Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki and Frank Borzage star in a Thomas Ince version of Madame Butterfly (but with, like, a happy ending). If you manage to get through this one without throwing something at the screen, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
This is my contribution to the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis. Check out the other entries!
In January of 1914, Japan was rocked with the largest volcanic eruption it would experience in the twentieth century. Sakurajima’s volcano had been dormant for a century but then came the earthquakes, the eruption and the lava; it changed the topography of Japan. It was kind of a big deal.
Just weeks after the eruption, producer Thomas Ince began shooting a film purported to tell the story of Sakurajima. In reality, it was two parts Madame Butterfly, two parts religious indoctrination and 100% hooey. However, the film does have one particular element to recommend it: Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki. Let’s see if their presence saves the day.
As was common in films of this time, we start with the introduction of the cast. Each performer is shown in their normal appearance before bowing and dissolving into their film character. (For comparison of a similar scene, check out The Bargain, which came out the same year.) Sessue Hayakawa plays Baron Yamaki, an impoverished nobleman from a cursed family. As punishment for a blasphemous crime against Buddhism, his family is to die out and if a daughter of his line ever marries, the volcano of Sakurajima will “open its bowels” and destroy the island. Nice image.
Now this curse has certain flaws. What if the family has all boys? Alas, the Baron only has one daughter, Toya San (Tsuru Aoki). She would like to date and stuff but can’t because of that darn curse.
All is not lost! Tom Wilson (future director Frank Borzage) washes up on the shore of Sakurajima and is rescued by the Baron. Naturally, Tom and Toya fall in love but she is terrified of the curse. However, Tom convinces the Baron and Toya to convert to Christianity, promising that his god will protect them.
(Spoilers) In what turns out to be the least convincing inspirational film ever, Tom and Toya do marry but angry villagers beat the Baron to death and the volcano of Sakurajima does erupt. The newlyweds escape on a ship and Tom crows that his god protected Toya to perpetuate her race. (Um, all of Japan was not destroyed, dude.) Let’s see, her village is destroyed and her father is dead. I’m giving this match to the Buddhists.
So, yeah, the plot is ridiculous. The curse is stupid, the romance is shallow, the payoff is idiotic and more than a little sleazy. “They brought it on themselves” is never a good response to a natural disaster. It’s rude. People tend to take offense.
(Anyone who wishes to smugly inform me that we “need to look at context” is kindly invited to go chase themselves. Ince may not have seen the harm he was doing but the nation of Japan strongly objected and Hayakawa later made it his mission to create films that showed Japan in a positive, non-stereotyped light. There’s your context, ducky. Now scram before I become unpleasant.)
So now I suppose I have to say nice things. Okay. Well, I suppose I can mention that Sessue Hayakawa has the presence and dignity that we have come to expect from him. His character does carry on in a scene or two but he is mostly excellent as a dignified gentleman who is trying to take the honorable course of action. The old age makeup is not very convincing, which actually works in the film’s favor as we get to see that the Baron is actually a handsome young man. (You’d be hard-pressed to find a dreamier leading man in 1910s cinema. Swoon!)
Tsuru Aoki does not fare as well, mostly because her character is so very uninteresting. She has no agency and basically spends the entire film being dragged here and there by assorted male characters. There’s some melodramatic sobbing and all that but there isn’t much meat to her part. It’s a pity as Aoki could be excellent when given something to work with.
Frank Borzage leaves no impression at all as the romantic lead of the film. He doesn’t outright embarrass himself but there’s no real explanation as to why Toya would be so set on marrying him. I believe there is some kind of silent film law that requires women to marry the first shipwreck victim they see. It rarely ends well. (See The Love Light and The Toll of the Sea.) In any case, the real chemistry was between Hayakawa and Aoki. They married a month before the premier of The Wrath of the Gods.
Ince does get points for using Japanese people as extras in an era when Caucasian actors in greasepaint were considered suitable substitutes. However, the film does not follow up this progressive casting with progressive writing for its Japanese characters. The Baron and his daughter are the only characters given depth; the rest of the Japanese cast is portrayed as paranoid, superstitious, violent and generally nasty. Japan is only so much window dressing for a spectacle, the people and culture are not given any respect.
The whole film has a horrid, condescending feel to it. I can hardly blame the Japanese government for deeming it unsuitable for public exhibition. I mean, how would audiences feel if Japan released a film about the San Francisco Earthquake months after the event and indicated that the disaster was caused by America’s primitive religion, saving the American heroine only when she embraced a Shinto belief system to the exclusion of Christianity. Doesn’t sit so well, does it?
Matters were made even worse by Ince’s publicity campaign, which claimed that Aoki was from Sakurajima and lost her family in the disaster. In fact, Miss Aoki was born almost two hundred miles away. No trick was too tasteless, it seems. (By the way, the death toll from Sakurajima was not as bad as it could potentially have been as the residents fled the island due to the earthquakes that preceded the volcanic eruption.) You can read more about Ince’s sleazy publicity campaign in Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom by Daisuke Miyao.
In conclusion, Sessue Hayakawa has some moments of awesomeness, poor Tsuru Aoki is wasted and everyone else fails to leave an impression. This film is of interest to fans of Ince and Hayakawa but be careful, it may make you want to hurl heavy objects at the screen.