Perhaps the first Asian actress to appear in American cinema, lovers of silent cinema have forgotten the name Tsuru Aoki, whereas her husband, Sessue Hayakawa, remains a legend. Aoki’s film career, in fact, preceded her husband’s rise to fame in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915).
Aoki immigrated to the United States in 1903 with her aunt and uncle, Sado Yacco and Otto Kawakimi, who were owners of the Imperial Theatre of Japan. She was later adopted by another uncle, Hyosai Aoki, a wealthy artist who lived in San Francisco.
Aoki was already an established stage and screen actress in Los Angeles’ Japanese theatre when she and her future husband met in 1913. Aoki induced her employer, producer Thomas H. Ince, to attend a performance of the play The Typhoon in which Hayakawa was appearing. Impressed, Ince signed Hayakawa for a role in The Wrath of the Gods (1914), in which Aoki starred. After its success, Hayakawa headlined the screen version of The Typhoon (1914). Aoki and Hayakawa were married in May 1914. The couple later adopted two children.
Aoki starred for Ince/Kay Bee Pictures in her own series of films but teamed with her husband whenever a suitable role was available. Alien Souls (1916), The Soul of Kura-San (1916), Each to His Kind (1917), His Birthright (1918), The Courageous Coward (1918), The Dragon Painter (1919), Black Roses (1921) and Five Days to Live (1921) were among the nearly twenty films in which they costarred.
"She was also responsible for recruiting Japanese actors for the Imperial Japanese Company, a subsidiary of New York Motion Picture Corporation."
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