Last week we discussed Asian/American women in films.
What of the plight of Asian and Asian/American actors? (That’s Shigeta above as a Japanese diplomat linked to Carroll Baker in the 1961 melodrama, Bridge To The Sun.)
But Hayakawa had been in silents. and had a long career.
Where are today’s Asian/American actors?
While pondering that, consider that Hayakawa was undoubtedly the most popular Japanese figure in Hollywood history. He wasn’t just a solid supporting player — such as Toshiro Mifune or Ken Takakura, Japanese actors who followed him a generation or so later — but was a genuine STAR.
His name on the marquee put butts in the seats.
Sessue Hayakawa’s career tends to get obscured today since in Hollywood it spanned the early silent movie period. Hayakawa’s subsequent careers in both movies and television were highly eclectic internationally, and lasted for nearly 55 years. He died in Tokyo in 1973 at age 84.
In his day, he was a precursor in the public mind to Rudolph Valentino, combining a similar mixture of exoticism and forbidden love. Hayakawa was a matinee idol of considerable appeal.
Would you believe that the very proper-looking chap pictured above was a genuine matinee idol who out in public could count on dozens of female fans spreading fur coats in front of him so that Hayakawa’s feet were protected from rain puddles? Onscreen, he was considered the sexy bridge between white Americana and the non-white “other.”
He successfully rode the strange Japanese craze that affected silent moviegoers before World War I. By the early 1920’s Hayakawa’s Hollywood career was over, and he promptly went international. Some say he is still the biggest Japanese film star ever internationally.
Shigeta’s career covering some 90 movie and tv credits is far more modest. As he once said, I have never personally referred myself as a star. When asked I always say, ‘I’m an actor, a working actor.’
Nonetheless, he made waves. His performance in director Sam Fuller’s 1959 crime drama, The Crimson Kimono, won Shigeta a ‘most promising newcomer’ Golden Globe (although Shigeta was hardly a newcomer when he made the picture). Here he is below with costar Victoria Shaw.
Actually, Shigeta was born in Hawaii of Japanese descent. He died in 2014 at the age of 85. He was never heralded as a STAR but more than made his mark as a ‘working actor.’ Check him out in 1961’s Flower Drum Song or more recently, in 1988’s Die Hard with Bruce Willis or as a Japanese officer in 1976’s Midway (see below).
No question that a Japanese actor, no matter how big a name back home, very rarely makes it as a star in Hollywood.
As mentioned earlier two Japanese-born actors qualify: Toshiro Mifune, director Akira Kurosawa’s go-to leading man (they made 16 pictures together) whose film career included some very big late 20th century studio pictures (eg. 1976’s Midway). There Mifune is below being manhandled by Lee Marvin in 1968’s Hell in the Pacific.
Ken Takakura should be ranked among this elite. Born in 1931, he was plucked as rising “new face” by Japanese studio Toei — one of four studios that rule the Japanese film business — and promoted to film roles either as a “salaryman” (aka, office drone) or gangster. Hollywood eventually came calling. (There he is below with Robert Mitchum in 1974’s The Yakuza. Takakura died in 2014 at age 83; Mifune passed in 1997 at age 77 .)