Archive for September 30, 2021

Big in Japan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2021 by dcairns

More on YOSHIWARA — Shadowplayer Phoebe Green has kindly translated the relevant section from Max Ophuls’ memoir, edited by his son Marcel, a book still infuriatingly unavailable in English. Thanks, Phoebe!

Of all my films, the most international was no doubt Yoshiwara, adapted from a Maurice Dekobra novel by English and German screenwriters, directed by me, shot in Paris with two French-speaking Japanese stars. The producer had cast Sessue Hayakawa in the lead.

“Does he speak French?” I asked warily.

“Good question – the subject never came up.”

That very day a telegram went to Tokyo. The answer came back forty-eight hours later. It was in three words: “À la perfection.”

Disembarking at Le Havre, Hayakawa had to face the usual pack of newspaper men and photographers. I myself confidently awaited him in Paris. To start off, we were going to lunch at Le Fouquet’s.

“You can speak French with him,” the producer whispered to me as he gave the actor a hearty handshake. “Go on …”

“Did you have a nice trip, Mr. Hayakawa?” I asked.

“Grrrrr …”

A strange growl emerged from the Japanese actor’s impassive mask. It was like ventriloquism. Alarmed, I turned to the producer who, under the table, nudged me encouragingly with his knee.

“I’d like to read you the script,” I began again. “Shall I come to your hotel?”

“Grrrrr …”

This time I understood: our leading man hadn’t the slightest notion of the language he was supposed to speak “perfectly.” In a week’s time, we would have to rewrite the script completely to reduce his speaking part to a minimum. Since we couldn’t in all decency condemn him to total silence, we found him a French teacher who made him learn and repeat, from morning to evening, his few remaining lines.

Pathé then had at its Francoeur studios a set decorator, a tiny Polish Jew, kept on despite his biblical age and advanced diabetes. Papa Fisch was our mascot: hired when the studios were first opened, he had painted backdrops back when old Natan himself was still performing.[1] On the first day of shooting, as Hayakawa gritted his way through his first line, Papa Fisch whispered to an electrician: “Fancy that! They say Japanese is a difficult language, but I understand practically everything!”

After this experience, I approached our female star, Michiko Tanaka, with great linguistic circumspection.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t know any Japanese.  Shall we speak English, or French, or …”

“German, for heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed in the most authentic Viennese dialect. “I lived on the banks of the blue Danube for three years …”

I was to take a great deal of trouble to teach her at least the rudiments of French.[2]  Wasted effort: while we were shooting she discovered she was Japanese at heart and above all.  When the film was finished she married Hayakawa and left with him for Berlin.


[1] This shows how prevalent the (basically false) rumours about Bernard Natan were. —DC

[2] This couldn’t have been easy. At the time, M.O. still had a German accent you could cut with a knife. —Marcel Ophuls