Archive for Sessue Hayakawa

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

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

It’s Chinatown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 7, 2020 by dcairns

WHERE THE LIGHTS ARE LOW (1921), screened at Pordenone Silent Film Fest, was enjoyable tosh — Sessue Hayakawa leads a mostly Japanese-American cast playing Chinese in an exciting melodrama.

Hayakawa is a high-born Chinese gent who wants to marry for love, so his evil uncle has his beloved sold into slavery. Our hero traces her to San Francisco but his efforts to buy her freedom are thwarted by the evil uncle again… It all builds to a really gripping conclusion, a colossal punch-up and then a dark twist that had me on the edge of my Ikea lounge chair.

The movie was rediscovered in Croatia complete with Croatian intertitles. The accretion of speckles and scratches only seems to have added to its wonderful texture — lots of embroidered costumes and decaying surfaces. Colin Campbell, director, serves up nifty compositions throughout, with San Francisco playing both itself and China. Also, a cinematic auto-translation, when Sessue finds a message written on a murder weapon —

Dissolve from Chinese original (not sure if it’s GOOD Chinese — to English translation.


Pordenone, having rendered all its streaming videos invisible to frame-grabbing — like trying to photograph a vampire — has now made the subtitles invisible too. I swear they’re watching my every move. But I promise that if you buy a pass, you will be able to see everything.

These images were photographed off my laptop, with resulting colour distortions.

Next up — Italian adventure-comedy THE STORM IN THE SKULL, a 1921 version of Fincher’s THE GAME, also anticipating the twist of SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, and featuring perhaps cinema’s first Zoom call…