally black (Idris Elba).

What he can’t be is Asian. In the multitude of universes contained by Hollywood, Asian men are not sexy or masculine or desirable. The Asian man is almost never the hero and just about always the (white guy’s) sidekick, a jester eagerly pissing himself in his haste to serve as the butt of the joke. Hollywood’s Asian man is the same handful of cardboard punchlines rotated ad infinitum; just take your pick and call up Ken Jeong: He is a heavily accented buffoon fresh off the boat, blissfully unaware of his many cultural faux pas. He is a soulless tech whiz whose sole purpose is to recite jargon as a number-crunching deus ex machina. He is an awkward virgin who will never get the girl and wouldn’t be able to satisfy her even if he did. In Hollywood, the Asian man is not a man and on the rare occasion that he is, he is still just a body.

"Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light,” said Filipino-American director Gene Cajayon in the Washington Post. His film Romeo Must Die was forcibly changed to show Jet Li’s Romeo hugging Aaliyah’s Juliet, because a kiss between the two “didn’t test well with ‘urban audiences.’”

It wasn’t always like that. I don’t mean Hollywood wasn’t racist once upon a time — it has been from the very beginning. But the racism came in a very different flavour. Asian men weren’t always portrayed as gauche, kowtowing castrati. Quite the opposite. Until WWII ended, Hollywood (and American society) stereotyped Asian men with other men of colour as hypersexual, virile, savage sexual predators who would steal white women from white men.

But Sessue Hayakawa spun it into a career. At the time, America was struggling to reconcile its fear of the yellow peril with its huge Japan fetish, wrote historian Daisuke Miyao in his book on Hayakawa. When The Cheat became a hit, so did its villain, with most reviews fixating on the acting talent that left his co-stars in the dust. The movie industry started answering to female audiences, so his instant fangirl horde helped immensely. But his production company at the time, wrote Miyao, sustained this stardom by branding him as the perfect balance between East and West — Americanized enough to not be threatening while keeping all the Asian parts white people liked.

Critics pounced to laud and exoticize his zenned out acting technique: “When he portrays sorrow, his pain is of ancient dimensions. When he plays the lover, his smile has the grace and aroma of lotus and cherry blossoms. As the avenger, his body explodes in exotic wilderness. Whoever sees him knows everything about Japan, everything of the beauty of the mystical East.” For the first few years of stardom, he tailored his public persona and roles to exude this image, fluctuating between cruel, sensual villains and tragic, assimilated good guys who’d sacrifice themselves so their white lovers could be with white men.

Women far preferred the villains. “The effect of Hayakawa on American women was even more electric than Valentino’s,” wrote one film critic quoted in Miyao’s book. “It involved fiercer tones of masochism as well as a latent female urge to experience sex with a beautiful but savage man of another race.” Hayakawa himself said, “My clientele is women. They like me to be strong and violent.”

But Japanese-Americans didn’t. They protested The Cheat, which they rightfully criticized as anti-Japanese. This sentiment spread to Japan, where he was considered a “traitor” and “national humiliator.” Hayakawa apologized. In 1918, sick of playing racist stereotypes, he founded his own production company aiming to portray Japanese characters more authentically. But Miyao said he never really could, since he relied on orientalist tropes to eat. “Public acceptance of me in romantic roles was a blow of sorts against racial intolerance,” he later said. In 1921, his company folded after a fight with a distributor who called him a “chink” in public. He was forced to leave Hollywood and alternate between New York, Japan, London, and France for the next decade and a half.

If you thought America had adored him, France was utterly consumed. The intelligentsia even invented a film technique called photographie inspired by his acting, which had critics waxing exoticism: “The beauty of Sessue Hayakawa is painful,” wrote one, in Miyao’s book. “Few things in the cinema reveal to us, as the lights and silence of this mask do, that there really are alone beings. I well believe that all lonely people, and they are numerous, will discover their own resourceless despair in the intimate melancholy of this savage Hayakawa.”

“The effect of Hayakawa on American women was even more electric than Valentino’s”– film critic on Sessue Hayakawa

Meanwhile in America, anti-Japanese sentiment raged. In the years following Hayakawa’s Hollywood exodus, laws targeting Japanese immigrants passed one after another. In 1930, the Production Code passed, outlawing interracial relations on-screen. By now, Hayakawa’s celebrity in the U.S. had plummeted. Everything had come full circle: Both he and “exotic lover” successor Valentino had been unceremoniously dethroned as sex symbols, replaced by the exact type of all-American men whose masculinity they had threatened back in their prime. It’s unclear whether this was driven by female audiences or Hollywood, but rampant xenophobia meant both gladly obliged. Asians could only play villains now, while Asian heroes were played by whites. Nevertheless, as WWII began, Asian villains’ “monstrous qualities” remained “primitively masculine ones – rage, cruelty, lust – and they were still presented as symbols of power,” wrote journalist Anthony Venutolo. “Unlike Hollywood's other minority characters – particularly African-Americans – Japanese males, however evil, were still seen as men.” Until Japan lost. “Along with the de-militarization of Japan, came Hollywood's de-sexualizing of all Asian male characters.”

Hayakawa had spent WWII fighting for the French Resistance. After the war, he went back to Hollywood for a few more high-profile flicks, but never returned to his pre-talkies glory. In 1957, he received an Academy Award nomination for his most famous role as “honourable villain” Colonel Saito in Best Picture winner The Bridge Over the River Kwai. The same year, Sayonara, a Marlon Brando film in which two white men seduce two Asian female stereotypes and a Mexican actor dons yellowface, was hailed as a progressive depiction of interracial marriage.

The year Hayakawa returned to Japan following his wife’s death, Mickey Rooney committed the fuck-up of his career with Breakfast at Tiffany’s racist caricature, criticized even then by the New York Times as “bucktoothed, myopic,” and “broadly exotic.” Hayakawa retired from acting in 1966 to master Zen Buddhism and coach actors before dying of pneumonia in 1973. Bruce Lee died a few months before him after shooting Enter the Dragon, which would help jumpstart Hollywood’s kung fu craze. By then, David Carradine had spent a year in yellowface and prosthetics pretending to be a half-Chinese Shaolin monk in ABC’s hit TV show Kung Fu. Although he had no experience in martial arts at the time, Carradine was cast to replace Bruce Lee because, Japanese-American Academy Award winner Mako remembers a studio executive saying, “If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes.”

As an Asian-American, watching movies and TV shows can be a bit of a mindfuck. It’s true for most marginalized identities, be they trans women or queer people or other racial minorities. You grow accustomed to Hollywood pretending you don’t exist or reducing you to a faceless, walking set piece, a disposable plot point if you’re lucky. It feels like shit at first, but slowly it becomes almost normal to tune into alternate realities from which you’ve been erased based on true stories that are never yours. It starves you into a complacency that has you bolting upright whenever someone like you has lines, making you overly thankful when there’s nothing negative or stereotypical, ecstatic when it’s actually positive, like you’ve found the fucking holy grail when it’s something well-written and memorable. Because more often than not they end up being a racist joke or lazy caricature, or worse, replaced and whitewashed because people like you are a turn off, a hard sell, just not believable as anyone important. They throw you a bone with Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim, dangle cameos from George Takei or Margaret Cho, pretend they can’t see John Cho and Constance Wu’s social media coup. Next thing you know, it’s back to making children participate in a little bit of Uncle Chang minstrelsy at the Oscars, Emma Stone half-assing a half-Asian or Matt Damon saving China.

Studios feign a deadlock by claiming there are no bankable Asian actors, that casting Asians is a huge risk, that there’s simply no economically justifiable reason to do so. They take no responsibility for creating the feedback loop of not casting Asians because they’re supposedly not bankable thereby leading to them being less bankable. They ignore the countless unknowns and B, C and D-list white actors being cast as race-neutral roles in movies whose profitability clearly relies on something else. They selectively emphasize how China’s box office is so invaluable, scenes have literally been reshot to appease it. But I suppose actually casting Asians would be taking it a step too far. On a silver screen filled with dragons and superhumans and curses and ghosts, Hollywood says, an Asian male lead would require too much suspension of disbelief.