Most of Judge Jim Thomas' interactions with dragons involved twenty-sided dice. Big surprise, huh?
Genius. Madman. Lover.
Sessue Hayakawa is best remembered for his Oscar-nominated turn as Colonel Saito, commandant of the Japanese POW camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, Hayakawa was a true star of American silent cinema, and one of the first great romantic leads. His success was so great, in fact, that he formed his own production company, Haworth Pictures. The studio made 23 pictures over a three-year period; Hayakawa made $2 million a year, back when a million dollars was real money. Most of his silent work has been lost; however, one of his more successful films The Dragon Painter was discovered in France in the 1980s. Milestone Films now brings The Dragon Painter back to our shores, so to speak.
Facts of the Case
Tatsu (Sessue Hayakawa) lives on the outskirts of a village. He sleeps outdoors, spending his waking hours painting pictures of his beloved fiancée, whom the gods transformed into a dragon over a thousand years ago. The villagers think him mad, and keep their distance. Meanwhile, celebrated painter Kano Indara (Edward Peil) struggles to find an apprentice worthy of being his pupil. Indara fears that his gifts will be lost forever unless he can find someone to whom he can teach his methods.
One day, a friend of Indara's encounters Tatsu, and sees in his work the very artistic spirit that Indara seeks. He tells Indara of his find, but also explains Tatsu's obsession with the dragon. Tatsu is informed that if he will but seek an audience, Indara will give him his princess—who turns out to be Indara's daughter, Ume Ko (Tsuru Aoki). The two are soon married and initially all is well. But then Tatsu makes a horrifying discovery. The source of his art had always been his longing for his unattainable princess. Now that they are finally together, the spiritual longing that drove his art has been transformed into physical desire for his wife, breaking his link to his art. Horrified that she has stripped her love of his gift, Ume Ko decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to restore Tatsu's inspiration.
In his grief, Tatsu attempts suicide, but is rescued. Indara convinces him that he must channel his grief into his art. By tempering his passions with the discipline of Indara's teaching, Tatsu's artistic ability comes to full fruition, and he begins to produce masterpieces. It is then that he has a vision of Ume Ko; however, there's a bit more substance to this vision than he initially thought. It turns out that Ume Ko simply faked her own death so that Tatsu could become the artist he was meant to be. With his priorities now in order—Art first, personal desires second—the two can now be together. As Ume Ko puts it, "Now that sorrow has returned your genius and you have learned that Love must be Art's servant, I can take my place at your side once more, without remorse."
When Tatsu appears on camera, the closing lines of Coleridge's "Kublai Khan" spring to mind:
And all who heard should see them there,
It's Goethe's concept of das Streben nach dem Unendlichen—"the striving for the infinite," the underlying conceit behind the bulk of English Romantic poetry. Through the attempt to comprehend that which is patently incomprehensible, the poet seeks to transcend his physical limitations and achieve a higher awareness. Tatsu is in many ways the epitome of the "mad poet." His primal link with nature makes him vital and powerful, but it also alienates him from the rest of society; when he enters the village, people scatter. When he picks up a child, parents scurry to retrieve their offspring. Moreover, his longing for his lost queen is conveyed wonderfully. Someone asks to see a painting of his dragon—he hands him a landscape featuring a waterfall. When asked about the notable lack of a dragon, he simply replies, "She's asleep at the bottom of the lake." It's a lovely way of illustrating how Tatsu's longing has so totally infused his art.
However, Romanticism is a Western tradition. In fact, the movie has a much more Eastern spirit. The theme of the work—the idea that physical desire must be suppressed to attain spiritual fulfillment—is a fundamental tenant of Zen Buddhism, practiced by both Hayakawa and Mary McNeil Fenollosa, the author of the original novel. Just as a samurai's fealty to his lord must be absolute, so must the artist's fealty be to Art. The Dragon Painter was one of the first, if not the first film to offer an authentic representation of Buddhism to Americans. Even on a more general level, Japanese culture and custom are presented with grace and dignity (For a less than respectful representation, see the feature The Wrath of the Gods, included as an extra. Oy.).
It's easy to see why Hayakawa had such success in the silent era. There's a remarkable, compelling intensity in his visage. He radiates strength when on the screen, and manages to keep the histrionics to a minimum. After his marriage to Ume Ko, after he has abandoned his previous habit of sleeping outdoors—in short, after he loses his link to his art—that sense of pent-up energy fades, and the visage becomes more haunting than compelling. It really is an amazing, nuanced performance. The other performances are a touch too stylized, with the sort of exaggerated movements and reactions that we tend to associate with silent film. The film also features some excellent camerawork, particularly of the waterfall that serves as a backdrop to many pivotal scenes. The waterfall's kinetic beauty externalizes Tatsu's spiritual struggles, and it's only appropriate that he attempts suicide by flinging himself into the waterfall, and that the final scene shows Tatsu, Ume Ko at his side, painting the waterfall once again.
Video? Well, let's just say that it looks like it was shot in 1919. Given that the print discovered in France was on highly flammable nitrate stock, it's a minor miracle the thing survived at all; expecting a massive reconstruction might be expecting a wee bit much (The sad thing is that I've seen movies made in the 1970s that looked worse). Instead of colossal effort that would have been necessary to perform any substantive image restoration, Milestone opted to focus on other areas. They digitally restored the original hand-tinting of several scenes, and recorded a new score by jazz composer Mark Izu. The score is playful, captivating, and evocative—it serves the film well.
One final comment: The film's restraint in the use of intertitles (title cards) is impressive. Only the barest minimum is used to convey key plot or thematic points. Apart from that, the director relies on the actors to convey what is happening. The result is a more fluid pace than would have been the case had intertitles popped up every two minutes to spell out every last minutiae.
The disc is well nigh loaded with extras. A full-length feature, The Wrath of the Gods is a Thomas Ince film that also starts Hayakawa and Aoki. This film is perhaps a more typical American representation of Japanese culture, in which Japanese are portrayed as little better than superstitious savages. A not-particularly-funny comedy short, "Screen Snapshots" features Hayakawa and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Accessible from a computer are a number of PDFs, including press kit material, an essay on early Asian filmmaking, and, as an added bonus, the original novel of The Dragon Painter by Mary McNeil Fenollosa, as well as the script for The Wrath of the Gods, by Thomas H. Ince and William H. Clifford.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The plot is somewhat predictable until the very end, in which Tatsu discovers that Ume Ko faked her own death in order to restore Tatsu's link to his art. The happy ending that follows seems a little pat, particularly given that Tatsu makes a nearly successful attempt on his own life because of his overwhelming grief. That same ending, though, makes the case that Art must take precedence over Love—which is a powerful statement in its own right.
What exactly makes this film such an important artifact of film history? That's really the major flaw of the DVD. There's nothing in the extras that discusses the movie at length. Why not provide a commentary track? There's a too-brief essay in the press kit (one of the PDF extras) that claims that The Dragon Painter was one of the first films to present a "Japanese aesthetic" to an American audience." That's a start, but it immediately begs the question, "Exactly what is this Japanese aesthetic?" The movie still has its power, but newcomers to the film are left without a clear sense of the film's relevance.
Milestone Film & Video has done a laudable job of bringing this film to light. The disc not only provides a wonderful representation of the Buddhist view of art, but also showcases one of the first great Japanese actors in Western cinema. There still remains the question of what makes the film historically significant.
Not guilty. The defendant, however, is strongly encouraged to spend more time establishing a clearer historical and artistic context for future releases.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Thomas Ince's The Wrath of the Gods (1914, 60 minutes), starring Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki, and Frank Borzage
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