The Dragon Painter Sold a More Authentic Japan to Movie Audiences

Note: This is the hundred-and-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1919 film, THE DRAGON PAINTER, directed by William Worthington.

Sessue Hayakawa broke into stardom after starring in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE CHEAT in 1915. I’ve written about it before here. But frustrated with the “Yellow Peril” type of roles he was getting thereafter, Hayakawa co-formed a production company of his own to make pictures that were kinder and more accurate to the experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans. Joining him in many of these ventures was Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru Aoki, an incredibly talented actress in her own right who shared her husband’s groundbreaking understated acting style.

The performances they gave were understated in relation to the stage acting that surrounded them in this era of silent filmmaking, but in any event, the couple turn into compelling characters in what is probably Hayakawa’s silent masterpiece, THE DRAGON PAINTER. Well, he didn’t write it or direct it, but regardless, the film carried his philosophy hardened by his treatment by Hollywood.

THE DRAGON PAINTER was praised then and now for its realism and favorable portrayal of Japanese people. It can almost go without saying that it’s praised for this because not many other films of the time dealt with the subject of “Orientalism” quite as tastefully. But this is still a Hollywood film, directed by white man William Worthington, written by white man Richard Schayer, and based on a novel by white woman Mary McNeil Fenollosa.

But while there is clear exoticism at play, THE DRAGON PAINTER’s celebration of Japan is positive and strong. And more importantly, at its heart, is an incredible, humane story about love and creative expression. Hayakawa and Aoki’s chemistry was never stronger in this film, and it remains Worthington’s really only significant directorial effort; Worthington worked as an actor before and after he directed films from 1915 to 1925, but they were mostly supporting roles or bit parts.

Hayakawa plays Tatsu, the titular dragon painter, who lives alone out in the mountains. He turns out incredible works of art but he’s crazy; he believes his fiancee is a princess turned into a dragon by the gods. Through a series of events, Tatsu ends up at the house of master painter Kano Indara (who is, it may be noteworthy to point out, played by a white actor by the name of Edward Peil Sr.). Indara has no son or protege to pass on his painting skills, and he wants Tatsu to take on that mantle. But Tatsu is a wild man in the civilization of Tokyo, and he goes even crazier until Indara lies to him and tells him that the master’s only daughter is Tatsu’s lost princess reincarted in the flesh. This is Ume-ko, played by Aoki.

Once Tatsu has his lost princess, however, he can no longer paint. He has lost his creative drive. Concocting a strange manipulation with her father, Ume-ko writes a letter telling Tatsu that she killed herself, which prompts him to almost do the same. But after he is able to paint a masterpiece, Ume-ko returns, and they live happily ever after? Yeah, the second half of the already brief 53-minute film is a bit rougher than the first, but the film navigates these events with more skill than I do with my brief plot synopsis.

What THE DRAGON PAINTER ends up instilling is a beautiful, picturesque view of Japan. The mountain scenes are magical, showcasing tall, soaring landscapes that look like they were pulled out of paintings, fittingly. The film takes on an almost mythical status, also fitting considering its subject matter and fable-like plot. As mentioned, Hayakawa and Aoki’s performances are brilliant; Hayakwa’s rage, sorrow, confusion, and happiness are played within a consistent rage for the character’s motivations. Aoki is a steadfast, sure woman essentially forced into a marriage with a crazy painter. She represents the demure Japanese maiden, certainly, but although her plan to restore Tatsu’s creativity is fucked up, she does have agency in the story.

THE DRAGON PAINTER is a movie painted through an almost dispassionate lens, as mentioned, a kind of parable given life by its core performances and compelling set design. It certainly reflects Eastern artistic sensibilities better than any other Hollywood film of the time, and probably for some time to come. Hayakawa and Aoki’s silent film careers built to this movie. Unfortunately, Hayakawa’s production company folded not too long after THE DRAGON PAINTER, and the couple left Hollywood, unsatisfied with the way it treated them. Aoki would die in 1961; she last acted in 1960 alongside her husband, but that was after retiring from acting in 1924 to raise her and Hayakawa’s children. Hayakawa would return to Hollywood for brief periods and famously played Colonel Saito in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957). He died in 1973. Together, Hayakawa and Aoki changed motion pictures forever, although it would take too, too long for their philosophy of representing their race on screen to be taken seriously in Hollywood. It still might not be, making THE DRAGON PAINTER, a 99-year-old film, all the more remarkable.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.