“East Meets West”–An Interview With Sessue And Tsuru Hayakawa

As a follow up piece to my post about Hayakawa’s life and career, here’s a great interview with him and Tsuru from The Picturegoer, a U.K. fan magazine that was in print from 1911 until 1960. The writer, Viola McConnell, evidently travelled to Hollywood to get some in-person entertainment coverage and was invited to the Hayakawas’ mansion. She was clearly charmed by both of them and admired their beautiful, cultured home.

Sessue and Tsuru in an ad for Black Roses (1921).

We hear a lot about Sessue, but can definitely stand to have more of his interviews floating around. I thought this one fit the bill nicely, capturing both Sessue’s dignity and Tsuru’s liveliness. A couple things I found interesting: Sessue talking about his desire to bring more Shakespeare plays to Japan, where they apparently weren’t well known; and the couple’s mention of their dream to make an epic film telling the story of Japan. An epic silent film version of that country’s entire history–a pity that project was never realized.

I kept the British spellings and other old-timey details. Note the use of “Nippon”, the old, formal way of pronouncing Japan. In 1921, only a year earlier, the U.S. had started requiring that Japanese imports be marked “Japan” instead of “Nippon”, and the English-speaking world gradually stopped using it. Anyways, enjoy!

A Photoplay pic of the couple with their pup Dynomite.

The Picturegoer
Vol. 3, No. 14, February, 1922.


“Nishiki Ware.”

“No, Satsuma. That’s a Satsuma vase.”

“Not that one. The taller one on the black stand is Satsuma.”

Thus we argued fiercely, a little bunch of guests in the corner our hostess devotes to Japanese curios. The vase in question was, as a matter of fact, Noritake ware. I hastened to tell them so, and was politely but persistently howled down.

“Never heard of him.” “Not a bit of it,” came from all sides, and the discussion proceeded merrily until someone was inspired to remark, “Ask Sessue Hayakawa about it. He’s the one sure sage on all things Japanese.” So they sent a deputation for the guest of the evening, and, escorting the famous Japanese screen-star in triumph to the object of the controversy, awaited his verdict. A most distinguished figure was Sessue in his immaculate evening attire, which seemed to accentuate the blackness of his smoothly parted hair and the pallor of his complexion. He listened, in that grave, unsmiling fashion he has, until we had all stated our convictions, then replacing the bone of contention, he said:

“It is Noritake ware. Pretty, but modern, and quite valueless. Now, this,” picking up a small piece of cloisonné, “is of more interest. For it took any time from fifty to one hundred days to make it. ‘Shippo,‘ we call it in Japan.” And he told us of the cloisonné makers, with their tiny charcoal forges, and of the six or more pairs of hands through which each piece must pass before it is complete. Then he showed us also how the great fighting swords were worn and used. The “Samurai” (knights) were privileged to wear two of these. “My great-grandfather always wore them. But nowadays,” he concluded with a sigh, “they are no longer seen in the streets, and most of the Samurai have become business men.”

“Let us hope they still keep their high ideals,” I told him.

“Some do, some not.” And with a somewhat reticent smile, he left us. Later on in the evening, Sessue and I held further converse on the subject of Samurai, which culminated in an invitation to Castle Glengarry, his beautiful Hollywood home. “Let me make it an interview,” I suggested.

“I do not mind. Only you must promise not to quote Kipling in referring to me afterwards.”

“I’ll promise. But I can’t answer for my Editor.” And we left it at that.

However, when Sessue Hayakawa sent his car for me one afternoon a few days later, I knew he had decided to risk it. Castle Glengarry lies in the Hollywood foothills, not very far from Los. It looks like a feudal chateau from the outside, and was modelled, I believe, from an ancient French ancestral castle. The Hayakawas bought it from a very wealthy Society woman, and re-arranged it to suit their own tastes.

Inside, the great hall is panelled and hung with ancient Japanese weapons of all kinds, relieved by beautiful paintings. There is velvet carpet on the floor, a divan against one wall, and a huge table in the centre. Through the library, with its lovely French tapestried walls, past the large portrait of Hayawaka that stands over the dining-room door, and into the spacious grounds, I had to go. Out there, in a perfect reproduction of a Japanese tea-house, I found my host and hostess awaiting me. They wore, to match their setting, the picturesque garb of their own country in which–although both can and do usually wear conventional American dress–to my mind, both look their very best. Tsuru Aoki was attired in a kimono of heavy grey satin, embroidered with wisteria sprays in their natural colours, and a many-coloured obi (sash) tied in a great bow. Looking like the spirit of Japan, she chattered to me, in her perfect English, about the latest thing in New York novels and plays. Apart from appearance, she is extremely American, and extremely vivacious.

Sessue, in his plain black kimono, impressed me, much as he always does on the screen, as being a typical Samurai himself. Certainly, with that grave courtesy of his, the low voice, with its pronounced accent, and that charming, if infrequent smile, he represents all that is best in Japan. He is very quiet, and always rather reserved, though he can both take a make a joke. We had tea, served a la Japan, in tiny bowls by a dot of a Japanese maiden. They tucked themselves away neatly upon cushions, but one has to be born to it to do things like that, and observing my uncertain movements towards my cushion, Tsuru’s little maid brought me a three-legged stool.

“Neither of us are working, at the moment,” Tsuru told me. “Sessue (Sess-shoe is her pronunciation of her husband’s name) has just finished The Vermillion Pencil, and we hope to both appear in the next one. Our last was The Street of the Dragon, a Chinese story, for which we sent to China for that wonderful bridal outfit I wore. Sessue plays many Chinese characters these days.”

She gave him a very arch look, as though there were some secret joke between them upon this score, but Sessue preserved his attitude of attentive calm.

“Tell me,” I queried, when we had concluded the tea-drinking ceremonies, “how long you have been making screen plays.”

“Ever since the end of 1913.” This from Tsuru Aoki.

“But before that I was on the stage. I was adopted by my uncle, Kawakimi, and my Aunt Sadda Yacco (I shan’t attempt to reproduce the sound of these names. You have to hear it to believe it!), and they trained me for the stage. When I was seven, these two brought me from Tokio to America, where they toured the United States in repertory. Theirs was the first all-Japanese company to attempt such a thing. At San Francisco, the authorities decided that I was too young to appear, so I was sent to boarding-school, where I remained after my relatives had gone their way. I was then formally adopted by the artist, T. Aoki, whose name I still use.”

Tsuru, it appears, had a thoroughly Occidental education, and graduated from high-school in approved American fashion. After that she studied dancing and singing, and went into Society a good deal. Fred Mace, the well-known comedian, met her several times at various affairs, and persuaded the shy little lady to play opposite him in a Japanese comedy. Tsuru found the experience bewildering; but the studio lost its heart to her, and decided to keep her. Accordingly, an emotional drama was specially written for her by William Nigh. It was a two-reeler, The Oath of Tsuru San.

“After that I went to Ince as a star; and whilst I was working there I met a fellow-countryman, new to America. Like myself, he had been on the stage, with Kawakimi and Mme. Yacco, in Tokio. Like me, too, he had been educated here in America. We met at a social function, and I was very much interested in his brave attempts to play Ibsen and Shakespeare in Japanese, at the Japanese Theatre in Los Angeles, and promised to help in any way I could. I told him about my cherished plan to return to Japan some day, and go on reforming the theatre, like my uncle and aunt had been doing, and I found that our ideals were identical. Afterwards, when the precarious Japanese Theatre was no more, I introduced him to Mr. Ince, and his name, Sessue Hayakawa, appeared in the cast of the film I was then starring in, The Wrath of the Gods.

Here the silent Samurai opposite us broke into one of his rare smiles.

“Tsuru and I,” he said (he calls her “Shoo-ru”), “were lone workers in country that, not strange to us, was yet not home. We were much together; both worshipped at the same shrine–that of our art. We used to study much, both at the studio and after working hours. And so, little later (Sessue doesn’t worry about little things like “a’s” and “the’s” when he’s really comfortably conversational), we were married, and went to live in little Hollywood bungalow.

“As for me, I was originally in the Japanese Navy, although I always wished to act. One of my uncles was a well-known stage-manager and actor, and eventually I persuaded my parents to let me follow my desire. I entered my uncle’s company of players, and from there went with Mme. Yacco on one of her foreign tours. In America, with her company, I realised that my countrymen knew little of nothing of the great foreign plays and playwrights like Shakespeare. I wished, to introduce these–classics is your name for it, is it not?–to Japan.

“I studied at the Chicago University, learning many things besides English. Sports of all kinds–tennis, I love it well; base-ball too. Then I begin to translate many plays into Japanese; and played many Shakespearian roles at home in Tokio. ‘Othello,’ my favourite, was also my best success.”

With a company of twenty he next returned to America, and toured the Western coast for two and a-half years. Already he spoke fluently Russian, French, Spanish, English, and Italian. Afterwards, in the studios, he acquired yet another language–that of the screen.

Typhoon, the film version of the well-known play, was the production that fully established him as a star. Then he and his wife joined Famous-Lasky, where they made many films, either singly or co-starring. Alien Souls is one of their favourites. The story partly resembles their own romance. The Cheat, in which Fannie Ward was starred, but Sessue was most prominent, is not a favourite with him. I believe I know the reason, too. Sessue, though he camouflages it so cleverly, is always the propagandist for his beloved Japan. Seldom–never, I might say–will you catch him portraying a Japanese who is not everything as Japanese ought to be. And his character in The Cheat was–well, not exactly heroic!

Sessue likes films like Hidden Pearls, in which he was an Hawaian, and The Bottle Imp, with its fantastic story and fairy-like settings. He also likes to, as he terms it, “act wild” in pictures occasionally. He and his wife appeared together in Alien Souls, The Call of the East, The Bravest Ways, The Honourable Friend, The Curse of Iku, Each To His Kind, and His Debt. Then Sessue formed his own company, and Tsuru retired for a time, for they had just bought Castle Glengarry, and there was much to occupy her there. Sessue starred alone in a great many films–The Courageous Coward, Hashimura Togo, Call of the East, The Man Beneath, The Jaguar’s Claw (in which, with a fine black moustache, Hayakawa out-Olanded Warner Oland in both appearance and ferocity), The Honour of His House, The Temple of Dusk (his first feature), The Grey Horizon, The City of Dim Faces, The Firstborn, and The Swamp. In The Dragon Painter and Black Roses, two fairly recent productions, Tsuru Aoki also appears.

Image credit: LA Daily Mirror

The two have many interests besides their work. Sessue draws and paints splendidly, both in Japanese and European fashion: his collection of rare and beautiful objets d’art of all kinds threatens to turn Castle Glengarry into a museum. He also writes much, and has evolved many scenarios; and (I hate to have to blazon forth his one iniquity) he has written poems–in Japanese; and he says he may one day surprise us with some in English. He plays, too, and his wife sings charmingly; anything, from a weird songlet of Nippon about plum blossoms, to “Good-bye,” or operatic arias, and a rattling rag-time chorus-song. Just now they’re interested in a club formed for social activities between Americans and Japanese residing in Los. Hayakawa was much amused at an English newspaper cutting of mine, concerning a man who had perfected a typewriter which typed Japanese characters. He and his wife are very hospitable (a national trait), and they entertain lavishly and often.

They still study much together: for Tsuru signed a contract in 1920 with a Japanese theatrical syndicate to adapt and translate thirty plays between then and 1922. Her recent visit to Japan was mainly to supervise the production of some of these.

We spent quite a while in the music room, a harmony in pink and grey, in one corner of which stands an almost priceless cloisonné vase, the gem of their collection. It is a huge affair, nearly as tall as Sessue, and he’s 5 ft. 7 in., and once belonged to an Emperor of Japan. Sessue is a veritable store-house to Japanese lore and legend. I imbibed a surprising amount of knowledge from him concerning the nine hundred thousand gods and goddesses of Old Japan. And was presented with a small image of Ebizu the Fisherman, one of the seven gods of luck, and his own particular patron-deity (Hayakawa means a successful fisherman), as a souvenir of my visit. His expressive face is stirred by strong emotion when he speaks of Japan.

“Some day,” he declared, as we stood on the great steps exchanging good-byes, “when I have saved one million dollars, we shall return to Tokio, Tsuru, myself, and my whole studio. There we shall make a picture. One only. But this one will realise my wish to show to all other nations, on the screen, the history of Japan. From the very beginning, it shall commence with the Korean invasion, six hundred years B.C. Then it shall show all the wars and religious quarrels, the Russo-Japanese wat, and the coming of Christianity, right up to present-day Japan, which is as modern, in the big cities, as we are in Hollywood.”

The couple acting together in The Dragon Painter (1919).

“We never tire of discussing it, and many plans are already in hand for the production.” This from Tsuru. “The title we have already chosen. It is to be called The Open Door.” Which reminded me that standing chatting in the draught of an open door is not the best thing in the world for a man who has just recovered from a serious operation for appendicitis.

Sayonara,” I ventured. (It means “farewell,” and is the only Japanese word pronounced as written.)

“Say Au revoir,” Sessue replied politely.

“Samurai, those gallant, two-sword gentlemen of Japan, are no longer seen nowadays,” Sessue Hayakawa once said. I think he’s wrong. I think one, at least, is to be both seen and heard in and around Castle Glengarry, Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A. —Viola McConnell

6 thoughts on ““East Meets West”–An Interview With Sessue And Tsuru Hayakawa

  1. Dai suki! This is wonderful, and makes me want to see ALL their films. Arigatou gozaimasu, Lea S., for finding and reprinting this article.

  2. Thanks for posting this! These two were such fascinating figures. I wish there was a proper biography of them. There is one interesting book on Hayakawa, but it’s more an academic analysis of “transnational stardom” than a biography.

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