Ince presents Aoki and Hayakawa in the first American films with Asian stars
From the beginning of his film career, producer Thomas H. Ince (1880-1924) realized the importance of authenticity in filmmaking, as I outline in my biography of the pioneer. After directing in Cuba, then in creating Inceville, he noticed a demand for realism which most of his contemporaries overlooked. In particular, as the star system began to take hold, he chose to reach beyond his own race. As he explained in an article for the May 1915 issue of Motion Picture Magazine: "Public preference runs toward real Chinese, or real Japanese, or real Hindus, to the exclusion of the 'made-up' brand." In 1913, Ince saw a single short movie from a rival producer, The Oath of O Tsuru San, and promptly hired the lead, Miss Tsuru Aoki, and her company of 20 Japanese players, for a series of Japanese-themed films, both shorts and features. Ince set about making stars of the pair, and a public interest in this new team was amplified by a real-life romance that soon resulted in marriage. The Aoki-Hayakawa series continued in production at Inceville throughout 1914, primarily two-reel films and two features, The Wrath of the Gods and The Typhoon.
The first of the shorts, by Richard Spencer, O Mimi San uses standard plot structuresa struggle for the throne, the subplot, set against the tragic love between a commoner and a royalbut the Japanese setting, and the cast, transform the familiar fable into an entirely different context. Constantly amplifying this is not only the Japanese leads and most of the supporting cast, but also elaborately designed settings, from the interior and exterior of the palace, to the Japanese garden idyll so essential to the love story, along with the elegant period costumes tailored for all the players.
In naming his son Yorotomo (Sessue Hayakawa) as Crown Prince, the aged Shogun makes arrangements for a royal marriage, leaving the younger brother, Tokogawa, jealous and contemplating a coup. Not only is there the threat of political conflict, but there is an immediate dissonance in the casting that signals the tragedy to come. While the actors playing both the Shogun and the bride are obviously whites in yellowface, the rest of the cast is entirely Asian. The Crown Prince's designated bride is an obvious mismatch, her appearance clashing with his, as played by Mildred Harris (first of Charlie Chaplin's four wives).
The reason for this casting becomes clear when the Crown Prince is sent in disguise for his safety to a farm, in disguise, lest he became a victim of Togokawa's conspiracy to usurp the throne. There the Crown Prince meets the farmer's daughter, played by Tsuru Aoki, and from the initial exchange of glances, it is clearly an instance of love at first sight. She is flirtatious, and he clearly is entranced by her beauty and their Edenic surroundings, a tropical garden where nature, not politics, governs emotions.
In a sequence of crosscutting between palace and garden, the potential danger to the state from the royal rival is resolved, while a new peril emerges, the love of Yorotomo and the farmer's daughter. Upon receiving news of his father's death, Yorotomo's immediate concern is not with the burdens of statebut with what it will mean for his love. O Mimi San finds the document, dropped amidst the reeds, that summoned Yorotomo to his office, and suddenly she understands all. For both, the death of the Shogun is not a matter for the nation, but one understood in terms of the love each has for the other. O Mimi San is tearful, but he will not let her fall to her knees, as they try to help one another accept the inevitable; "you will ever be in my thoughts, he tells her," he tells her.
He is as true to his word as possible. A year later, the royal wedding takes place, to the bride selected by his father, and who by Caucasian casing is evidently not compatible in the way O Mimi San was; this is a marriage of state, not a love between two hearts. After the ceremony, Yorotomo seeks isolation, saying "Tell your mistress I will be there presently." The new husband must first recall and resolve the memories. He looks out a window and dreams of O Mimi San, showing an earlier scene of the couple framed within the window. At last, Yorotomo gently close the shades, metaphorically placing these recollections behind him, at last accepting his responsibilities to the perpetuation of the monarchy.
The plot has a condensed feel; it presents its story in shorthand and symbols, with its use of casting. Love is the primary element, although the contrasting violence of the attempt to take control of the palace occupies much of the two reel length, and contrasts with the peace and beauty of the garden where love flourishes. The motives and emotions are universal; criticism that the film may be less than accurate as to Japanese customs is simply irrelevant. Rather, Ince's Aoki-Hayakawa series sought to introduce American films with Japanese stars, presenting a series of stories with Japanese settings, and the Japanese players themselves clearly perform in a style more redolent of American acting than the national traditions they would have known. In this Ince succeeded, and he retained an interest in films with Asian settings throughout his career. However, after such a number of similar films, as a single producer he could not indefinitely continue such similar stories as a major part of his output. Moreover, Hayakawa became such a major star as to command a salary beyond what Ince was able to offer, and he went to a larger studio and ultimately became an independent producer. Aoki largely devoted herself to sharing her husband's career as long as he remained in the American cinema until 1924, although she did return once to the Ince studio playing an East Indian in a colonial romance.
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