Monday, September 03, 2007

SILENT CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Daisuke Miyao

In 1889, Rudyard Kipling penned "The Ballad of East and West", which began:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Though a plea for parity among races (albeit through Christian eyes), the opening line of this stanza—"East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"—has come to stand for the inassimilability of Asian culture within Western culture. In its early years Hollywood had much to do with promoting this stereotype, using Kipling's stanza as intertitular comments in silent films where Asian characters were scripturally maligned. Notably, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) Sessue Hayakawa portrays Tori, a transgressive individual who is brought to trial for having seduced and branded Edith, a white woman who—to be honest—is as culpable as Tori in the course of events. However, when the proceedings come to trial, the degree of their mutual culpabililty is recontextualized so that Edith's wrongs are undone and Tori's maximized. Just before the final courtroom scene, Kipling's axiom is presented as an intertitle to predict the course of events. The same message had been included as an intertitle a year earlier in another Hayakawa film, The Typhoon (1914), just to name a couple of examples.

Thus it seems completely appropriate that the Museum of Modern Art has chosen to entitle their retrospective "Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met." This series, organized by Charles Silver, Associate Curator, Department of Film, likewise features commentary by Daisuke Miyao and is poised to open this Wednesday, September 5, running through September 16, 2007.

As I've written earlier, Daisuke Miyao is the author of Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (London, Duke University Press, 2007), upon whose erudition the MOMA retrospective has been structured. I'm quite fond of this volume and it has inspired much thought. Though full of biographical detail, it is not so much a biography as it is a study of how Hayakawa's "star" was made to shine in the early years of the Hollywood studio system. Tethered to the myth likewise promoted by Hollywood of America's capacity to assimilate foreign cultures, Hayakawa became a constructed personality between cultures, never wholly welcome in either, though eventually claimed by both with pride and ambivalence.

With the advent of the MOMA film retrospective close on the wake of Miyao's volume on Sessue Hayakawa, I felt it was a good time to interview Daisuke Miyao for The Evening Class.

* * *

Daisuke Miyao: Thank you for your enthusiastic written response to my book.

Michael Guillén: It's my pleasure. It's a fascinating study and I want people to know about it. When did you see your first Sessue Hayakawa film? And what motivated you to research and write about him?

Miyao: The project started in 1993 when I was still a graduate student in Tokyo. There was a film series at the Tokyo National Film Center for American Film and some Hayakawa films were included in the series. I was looking for a topic for my Masters thesis and I was literally struck by Hayakawa's sensational performance in The Cheat and in other films like The Typhoon; I was flabbergasted. I began to aspire to know more about this fascinating Japanese actor in Hollywood and started to do some research and found out nothing. There was one autobiograpy—Zen Showed Me The Way—written by Hayakawa; but, other than that, I was not able to find any substantial work on this Japanese star. When I came to the United States in 1995 to study at NYU in cinema studies, I seriously started to think about research on Hayakawa and here we are.

Guillén: Your meticulous research is a blessing. I imagine I'm like most Americans who are primarily familiar with Hayakawa through his later work, such as his Oscar-nominated performance in Bridge Over the River Kwai. It's only been recently through Jeff Adachi's documentary The Slanted Screen, which I caught at San Francisco's Asian-American International Film Festival, that I became aware of Hayakawa's work in silent films, none of which I've seen in their entirety. That's why I was so excited to hear about the MOMA program. Is it true that the retrospective may travel West to the Pacific Film Archives?

Miyao: I have been talking to PFA and, hopefully, we can show something from Hayakawa's filmography maybe early next year.

Guillén: I hope so! One of your book's most intriguing aspects is that—though filled with biographical detail—it's not a straightforward biography. It falls more into the realm of reception studies. Can you talk some on your research methodology and how you decided to approach the construction of Hayakawa's stardom?

Miyao: Of course, I have been interested in Hayakawa's personal life too, in terms of what he thought, what he did at various points of his life, but for this project I was more interested in the mechanism of Hollywood starmaking and his reception in different locations, like Japan and Europe. I was also so attracted to his work, his films, so I decided to talk more specifically about his films, his acting, and some sociopolitical and ideological background or context behind his stardom in the U.S. and the simple effect of time on the reception of his star image in Japan and Europe. That was my basic strategy behind this work.

Guillén: What's truly fascinating is this negotiation that went on to create his image and the variable effect it had on both the East and the West. As a Chicano, I'm especially looking forward to seeing Forbidden Paths, which you highlighted as a film by which Hollywood promoted a racial hierarchy, with the Japanese being a "model minority"—and Mexicans less so—in service to a model of white racial supremacy in the U.S. Notwithstanding, Hayakawa was characterized as hi-kokumin by the Japanese, an insult to their nation, or a national traitor. Can you speak to that?

Miyao: The reception or appreciation of Americanism or American culture in Japan is an ambivalent issue. As a latecomer to modernization, as a modern nation, Japan—well, there's a famous saying "Japanese thought; Western technology"—the government officials and intellectuals aspired to catch up with modern nations like the U.K., France, the United States, and Germany since the late 19th century. They were eager to import new modern technologies, including cinema, from the West. At the same time, they were concerned about the issue of nationalism. Hayakawa was located at a very strange and ambivalent position in the history of early 20th century Japan. He represented Americanism on one hand; but, at the same time, he was a successful Japanese figure in Hollywood so this balance between Japaneseness and Americanism always haunted Hayakawa and the reception of his stardom in Japan.

Guillén: It's a thought-provoking conflict. I admire several of the conflicting polarities you address in your book, such as the American obsession with "Japanese Taste" hand-in-hand with the American fear of the "Yellow Peril." Has this conflict softened at all over time?

Miyao: The situation is pretty much similar, even in these days. There's a sort of adulation or adoration of Japanese culture, including animation or pop culture. But at the same time, there's a term called technocentrism which degrades Japan as a nation of just technology and contains the fear of "the East." I think there's an ambivalent attitude towards Japan and its technological culture.

Guillén: With regard to "Japanese Taste", clearly in just the last few years there has been a revival of Japanese cinema as arthouse fare. That association isn't a new one but it appears to be making a major revival. There has been one traveling retrospective after the other—Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Inamura, PFA will soon be profiling Tomu Uchida—one Japanese director after the other has been paraded before American cinephiles, as if to harken back to when "Japanese Taste" (particularly in objets d'art) was being consciously utilized as a strategy by which the American Middle Class was acculturated and refined. A strategy was in place as well, as you've elucidated in your book, to morally legitimize cinema over theatre, which was categorized as decadent. Aren't all these retrospectives of arthouse Japanese directors just playing into the notion of "Japanese Taste"?

Miyao: I guess so. Because Japanese cinema has become a film genre, or category, which has been appreciated by, as you say, film aficionados as a sort of "high culture"—even though some filmmakers like Takashi Miike or Shinya Tsukamoto are appreciated by cult core fans—but, still there is a certain hierarchy, compared to Hollywood blockbuster films like Transformers. There's a certain distinction between popular films and art cinema like Japanese films.

Guillén: Have you any thoughts on the current trend towards Hollywood remakes of popular Japanese films? That strikes me as a continuing ambivalence—both a love for and an aversion against—Japanese culture.

Miyao: One obvious reason is that—now that dvd markets are so important for the Hollywood film industry—anything related to the Asian market fascinates Hollywood to explore foreign markets. The domestic market is still important but—within the context of the globalization of film culture—Asia is a huge market for Hollywood.

Guillén: Can you speak about the upcoming MOMA film series and how you became involved in that project?

Miyao: My participation with the MOMA retrospective is somewhat personal. It's like a full circle for me because the 1993 retrospective in Tokyo, some of the films came from MOMA. Charles Silver, MOMA's curator, he gave a lecture at the retrospective and, since then, Charles and I have become good friends. When I was writing the book, Charles was saying, "When this book is finished, let's do a film festival at MOMA." So it's been a personal and productive friendship.

Guillén: And it feels timely. Can you speak to what the importance is of understanding the process by which Hayakawa became a silent screen star? And why that's of importance to contemporary audiences?

Miyao: What I want to suggest is that film culture has been a transnational cultural form since the very beginning of its history. Hollywood took the initiative of the film markets—speaking of style, technology, communication and transportation of stars and personalities—but, film is a global cultural form. It has been always, so to speak, even though there have been lots of conflicts, negotiations, and discriminations. Speaking more specifically, sure, these days there are some successful Asian films and Asian stars in Hollywood and at international film festivals, but to me it's nothing new. …I hope this MOMA retrospective continues to further discussions on international and transnational communications through cinema.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Pacze Moj said...

What a fantastic interview, Maya!

And a sort-of coincidence: I saw the cover of Sessue Hayakawa while browsing Amazon's books a few days ago. I hope to find it at my library sometime soon, or find a used copy that's a little more affordable.

Now, onto some disorganized thoughts and reactions: culture has been a transnational cultural form since the very beginning of its history. Hollywood took the initiative of the film markets — speaking of style, technology, communication and transportation of stars and personalities — but, film is a global cultural form.

But, because so much about film style, as it is practiced globally, was invented/codified in America, is it fair to say that film is a global culture? Isn't that a bit like saying that English-language writing is a global culture?

I mean, both cases are true, but they're also a bit misleading, because that contemporary global culture has become global through dominance. And it has gained dominance by destroying other cultures.

Sure, most people in Brussels can, today, read Dickens in the original English, but doesn't that come at the expense of the future of the Dutch language, the French language?

I remember reading, for example, in one of Marshall McLuhan's books, about the experiences of an African tribe encountering cinema for the first time. The tribesmen didn't understand it, the form made little sense to them. They were most interested in where things went after they disappeared from the screen. A valid concern if there ever was one! Whereas we take the frame for granted, understand its use, they didn't.

And yet, now, there is an African cinema and it goes by our rules. People don't question the frame; they just understand. The frame-questioning culture is gone. There is no alternative form of cinema that the tribesmen have invented. They simply learned our forms.

Notwithstanding, Hayakawa was characterized as hi-kokumin by the Japanese, an insult to their nation, or a national traitor.

A similar idea floats in some circles in Poland these days. The Minister of Education wanted to remove Joseph Conrad from the obligatory school reading lists because, as an emigrant and writer of English fiction, he was viewed as a traitor of sorts.

Uncanny: both Sessue Hayakawa and Joseph Conrad were involved with Typhoons!

Michael Guillen said...

Pacze, I've been consumed by TIFF and apologize for not getting back sooner to your great comment. Finished up my movie viewing today and my brain is still fried so can't say much, other than to say that coincidentally my host here in Toronto has a first edition of Conrad's TYPHOON. I browsed through it and thought of you.