The typical leading man of silent films was a strong, dependable, clean-cut type, with names like Harold Lockwood or Earle Williams. By the 1920s Rudolph Valentino’s popularity had initiated a craze for “exotic” Latin lovers. But modern moviegoers might be surprised to learn there was another matinee idol even earlier than Valentino who seemed “exotic” to white audiences: the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a major star of the 1910s.
Hayakawa’s early life was tinged by drama. He was born Kintaro Hayakawa on June 10, 1886 in the city of Minamiboso in Chiba, Japan. He had a wealthy family, his father being the provincial governor and his mother having aristocratic roots. At age eighteen Hayakawa attempted to join the Japanese naval academy in Etajima, planning on becoming an officer to fulfill his parents’ wishes. When he was rejected due to hearing problems (he had ruptured an eardrum while diving), he attempted to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by repeatedly stabbing himself in the abdomen. Fortunately, his father discovered him in time and he managed to make a recovery.Continue reading