Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa was one of the biggest talents of his era. In a time of intense anti-Asian sentiment (and, indeed, legally enshrined discrimination against Japanese people in America), he became one of Hollywood’s biggest names and richest stars. America has never since had an Asian-American star of Hayakawa’s magnitude – he was extremely popular with audiences, critically respected, and lived the star lifestyle, complete with gold-plated luxury car. But most importantly, as an actor, Hayakawa was the real deal. He had the kind of onscreen charisma that can’t be taught. Of course, it didn’t hurt that was one of the best-looking leading men of his era – and certainly, he could smoulder with the best of them – but Hayakawa was a very skilful actor who brought an underplayed intensity to his roles.
Hayakawa’s star-making role in The Cheat (US 1915) traded in negative stereotypes about East Asian people even as it was elevated by the power and elegance of his performance. His career boomed, but after several years of stereotypical roles, in 1918 Hayakawa formed his own production company, Haworth Pictures, giving him creative control over his output. The name of his company most likely derives from Hayakawa and Worthington, William Worthington being Hayakawa’s director and right-hand man at Haworth. It has the benefit of connoting value, but the choice of an Anglo name over simply ‘Hayakawa Pictures’ indicates that Hayakawa was keenly aware of his public image. Now in control of his stardom, Hayakawa had the difficult task of balancing his existing star image, created to appeal to Americans, with his desire to portray more realistic representations of the Japanese. One of his stated aims was to combat the negative ideas about Asian people that were prevalent at the time; he sought ways to engage with his Japanese-American identity that challenged – or at least sidestepped – the popular stereotypes of the time. Hayakawa had his work cut out for him; besides the stereotyped characters in his own body of work, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find film examples of East Asian people as sinister opium smokers, gang members, poor English speakers, etc – essentially, the dangerous foreign Other who lived at the boundaries of American society and thereby undermined it. An honourable character who would tragically sacrifice himself to save a (white) woman was perhaps the best-case scenario, even if told in patronizing fashion with a lead character in Yellowface (cough).
His Birthright, the first of the Haworth pictures, tells the story of Yukio, the son of a Japanese mother, Saki San (played in flashback by Hayakawa’s real-life wife Tsuru Aoki) and an American father, the Admiral John Milton (Howard Davies). Essentially, as Hayakawa himself acknowledged, the film takes the Madame Butterfly story as its starting point: Yukio is raised by a guardian who tells him that Milton was responsible for Saki San’s suicide, and he sets out for America to avenge his mother. What follows is part fish-out-of-water comedy, part spy drama, and ultimately, a coming of age story with a strong pro-American theme.
I’ll outline the plot in brief. After encountering cardsharp Jim Barnes on the ship, Yukio crashes his gambling operation; Barnes fixes Yukio up with a job, which appears to be a butler-type role, working for society woman/philanthropist Mrs. Smith.
It’s via telephone that Yukio first meets Elsa Burgmann, “an adventuress and spy who has managed to infiltrate the upper circles of society”. Meet Elsa (Marin Sais):
After a phone message mishap, Elsa helps smooth things over, and then after they all have a good laugh, she offers to help Yukio with his English. She gives him her carte de visite, leaves, and we get the classic ‘not-actually-private celebration’ moment from Yukio …
Of course, Barnes didn’t get Yukio a job out of altruism; he’s plotting to get his hands on some secret documents in the possession of Admiral Milton, who is soon to be visiting the city. Yukio ends up stealing the documents for Elsa …who, in the kind of ‘shocking twist’ that one sees a mile away, was Barnes’ plant all along! Although the duplicitous Elsa does seem genuinely drawn to Yukio at times, it is all revealed to have been part of the act as she cruelly tells him that he was but a pawn in her dastardly plan. The film plays up the chemistry between Yukio and Elsa – while an interracial kiss would of course not have been permissible, its possibility is teased in a scene where Elsa vamps Yukio, tension heightening as she leans close to him.
A struggle with Elsa’s gang of spies ensues, during which Yukio retrieves the papers, but is injured; Milton arrives with the police, and reveals that he always loved Saki San and, keeping her memory, never remarried; and that he will be responsible for Yukio … his son.
The film could have stopped there, but instead there is an ending scene that is incredible in its lack of subtlety and its rah-rah American patriotism. Yukio is at a desk, working on his studies … a tune comes upon the air, wafting in from the window, and Yukio begins to move in rhythm, flicking his pen as if conducting, his face lighting up. It’s an inspirational tune, a proud melody, an unmistakable piece of music … a Navy band, playing the siren song of Uncle Sam:
And thus the film concludes on this patriotic note, with Yukio declaring:
Despite this eyeroll-inducing ending, Yukio’s characterisation in His Birthright is often given a light-hearted approach. Here, we have a sympathetic hero who charms the other characters with his endearingly broken English (“Yes, that would most extraordinarily excellent!”) and is surprised by American society in ways designed to amuse the audience without demeaning the character. Take this moment when Yukio (Hayakawa) is shocked to see the women dancing at the ball with bare shoulders and arms:
His companion just chuckles (“Heavens! What a problem child!”), and the moment comes across as rather cute. Does this kind of humour does infantilize Yukio to a degree? Probably – although the story relies on a lot of typical fish-out-of-water tropes, these can’t really be separated from the character’s ethnicity, and so there is something of a conflation between Japanese identity and the primitive/childlike going on. As Hayakawa co-wrote the original story for the film, one must assume that this was a deliberate strategy used in order to present a likeable and non-threatening character that audiences would relate to. Overall, of course, it’s impossible not to read His Birthright as an assimilation narrative: Yukio grows up from a boy to a man, and integral to this process is the way in which he becomes Americanized. One can quite understand what Hayakawa was trying to do here by creating a film in which the message is that Japanese-Americans could be (or become) good American citizens. And the fact that the ending is just so cheesy by modern standards actually makes it easier to swallow. It’s deliberate (and canny) for Hayakawa to evoke the US military at the end, even if he is piling it on rather thick.
Hayakawa is most well-known for his dramatic roles, but His Birthright shows that he also excelled in light comedy. He’s thoroughly charming: how can you resist his fistpump-to-fake-nonchalance moment shown above? Or this scene of him grooving as he watches a Black American jazz band?1
One of the film’s big comic moments involves an on-the-job linguistic mishap, when Yukio accidentally turns his notepaper upside-down when writing down a room number. But rather than making a fool of Yukio, the laugh comes more from the situation, and the bug-eyed reaction of Mrs. Smith:
“Mrs. Smith go to Hell” [7734 upside down] 2
We also get a fight scene where he declares, “My body is made of steel … your bullets will not defeat me!”, and knocks out an assailant by literally throwing the book at them.
Speaking of words, the existing print of His Birthright features one of the laziest examples of fake Japanese script that I’ve ever seen. Given Hayakawa’s supervision, presumably the original American intertitles featured actual Japanese writing, but the person who made the Dutch ones clearly didn’t have much of a clue, and the effect is unintentionally amusing:
All in all, His Birthright is a minor film, but both the friend I watched it with and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Hayakawa is always great to watch, there are some fun moments, and while it is a shame that the film survives incomplete, it does mean that the plot moves along at a relatively brisk clip; this may not have been the case in the original, as a review in the Film Daily of 15 September 1918 complained about the tempo (though it praised Hayakawa himself). His Birthright is also revealing in terms of Hayakawa’s public image and relationship to mainstream America. A review in Variety of 20 September 1918 noted that “The scenario would have been in far better taste if it had been built around an ordinary American citizen”, and disapproved of the United States Navy being placed in “an unenviable light” due to Admiral Milton’s love affair with Saki San, and the theft of the documents. But even that reviewer notes that Hayakawa is “a born picture actor”, who supplies the comedy as well as displays “a striking power in the dramatic climaxes”. I can’t disagree; Hayakawa does a lot with the rather boilerplate material, and always commands your attention when he is on-screen.
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1. Actually, I found this a telling detail. Yukio is shown enjoying this music earlier in the film, but by the end, it’s the Navy band that is the source of his aural pleasure. As a story detail supporting his character’s assimilation into true-blue Americanism, it’s almost too pat!
2. When I first watched this film, this scene seemed strangely familiar to me, and it took me a while to realize why – I once saw a screening of one of the other EYE Hayakawa titles (I forget the name, but it’s the one where he wears a turban), and in the introduction to that film, this scene was described. It’s fortunate that the joke translated readily into Dutch!
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His Birthright. Dir. William Worthington. USA: Haworth Pictures, 1918. Preserved by EYE Filmmuseum and available to watch here on the European Film Gateway. Note: the film survives incomplete, so the action of the missing reels (numbers one and four) is summarized via intertitle. English subs exist but are not available on the linked video.
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Everyone loves cat gifs, right? Here are a couple from this film; vintage 1918.