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Hollywood Zen: A Historical Analysis of Oshima Nagisa’s Unfinished Film

Daisuke Miyao


In this essay, I consider Oshima Nagisa’s unmade film, Hollywood Zen, to be his historical project. Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Oshima kept questioning the modernized feudal patriarchy of the emperor system after the Meiji Restoration that led to the devastation of World War II, oppression toward women and minority groups, and the immorality of the Meiji generation for its subjugation to ultranationalism and fascism during wartime as well as its instant switch to American-style democracy during the post-WWII occupational period. Closely examining the screenplay of Hollywood Zen, which Oshima wrote with Paul Mayersberg, in conjunction with articles written in the 1910s-20s in both American and Japanese trade presses and film magazines, I discuss the politics of representation of race as well as the politics of gender embodied by the stardom of Sessue Hayakawa in the 1910s in different national contexts. I will clarify how the “New Wave” filmmaker who started his career in postwar Japan critically tried to represent the beginning of the star system in Hollywood.

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1. Oshima Nagisa’s Historical Project

1 “Sozaburo, he was too beautiful. When he was bullied by other men, a monster started to reside in him.” At the finale of Gohatto/Taboo (1999), the last film by the late Oshima Nagisa (1932-2003), Hijikata Toshizo (Beat Takeshi) speaks to himself before he draws his sword and cuts down a tree of full-bloomed cherry blossom in one stroke. According to critic Yomota Inuhiko, the cherry blossom tree is a metaphor of Kano Sozaburo (Matsuda Ryuhei), a young swordsman who joined the Shinsengumi, a special police force organized by the declining Tokugawa shogunate, and stirred up homosexual desires among the members. Hijikata eliminates Kano, Yomota argues, “in order to maintain the order of the army” (Yomota 2000: 85). Yet, this is not a happy ending. The extermination of the “monster” in a homophobic manner does not bring back a peace but rather indicates the beginning of an end of Shinsengumi, an army with a glorious record of maintaining the feudalist and patriarchal order at the end of the shogunate. The film ends “with a deep sense of abandonment,” claims Yomota (Yomota 2000: 85).

2 Shinsengumi in Gohatto/Taboo is depicted as an epitome of a homosocial society that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick discusses in her influential book, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). According to her definition, male homosocial desire means men’s strong same-sex bonds that are created by a tacit agreement of sexual objectification of women. Sedgwick emphasizes that the modern patriarchal society, which was established based on the homosocial desire, not only treated women as a peripheral object for trade and confined them in the domestic realm but also repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism. Consequently, homosocial desire enhanced homophobia.

3 While Sedgwick’s focus was on the formation of the homosocial society in modern Europe, her framework seems applicable to the historical context of Japan, especially because a surge of modernization swallowed the country by the late nineteenth century after the forceful opening of its gate to international relations in 1853, and the political system and the social structure were rapidly Westernizing. As film scholar Ayako Saito argues, the process of “modernization of feudal patriarchy” of the Meiji Restoration (of practical imperial rule to Japan) was to construct and maintain a “male-dominant system that peripherized and excluded women as sexual objects (misogyny) and strengthen the bond and unity among men around the patriotic thoughts” (Saito 2004: 281).

4 Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Oshima kept questioning the modernized feudal patriarchy of the emperor system after the Meiji Restoration that led to the devastation of World War II, oppression toward women and minority groups, and the immorality of the Meiji generation for its subjugation to ultranationalism and fascism during wartime as well as its instant switch to American-style democracy during the post-WWII occupational period. Oshima did not use the term, homosociality, in his writings. But he criticized the fans of his films, who were also appreciating yakuza films starring Takakura Ken in the 1960s (Oshima 1972: 144-156). For Oshima, yakuza films were nothing but aestheticized version of homosociality. More explicitly, Oshima expressed his critical view toward homosocial desire in patriarchy, particularly in the form of masculine assemblages and female objectifications, in his later films that depicted Japanese armed forces, including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and Gohatto/Taboo. The hyperbolic depiction of masculinity as well as homophobia in Gohatto/Taboo is a clear example of this.

5 There was supposed to be another film between Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Gohatto/Taboo that would have depicted a man of the Meiji generation. In fact, Kurita Toyomichi, the director of photography of Gohatto/Taboo, told me during my personal interview to him that the cinematographic scheme of Gohatto/Taboo, had a strong reminiscence of the unmade film. The film was titled Hollywood Zen. It was a film about a Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973), who was a matinee idol in Hollywood in the 1910s-1920s. Gohatto/Taboo’s extensive use of intertitles, its color scheme that focuses on black and white, as well as its lighting scheme that emphasizes contrasts between light and shadow, --- all these technical devices remind us of such a silent film as The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915), starring Sessue Hayakawa. The Cheat was particularly famous for its innovative use of expressive lighting, Rembrandt-style Chiaroscuro, by Cecil B. DeMille and his cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff. What DeMille and Wyckoff visualized was called Lasky lighting, referring to the name of the studio where the film was produced. The film historian Lea Jacobs defines the lighting as “confined and shallow areas of illumination, sharp-edged shadows and a palpable sense of the directionality of light” (Jacobs 1993: 408).

6 “Why was Sessue [Hayakawa] able to succeed in Hollywood where no other Japanese actor was able to before him or after him?” (Oshima 2009: 183). Oshima wanted to ask that question in Hollywood Zen. Oshima thought, “If I find out the reason and if I create him [Hayakawa] as an attractive character, the film is promised to be successful” (Oshima 2009: 183). For Oshima, Hayakawa was an attractive case study of the Meiji generation. Hayakawa was a Hollywood star when anti-Japanese sentiment was increasing rapidly. Starting in the Pacific States, anti-Japanese movements developed against Japan’s growing military and political power. Such anti-Japanese feelings were crystallized in the movements against immigrants from Japan. In 1920, the Japanese Exclusion League of California was established. In November 1922, the Federal Supreme Court’s Ozawa v. United States decision legally defined Japanese people as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” and denied naturalization to Japanese people. Then, in 1924, the new immigration act passed by the U.S. Congress prohibited the entry of “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” thus targeting Japanese immigrants. Under such chaotic socio-political conditions, “White women were willing to give themselves to” Hayakawa, a Japanese man, especially after the release of The Cheat, in which Hayakawa played a sensationally villainous Japanese man (Nogami 1986: 14). Hishuru Tori, a wealthy Japanese art dealer in Long Island, satisfies the desires of middle-class white woman who are attracted to overconsumption and forbidden sex with his refined life style and exotic Japanese objets d’art. When a white woman fails in investment in stock markets, he gives her a check in exchange of her body. Once she rejects to have sex with him at the last moment, Tori brutally presses a red-hot branding iron on the naked shoulder of her. Lasky lighting enhanced the brutality of the scene. Tori tears her clothes, grabs her hair, and throws her face forward onto the desk. In a close-up, Tori with the branding iron comes closer and closer to Edith’s bare shoulder, and the iron almost reaches the white flesh. The lighting from the brazier casts ominous shadows on Tori’s face and creates a horrifying expression. The branding itself is completed offscreen but the smoke comes up from offscreen in front of Tori grimacing with a tightly closed mouth. It seems as if Hayakawa’s face captured in a close-up addressed directly to the viewer’s sensorium. Jean Epstein, film critic who had worked for the Lumière brothers and would become a film director in 1922, compared Hayakawa’s expression as “a revolver” and described how the viewers were flabbergasted by Hayakawa: “Hayakawa aims his incandescent mask like a revolver. Wrapped in darkness, ranged in the cell-like seats, directed toward the source of emotion by their softer side, the sensibilities of the entire auditorium converge, as if in a funnel, toward the film. Everything else is barred, excluded, no longer valid” (Epstein 1988: 239-40). The Cheat achieved a huge box office success, and as early as May 1916, only five months after the film’s release, Hayakawa was ranked number one in the Chicago Tribune popular star contest (Miyao 2007: 3).

7 Even though Oshima had a clear idea about the theme, Hollywood Zen was never made into a film. The production of the film was postponed only a few days before the scheduled first day of shooting day. Casting was set, including Sakamoto Ryuichi for Sessue Hayakawa, Joan Chen for Tsuru Aoki, Hayakawa’s wife, Antonio Banderas for Rudolph Valentino. Location hunting and rehearsal were completed in Toronto with Kurita Toyomichi, the director of photography. But the production has never restarted to this day. Oshima passed in 2013.

8 The actual reason for this eternal delay was the bankruptcy of an investment company that was financing the producer Jeremy Thomas (Oshima 2009: 193). Thomas was one of the most successful independent producers after the hits of Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning film The Last Emperor (1987). However, the continuous financial failures of Thomas’s subsequent films, The Sheltering Sky (Bertolucci, 1990) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991), decreased the credibility of his work and made it difficult for him to receive further investment for his another expensive period film.

9 It was also true that Hollywood Zen was doomed from the very beginning. Oshima retroactively claimed, “It is embarrassing to admit this, but the more I do research and think [about Hayakawa], the less attractive Sessue becomes as a main character of the film” (Oshima 2009: 183). Oshima admitted that Hayakawa was able to maintain the Hollywood star status for seven years in the midst of the anti-Japanese sentiments because “as a man who was born and raised in the Meiji period, he must have been much stronger mentally and physically than the Japanese men today” (Oshima 2009: 183). “However,” continued Oshima, “that means he fully embodied machismo, and his relationships with women would never be accepted by contemporary women” (Oshima 2009: 183). Even though Oshima thought that the film would be a success if completed, he was not attracted to its protagonist at all.

10 Still, Kurita told me that Oshima was obsessed with the final sequence of this film, in which Hayakawa plays a significant role. Oshima described the scene as follows:

Hundreds thousands of people gather for the funeral of [Rudolph] Valentino. Sessue in a traditional Japanese costume leads the crowd…. Valentino’s coffin is guarded by the Fascists in Mussolini’s party uniforms…. Women walk in front of the coffin in tears…. (Oshima 2009: 190).

11In order to emphasize the impactful image of this final scene, Oshima decided to make the year 1926, when Valentino died in New York, as the present tense of the story of the film and to insert all other scenes as flashbacks (Oshima 2009: 190). Why was Oshima obsessed with this scene when he was not interested in the character of Hayakawa as a Japanese macho man?

12 This essay is my attempt to answer this question. The late Japanese film scholar Scott Nygren once called Gohatto/Taboo one of his “vast historical projects” (Nygren 2004: 540). Nygren argues, “Oshima has consistently represented history as a complex intersection of conflicted sexualities and political institutions and discourses” (Nygren 2004: 540). Inspired by my discussion with Kurita, I argue that Hollywood Zen was a historical project for Oshima that was supposed to precede Gohatto/Taboo, in two senses.

13 First, Oshima wanted to reexamine the history of cinema, especially its early period when the first experiments of expressive use of lighting were under way. In the screenplay of Hollywood Zen, there is a scene at a movie theater where The Cheat is screened. Oshima and Kurita were not planning to use actually footages of The Cheat but to recreate the film with its Lasky lighting. In order to do that, he needed a support of a director of photography like Kurita, who had experiences of filmmaking not only in Japan but also in Hollywood. According to Kurita, in the production of Hollywood Zen, Oshima was planning to re-create the styles of silent cinema of the 1910s-1920s by using the actual filmmaking equipment of the period, including non-super-sensitive black-and-white film negatives and klieg light of carbon arc lamps. With the help of his cinematographer, Oshima was targeting to achieve muted tones that would not use as vivid colors as contemporary films of the 1980s. In other words, he was trying to make a film that was supposedly made when the effects of lighting became seriously taken into account in Hollywood and the director of photography system emerged accordingly.

14 Second, more importantly, Oshima aimed at reexamining the masculinity and patriarchy in modern Japan after the Meiji Restoration from a global perspective. The cross-cultural stardom of Sessue Hayakawa between the United States and Japan was an interesting vehicle for him to do that. The literary scholar Yoshihiro Yasuhara has argued, “Taboo implements Oshima’s desire for both intra- and trans-national others pervasive in his aesthetics of ‘internationalism,’ enabling him to reify the eroticism and beauty of the invisible dynamics truncated by modern Japan’s patriarchal identity” (Yasuhara 2007: 351).

15 Thus, considering Hollywood Zen to be Oshima’s historical project, I discuss the politics of representation of race as well as the politics of gender embodied by the stardom of Sessue Hayakawa in the 1910s in different national contexts. In other words, I will finish what Oshima has started. Even though I do not complete a film for him, I will clarify how the “New Wave” filmmaker who started his career in postwar Japan critically tried to represent the beginning of the star system in Hollywood. My perspective is as transnational as Oshima’s was. My methodology is more detailed historical documentation than Oshima’s. I will closely examine several sections of the screenplay of Hollywood Zen, which Oshima wrote with Paul Mayersberg, in conjunction with articles written in the 1910s-20s in both American and Japanese trade presses and film magazines. The main source for adaptation when Oshima wrote the screenplay seems to be Sessue Hayakawa’s autobiography. What I am going to do is a cross-examination of the screenplay with historical facts.

16 My hypothesis is that Oshima tried to depict Hayakawa as an embodiment of the feudal patriarchy after the Meiji Restoration that desires to create a homosocial bond among men even in the United States, away from Japan. Oshima thought that Hayakawa failed it miserably. That might have been because Hayakawa was not in Japan and was caught by the politics of race and gender between the two countries. The tragedy of Hayakawa for Oshima was that he did not even realize his desire and his failure. All he could do was to dress up for the man he wanted to form bonds and walk boastingly on the street of a land that he conquered for a brief period of time with his star appeal. Focusing on Oshima’s obsession with that ending, I will explore his critique of patriarchy after the Meiji Restoration that was expressed in the form of homosociality. Even though homosociality is not the only form of patriarchy, Oshima tried to emphasize it in Hollywood Zen in connection to the formation of the stardom of Sessue Hayakawa, and then he did that again in Gohatto/Taboo in the form of Shinsengumi.

17 In this sense, this essay could be categorized as auteur criticism. I understand that most academic works on Japanese cinema have focused on either a historical survey of popular films or canonized auteur directors, such as Kurosawa Akira, Ozu Yasujiro, and Oshima Nagisa. This is a problematic tendency. The assumption of auteur theory is that the films an auteur has directed can be analyzed to uncover recurrent themes and aesthetic patterns that demonstrate the cohesion of his or her vision of the world. This approach is insufficient to address filmmaking. What lacks in existing academic works on Japanese films include, 1) A perspective that considers films to be collaborative industrial products that exist beyond the auteur directors’ authority; and 2) A perspective that locates the work of a filmmaker and his or her thoughts in a specific historical context. My initial question for this essay, “Why was Oshima obsessed with the final scene of Hollywood Zen?”, would not have been raised if I did not discuss this film with its scheduled director of photography, Kurita Toyomichi. As I have already stated, Hollywood Zen was a collaborated historical project between Oshima and Kurita to represent the early history of Hollywood and Japan. This essay presents a historical/contextual perspective on their thoughts that is expressed in Hollywood Zen. Thus, I will overcome the shortcomings in auteur criticism in both areas.

2. Tsuru Aoki’s Transformation

18 The screenplay of Hollywood Zen opens with a scene of a film shooting, an open set at a Hollywood studio in 1914:

A woman’s black hair. A hairpin with a red ornament is on. When the hair is combed up, a pale face of a Japanese woman with full of pain is seen. Blood comes out from her mouth. She stands up and staggers to walk.
Very good! Let’s go! Keep on walking!
Actress Tsuru Aoki keeps walking towards the camera.
Keep going, Tsuru. Excellent! Then fall down. Now!
Tsuru performs as the director instructs.
Tsuru, stand up! Try to walk … please try!
One step or two, but no…. Fall down again! … Face up! Then cry out!
Oh, God!
Then, you are going to die…
Tsuru drops her head down and lies down on the sand.
An assistant blows a wind by a fan and covers Tsuru’s body with sands.
He runs to Tsuru and raises her in his arms.
Thank you. The last scene was fantastic.
Tsuru opens her eyes. Mr. Thomas Ince, producer and director, and a lady get out of a car parked behind the row of cameras and approach Tsuru.
Hollywood 1914
(Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 198).

19The leading character of the film that is under production in this opening scene of Hollywood Zen is not Sessue Hayakawa but “actress Tsuru Aoki.” After her dramatic performance of death, Aoki faces Thomas H. Ince, her employer and the managing director of the New York Motion Picture Company. Aoki conducts a sales campaign to Ince for a Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa, who is playing the leading role of a theatrical play, The Typhoon. It is a fact that Hayakawa appeared in the play at a theater in Little Tokyo of Los Angeles around 1913 (Miyao 2007: 51). Ince might have seen the play because he recognized that films with Japanese subjects had a certain appeal to middle-class Caucasian audiences, especially those who were open to trying to experience the East and were attracted to Japonisme, the trend in France since the 1860s. He was indeed looking for Japanese actors and extras for his “Japan films,” which would be produced at Inceville, his studio in the Santa Ynez Canyon between Santa Monica and Malibu. But there is no record about Aoki’s recommendation of Hayakawa to Ince, except a journalistic anecdote (Aoyama 1929: 279). Oshima placed a bet on this possibility in order to emphasize that it was Aoki who was the central character of Hollywood Zen and held the key to the success of Hayakawa as a Hollywood star. In other words, in Hollywood Zen, “Sessue Hayakawa” first appears as an object for sale.

20 Throughout the screenplay of Hollywood Zen, Hayakawa is not “an attractive character,” as Oshima initially planned. He is not even an active character. Instead, complex and ambivalent feelings towards Hayakawa from the people near him play more significant roles. The most important person among them is Aoki Tsuruko (a.k.a. Tsuru Aoki, 1891-1961), the wife of Hayakawa, who “might have been more talented as an actor than Sessue but gave up her career after her marriage and devoted herself to him while suffering from his flirting with other women” (Oshima 2009: 183-84).

21Aoki was already a famous actor in Hollywood when Hayakawa started his acting career. Aoki was the first Japanese female motion picture actor. In Japan, female motion picture actors did not appear until as late as 1918 when Hanayagi Harumi starred in Radiance of Life (Sei no kagayaki), a product of the so-called jun eigageki undo (pure film movement), which attempted to separate filmmaking from the influence of kabuki. Before this film, the majority of female characters in motion pictures were played by onnagata, female impersonators in kabuki. Aoki started her film career in the United States in the early 1910s, as supporting characters in Fred Mace’s comedy films, followed by a leading role in The Oath of O Tsuru San (director unknown, 1913), a film heavily influenced by Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Aoki then starred in numerous films about Japan, produced by Ince after December 1913 (“Miss Tsura Aoki” 1914: 825). While there is no record of a film that opens Hollywood Zen, in which a heroin played by Aoki dies in the end and is covered by sands, there were numerous other Madama Butterfly-style films, in which heroines suffer and accept self-sacrificial death. The Curse of Caste (Reginald Barker, 1914) has an ending in which Aoki’s body is found on the beach after she commits suicide in the ocean (“The Curse of Caste” 1914: 16).

22 In Hollywood Zen, thanks to the reference by Aoki the star, Hayakawa is hired by Ince. In real life, he was most likely hired as one of the extras for Ince’s “Japan films,” with or without Aoki’s recommendation. He appeared in at least seventeen films that Ince produced. The main focus of these films was to show exotic cultures and people to American audience, and the main star was Aoki. While Reel Life magazine, placed a still photo of Aoki on its cover at least three times in November 1913, February and June 1914, only a few films produced by Ince cast Hayakawa as leading characters. None of the reviews of these films mention the name of Hayakawa. Considering his egotism observable throughout his career, it was no doubt that Hayakawa was frustrated by the way Ince treated him.

23 In Hollywood Zen, however, it is not Hayakawa but Aoki who speaks out dissatisfaction with Ince’s films. Oshima thus consistently regards Aoki as the active agency. Aoki takes off her clothes in front of Ince in his office, shows her naked woman’s body to him, and passionately tells him that she does not like to keep playing the role of “little Madame Butterfly” but want to be seen as “an American” who speaks “clean English” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 205).

24 By the time Aoki started her acting career in early Hollywood cinema, Japan’s image of cultural refinement, in the form of Japonisme, the European vogue in art and style, had been fascinating American women. After the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia when many Americans made their first contact with Japanese art and culture, high-class Japanese art and culture gradually became popularized among the middle class and fitted to their taste. Then, the success of the English light opera The Mikado (1885) by Gilbert and Sullivan and the popularity of Madame Butterfly (1898) had a strong influence among middle-class audiences on forming a popular imagination of Japan as a land of refined culture. This cultural image of Japan, especially in the form of an obedient female like Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly, functioned to safely contain the imminent horror of the “yellow peril.” When Puccini’s opera opened in the U.S. in 1906, Japan had defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5 and created an imminent threat to other colonial powers. The period from the 1910s to the 20s witnessed the rapid increase of anti-Japanese sentiment against Japan’s militarily and politically growing power. Historically, an important function of such a melodrama as Madame Butterfly was to contain the horror of modernity. The ideological nature of the melodramatic narrative of Madame Butterfly was to make sense of the rapid modernization and imperialistic expansion of Japan and to contain the modernizing nation within the image of an obedient and self-sacrificing female living in a premodern space. With the sympathetic characterization of Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese geisha, the opera functioned to “normalize” the gendered, sexualized, and racially hierarchical relationship between the East and the West, between the pre-modern “evil” community and the civilized “good” nation-state, between Japan and the U.S., in the popular American mind. With its capacity of mechanical reproduction and photographic realism, cinema functioned to provide authenticity to a twofold image of Japan and the Japanese people: cultural refinement and political threat. In particular, fully half of the films that were released in the U.S. from 1909-1915 portraying cross-cultural relations took the form of ill-fated romance, which were the reworks of Madame Butterfly’s narrative of doomed romance between a Japanese woman and an American man.

25 In reality, Aoki spoke perfect English because she arrived in the United States when she was eleven with her uncle, actor Kawakami Otojiro, and her aunt Sadayakko. When the Kawakami troupe’s U.S. tour was not in success, Aoki was left in the U.S. and adopted by a painter, Aoki Hyosai. She studied at Eagan Dramatic School. Considering such historical facts in mind, Oshima created his character, Tsuru Aoki, in Hollywood Zen as the one who is frustrated by the image of Madame Butterfly, an obedient Japanese woman.

26 Then, in Hollywood Zen, it is also Aoki who actively tries to grab a golden opportunity and makes a significant decision in order to make Sessue Hayakawa a Hollywood icon. Jesse L. Lasky, one of the Hollywood tycoons, and Cecil B. DeMille, a renowned director of Broadway stage productions who are about to enter the film business, recruit Hayakawa from Ince’s company with a huge amount of money. The poster of The Cheat that appears in Hollywood Zen publicizes, “Jesse Lasky proudly presents Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. Demille’s latest film, The Cheat.” One of the intertitles of The Cheat reads, “Miss Fannie Ward plays a supporting role for Tori, played by Sessue Hayakawa” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 216). Such an intertitle cannot be found in the actual extant print of The Cheat. In reality, the star of The Cheat was Fannie Ward, a renowned stage actress in New York and London. It was Hayakawa who played a supporting role for Ward.

27 Contrary to the description in Hollywood Zen, it was after the release of The Cheat when Hayakawa’s star quality was first clearly recognized. The December 17, 1915 issue of Variety insisted, “The work of Sessue Hayakawa is so far above the acting of Miss Ward and Jack Dean that he really should be the star in the billing for the film” (18). This is the moment when the fiction and the reality meet for the first time.

28 In reality, Aoki made a big career choice. She decided to give up her star status and retire from acting. Instead, she started to give a perfect performance to be an ideally Americanized Japanese housewife. Becoming a wife of a Hollywood star was her pragmatic method to achieve her goal and satisfy her desire to be seen as “an American” who speaks “clean English” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 205). This was a fact that Oshima directly adopted from reality and particularly emphasized in Hollywood Zen.

29 In Hollywood Zen, Ince asks Aoki why she decides to help Hayakawa. She tells Ince in a determined manner: “A life can be changed. Yes, it can. I must change it” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 248). Also in real life, she was a successful career woman and it looked too abrupt when she gave up her stardom in 1916. Aoki stopped playing leading roles after The Beckoning Flame (Charles Swickard, 1916), produced under Ince. After that Aoki’s onscreen characters became subordinate ones, such as girlfriends or wives of Hayakawa.

30 Fan magazines started publicizing Aoki’s off-screen image to be the one that represented ideal Japanese femininity in modern American middle-class domesticity. Aoki’s image of an obedient wife enhanced that of Hayakawa’s as a patriarchal husband in the U.S., which functioned as a safety valve to reduce the threatening image of an alien of a different race that is stereotypically and sensationally depicted in a film like The Cheat. With the help of Aoki’s domesticated image, Hayakawa was able to play roles with an attraction of taboo interracial sex on the screen while he embodied an image of a model minority who had assimilated into the American way of life.

31 Aoki was aware of the socio-political conditions under which Hayakawa’s star image was formulated. The top stars of the period, including Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Wallace Reid, were publicized as the embodiment of the ideal American way of life. Such popular star images corresponded to the Americanization Movement of the era when the so-called WASP people were attempting to reconstruct the U.S. society with their value standards when they witnessed rapid modernization and drastic increase of immigrants from abroad. Aoki’s devoted housewife image complimented Hayakawa’s ideally masculine image. A publicity photo attached to an article in Picture-Play Magazine emphasized the domesticated role that Aoki played, a reminder of Madama Butterfly-style gender relations even between the Japanese husband and wife (Reed 1917: 64). In the photo, Hayakawa in a Western suit is lighting a cigarette and being served tea by Aoki in a kimono. The photo emphasizes how Americanized the Hayakawas’ middle-class (or upper middle-class) lifestyle is, but simultaneously displays a Japanese woman faithfully serving for her American(ized) husband. Japanese film magazines took the same strategy. Even if they described how Westernized Aoki’s Hollywood lifestyle was, they eventually emphasized how devoted she was to her husband as ideal Japanese wives are. There were several reports from those who visited the Hayakawas in Hollywood. These people expressed pleasant surprise in their reports: the Hayakawas’ house appeared very Western from the outside, but once inside, they were entertained in a Japanese-style room with Japanese food prepared by Aoki. In spite of her Americanized appearance, Aoki was praised as a good housewife, who was faithfully supporting her husband. Shigeno Yukiyoshi, an editor of Katsudo Kurabu, claimed, “Hayakawa’s fame is not accidental but owes a lot to his wife Tsuruko…. She is a faithful wife who devotes herself to improving her husband’s position” (Shigeno 1920: 28).

32 As such, both in Hollywood Zen and in reality, after the success of Hayakawa in The Cheat, Aoki played the role of an ideal Americanized Japanese housewife until the end of her life. Oshima dramatized the transformation of Aoki from an early Hollywood star to a housewife as a woman’s act of independence. Aoki first became a star by being forced into the image of Madame Butterfly. Being dissatisfied with such a stereotypical image, she took an initiative and attempted to formulate a stardom of her husband and to obtain a power in the film business. It is ironical that she had to accept the image of an obedient wife again. Still, this time it was her own choice to embody Madame Butterfly. It was an act of nativised Orientalism, a self-conscious performance of the Other.

33 Hollywood Zen makes such a choice that Aoki made in reality more visible than scattered historical documents in fan magazines, etc. The screenplay of the film opens with a scene of a filmmaking starring Aoki. It ends with the following closing subtitle solely on Aoki: “Hayakawa Tsuru did not have any real son or daughter. But she had a family. She took care of all the children whom Hayakawa made with other women until she died” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 281). This is a fact. Oshima once asked to himself in his writing on In the Realm of the Senses: “Is it too much to say this? The strength and the passion of Abe Sada cannot be seen in contemporary Japanese women…. Why was she so strong?” (Oshima 1979: 66-67). In the screenplay of Hollywood Zen, by altering and emphasizing certain historical facts, Oshima fully examines why Tsuru Aoki, the first female Japanese film actor, was “so strong” and was able to change the course of her life.

3. Sessue Hayakawa’s Anxiety

34 Contrary to Tsuru Aoki’s transformation, Sessue Hayakawa, the supposed leading character of Hollywood Zen, does not apparently show any character development throughout the story. Both in the screenplay of Hollywood Zen and in actual historical records, Hayakawa perfectly maintained his masculine statue even when his star image was contested. He was so obsessed with maintaining his power that national and cultural identity, which would lead to a sense of community, was only a method for him to achieve that goal. In Hollywood Zen, for instance, facing the Japanese audience who calls the popular but stereotypical stage production The Typhoon an “insult to Japanese culture,” Hayakawa boasts, “There is a difference between to be critical to the Japanese people and to be anti-Japanese” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 201-2). When he has guests from Japan, Hayakawa requests them to speak in English because he is “an American star” and declares that he has “no intention to go back to Japan” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 227).

35In reality, as I have introduced earlier, Hayakawa’s body that could have appealed to the spectator’s sensorium in The Cheat was so sensationally received that the creation of Hayakawa’s star persona inevitably started there. Apparently, he was provided with the image of the clean-living group of all-Americans that the most popular stars of the time embodied. Hayakawa’s star image was meant to represent a successful assimilation narrative of Asian immigrants (Miyao 2007: 87-105). Yet, Hayakawa’s body captured in the close-ups goes beyond the narrative requirement of the protagonist’s racial identification and the pedagogical function to the viewers about the racial order. Following the release of The Cheat at the Omnia Pathé Cinema in Paris in the summer of 1916, in Le Film, on August 6, 1917, Drama critic Louis Delluc wrote:

Of Hayakawa, one can say nothing: he is a phenomenon. Explanations here are out of place. . . Once more I am not speaking of talent. I consider a certain kind of actor, especially him, as a natural force and his face as a poetic work whose reason for being does not concern me when my avidity for beauty finds there expected chord or reflection. . . . It is not his cat-like, implacable cruelty, his mysterious brutality, his hatred of anyone who resists, or his contempt for anyone who submits; that is not what impresses us, and yet that is all we can talk about. . . . And especially his strangely drawn smile of childlike ferocity, not really the ferocity of a puma or jaguar, for then it would no longer be ferocity (Delluc 1988: 138-39).

36No matter how deeply Delluc’s praise resided on racism, such French intellectuals Delluc were “dumfounded” by Hayakawa’s body on the screen (Hammond and Ford 1983: 330). Throughout the latter half of the 1910s, the film studios that produced Hayakawa’s films kept trying to confine his body and acting within the discourse of model minority in America. Yet, Hayakawa’s cinematic body also deviated from such a confinement.

37Hayakawa was a little more sensitive about the reaction to his physical characteristics in Hollywood films from the Japanese audience, but still he did not fully commit to community building. When the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, criticized The Cheat by insisting that the film “distorted the truth of Japanese people” and would “cause anti-Japanese movements” (“Hainichi” 1915: 3), Hayakawa quickly published a note of apology in the same newspaper on December 29, 1915: “Sincere Notice: It is regrettable that the film The Cheat, which was exhibited at the Tally Theater on Broadway in Los Angeles, unintentionally offended the feelings of the Japanese people in the United States. From now on, I will be very careful not to do harm to Japanese communities” (3). When Hayakawa established his own film production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, in March 1918, he declared that he would introduce authentic Japanese characters in realistic surroundings in his films. The December 11, 1920 issue of Kinema Junpo, an influential Japanese film journal, stated that His Birthright (William Worthington, 1918), the first Haworth film, would be “a perfect film for Mr. Sessue to recover his honor and the trust from our countrymen that he lost” (7).

38 However, when some American film trade journals started to question Hayakawa’s stardom in terms of his nationality, Hayakawa quickly went back to the motifs and characterizations that popularized him in a film like The Cheat: a successfully Americanized man with sex appeals. On Bonds of Honor (William Worthington, 1919), his third feature film at Haworth, the January 26, 1919 issue of Wid’s Daily commented, “Sessue Hayakawa is a difficult star to fit with screen material. So many things are of necessity eliminated, for social or political reasons, that he is fortunate when a story of good quality and free from anything likely to give offense comes his way” (23).

39In spite of such a strategic choice, Hayakawa’s popularity started to decline in the early 1920s mainly because of a change in the socio-political discourse. As Japan’s imperialist policy became more visible to the American people after World War I, the anti-Japanese movement became really harsh in California. As a result, according to a popular poll of film stars conducted by the Motion Picture Story Magazine, Hayakawa was ranked number 44 in December 1918, but in December 1920 his rank had dropped to number 124 (“The Motion Picture Hall of Fame” 1918: 12; “Popular Contest Closes” 1920: 94). Eventually, he was fired by Robertson-Cole, the distribution company of his films made at Haworth. There is no official record of a misfire accident of a pistol during the production of The Vermilion Pencil (Norman Dawn, 1922) that Hollywood Zen refers to. Yet, Hayakawa asserts in his autobiography that a stonewall was rigged to fall on him during an earthquake sequence. According to Hayakawa, Robertson-Cole added more life insurance on him before shooting The Vermilion Pencil (Hayakawa 1960: 154-55). It is a fact that Hayakawa sued Robertson-Cole, charging breach of contract in May 1922 (“Japanese Star Sues” 1922: 1110).

40When it became difficult to maintain the status of an American star, Hayakawa quickly turned his eyes to Japan – again only as a measure to keep his power. In the first half of Hollywood Zen, Hayakawa stubbornly rejects to be identified as Japanese. But in the second half, he insists that he was Japanese. His declaration of separation from Hollywood in the screenplay emphasizes his nationalistic position: “Japanese people are treated like harmful insects in everywhere…. I cannot let Hollywood take my soul as well as my life” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 251). Also in real life, when he was asked why he left Hollywood in 1929 interview in Motion Picture Magazine, Hayakawa nationalistically said,

[H]e [and chief executive of Robertson-Cole] called me by a name. It is something [that] should not come out of the mouth. Something that is unpardonable insults to me and an affront to my nationality. No man can help where he is born – what is his blood. Only an ignorant coward throws up to a man that he does not like his race. I come of a proud people – a man of my quality could not endure such insult (Reeve 1929: 90).

41The chances were in his favor when he turned nationalistic towards Japan. Japanese media was regarding Hayakawa as a national pride when he successfully established his own company in Hollywood in 1918 while they initially called him a national insult in 1915. In particular, Hayakawa’s body was idolized as the ideal masculinity of Japanese men in the period of modernization. Hayakawa was reportedly bigger than average in Japan and much closer to American actors in stature (Mori 1922: 72). In early twentieth-century Japan, “Caucasian complex” was observable in the discourse of physical appearances. Japanese bodies were considered to be “shameful,” compared with well-built and well-balanced Western bodies (Deguchi 1991: 104). Hayakawa’s body gave a hope that the masculinity of Meiji men could even overcome the presumption of naturally determined Western racial and social hegemony. Influential film critic of the time, Kaeriyama Norimasa insisted that the “beauty of the body” paralleled the progression of civilization, and that Hayakawa was favorably received in the U.S. because he embodied the universal standard of “male beauty,” beyond the Japanese as an inferior race (Kaeriyama 1922: 40-43).

42 When Japan started expanding imperialistically toward Asia during and after World War I, Japanese intellectuals began to praise the Japanese people as “a blessed race.” They imagined “Japan” as “an alternative time and place outside of the ‘logic of civilization’ and the progressive history of modernity” (Iida 2002: 4). By the time the war in Pacific started, such an argument spread widely as a “myth” with the slogan “overcoming modernity” and became the basis of Japan’s own imperialism toward other Asian countries (Hashikawa 2000: 187, 200). At the same time, especially after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, with the influential trend of Americanization in the field of urban consumer culture that flourished in Tokyo, display of Japaneseness tended to be suppressed in popular media. Thus, the praise of Hayakawa’s body represents such an ambivalent cultural tendency that simultaneously subscribed to Americanism and enhanced Japanese nationalism.

43 Oshima claimed that he did not give any character development to Hayakawa throughout Hollywood Zen because he thought, “[S]uch a transformation seemed impossible” for a patriarchal Japanese man born in Meiji and lived into Showa (Oshima 2009: 183). At the final moment, however, Hayakawa, who is too stubborn to give up his patriarchal self, shows his fear and anxiety for the first time. This is the only time when Hayakawa clearly shows his true emotion in the screenplay of Hollywood Zen. Why did Oshima give such an emotional moment to Hayakawa’s character in the very end?

44 In Hollywood Zen, right after Hayakawa became a big star after the release of The Cheat, a strong rival comes into his professional and private life: Rudolph Valentino. Valentino attracts all the women around Hayakawa, including Aoki, and is given the leading role of The Sheik (George Melford, 1921), which is originally considered as a Hayakawa vehicle. Hayakawa naturally becomes jealous. At the same time Hayakawa tries to take Valentino under his wing. In real life, there is no official record that Hayakawa was initially regarded as the lead in The Sheik. No record shows that Hayakawa and Valentino knew each other personally. Only Hayakawa himself wrote in his autobiography, “Valentino was among those who had applied for work when Haworth began production. I met him then, and liked him; but I did not hire him. The atmosphere of his personality was too similar to mine. And although his acting ability was less than skin deep, I sensed something of a rival in him. He once paid me the compliment of saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to have something of the art you achieve in your performance in mine, so I could reproduce the sort of action and behavior the public associates with you’” (Hayakawa 1960: 144). As such, Hayakawa was ambivalent about Valentino’s stardom. But Valentino suddenly dies of illness.

Sessue and Dick Walsh [a journalist] approach towards the coffin, in which the body of Rudy [Rudolph Valentino] is laid. The window of the coffin is open. Crying women pass by them. The place is filled with flowers. Sessue reaches the coffin. He joins his hands to pray in a Japanese style and closes his eyes.
Rudy, rest in peace. I have been jealous for a long time.
But that has come to an end…. Death is a part of life.
Sessue bows and looks at Rudy’s face again. Close-up of Rudy’s face starts to blur and…
Radio plays a song by [Enrico] Caruso. Tsuru looks at herself in a mirror. All of a sudden, she hears a male voice over Caruso’s song. Tsuru is stunned. It is Rudy’s voice.
(In Italian) Death does not exist.
Sessue is walking against the crowd who are going to Rudy’s funeral. In the
street noise, he hears Rudy’s voice in Italian. He is stunned. He listens carefully
and notices that it is Rudy’s voice.
Rudy? What are you saying? (Emotionally) What did you say?
Sessue is dismayed. His face becomes hardened in fear and anxiety.
The following lines appear on the screen.
“After Rudolph Valentino died, Hayakawa Sessue lived another forty-seven years. “Hayakawa Tsuru did not have any real son or daughter. But
she had a family. She took care of all the children whom Hayakawa made
with other women until she died.” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 280-81).

45Considering Oshima’s constant questioning of Japan’s ultranationalistic turn as the result of modernization after the Meiji Restoration, Hayakawa’s out-of-place-ness in the traditional Japanese outfit on the streets of New York indicates Oshima’s criticism of the modern history of Japan that Hayakawa embodied. The appearance of Hayakawa indicates Hayakawa’s obsession with his status: he is dressed up in a crested coat, the formal costume of feudal patriarchy in Japan.

46 Moreover, in Hollywood Zen, Hayakawa is clearly depicted as homophobic. He talks about Valentino in an insulting manner, “What charm does he have who prefers men?” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 240). If we follow Sedgwick’s argument on homosociality that I introduced in the beginning of this essay, Hayakawa’s abomination is an indication of his desire to form homosocial bonds with Valentino. While excluding Aoki and Natacha Rambova, Valentino’s wife, from their circle, Hayakawa continuously gives Valentino important advices, such as “Eyes matter most on the screen” (Oshima and Mayersberg 2009: 232). The formal outfit in the final sequence indicates Hayakawa’s feelings toward Valentino.

47 In the end, however, Hayakawa cannot understand what Valentino says. Oshima regarded Hayakawa as an embodiment of the masculine, feudal, and patriarchal identity of the Meiji era. For Oshima, such an identity never had subjectivity that would think and act. Even if he had homosexual desire, he was always a passive object under the binding homosocial structure. On the contrary, Aoki understands Valentino’s words. To Oshima, Valentino and Aoki are the ones who have been excluded from the authority of Japan and the United States but are able to create a dialogic relationship between them. In other words, while Hayakawa was caught up in a nationalist politics of race and sexuality, Aoki and Valentino were able to form a transnational community of the marginalized – Valentino reached superstardom in reality but for a very short period of time as an exotic other – that went beyond the forged homosocial bond.

48 Curiously, one of the children whom Aoki took care of was half-Japanese and half-American. Yukio Hayakawa was a son of Hayakawa and Ruth Noble, an American stage actress, whom Hayakawa flirted with for a while. With full of gratitude to his “mother,” Yukio wrote later, “It is no comparison. My mother had a much better acting skill than my father” (Nogami 1986: 62). Aoki thus gave a perfect performance of nativised Orientalism by consciously embodying the Madame Butterfly-style obedient wife both in reality and in Hollywood Zen. As a result, Aoki was able to find a place where she belonged. In contrast, in reality, Hayakawa was not able to find any home base. He could not stay in Hollywood when the anti-Japanese sentiment heightened in the 1920s; he was not able to stay in Japan, either, during the period of ultra-nationalism in the 1930s-45 because his public image was too Americanized even when his sexism might have been a reminiscent of feudal patriarchy of Meiji Japan, as Oshima depicted; he stayed in France during World War II. What could Oshima say about the life of Hayakawa after 1926? At the finale of Hollywood Zen, all Hayakawa can do is to be left outside of such a community, which has nothing to do with homosocial bonds, in fear and anxiety. He is apparently walking into a void. What a severe criticism from Oshima of the Japanese men who embodied the feudal patriarchy after the Meiji Restoration! Oshima did not give a clear direction to which the Japanese people could take after experiencing its fully problematic modern history. But he kept asking, as at the ending of his 1963 TV documentary film, The Forgotten Imperial Army (Wasurerareta kogun): “People of Japan, is this right? IS THIS RIGHT?”

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Daisuke Miyao, « Hollywood Zen: A Historical Analysis of Oshima Nagisa’s Unfinished Film »Mise au point [En ligne], 9 | 2017, mis en ligne le 02 mai 2017, consulté le 28 février 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Daisuke Miyao

Daisuke Miyao is Professor and the Hajime Mori Chair in Japanese Language and Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Miyao is the author of The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema (Duke University Press, 2013), Eiga wa neko dearu: Hajimete no cinema sutadizu [Cinema Is a Cat: Introduction to Cinema Studies] (Heibonsha, 2011), and Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Duke University Press, 2007). He is also the editor of Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2014) and the co-editor of Transnational Cinematography Studies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Miyao is currently writing a book, tentatively titled Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema.

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