Photo: Sojin Kamiyama in “The Road to Mandalay,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $23.95.
Hollywood never seemed to know what to do with Asian actors during its early silent days. While Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa became a major star, his wife Tsuru Aoki never achieved such high status, nor did George Kuwa or Chinese American actress Anna Mae Wong. They mostly performed stereotypical roles, like the buffoon, the sexual tempter, the foreign innocent, or often, the creepy, threatening villain. Sojin Kamiyama found himself lumped in this last category because of his unconventional looks and miniscule English, occasionally playing buffoonic characters for the seven years he remained in Hollywood.
Born in 1884, Sojin graduated from Tokyo University and occupied the top echelon of Japan’s acting profession, performing at the Imperial Theater and the Yorokuza Theater. He produced and starred in Shakespearean plays, portraying Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Shylock, appeared in “The Doll’s House,” and toured Japan in the role of Faust. His wife Ura Mita played opposite him as one of Japan’s top leading ladies. They helped establish Japan’s Modern Theatre Association to promote the new theatre movement as Japanese intellectuals favored European stories.
Sojin and his wife first visited the United States in 1919 to attend theatrical productions. Hayakawa hosted them during their Los Angeles visit. Sojin told “The Los Angeles Times” in July 1919 “that there is great opportunity for American film producers in Japan. He thinks that the scenery of the country will prove an especially colorful background for beautiful stories that may be constructed out of native lore.”
Sojin claimed in a 1946 “New Yorker” interview that director Raoul Walsh discovered and cast him as the evil Mongolian prince in Douglas Fairbanks’ beautiful occidental film, “The Thief of Bagdad,” when he came to America to study screen acting after the great Tokyo earthquake in 1923. “Thief,” a huge box office success, earned Sojin fine reviews and led to a steady stream of villainous characters. Critics loved him, calling him “an effective menace” in the 1926 Pola Negri film “East of Suez,” and “good acting of the mysterious sort” in Roland West’s film “The Bat.”
Off the set, however, Sojin was shy and extremely courteous, entertaining newspaper columnists at his home. He invited a “Los Angeles Times” columnist to his residence for an interview, showing her clippings and photographic portraits of him in his character roles. Sojin told her on May 26, 1928 that he hoped to produce a Japanese film in the United States, featuring actors from Japan, and showing “real oriental drama.”
The actor also hosted several top Japanese visitors. In 1926, Sojin and his wife hosted Yacko Midzutani at their home at 1105 S. Ardmore Ave., and in 1928, hosted Hajime Masuda, a screenwriter with the Japan Cinematograph Company at his home on South Normandie Ave.
Sid Grauman considered him enough of a star to engage him to make personal appearances at the Million Dollar Theatre downtown to promote “The Devil Dancer” with Gilda Gray and “The Rescue” with Ronald Colman. Sojin played himself in the 1929 “Seven Footprints to Satan.”
In 1930, Sojin made a successful personal appearance tour across Japan promoting his American films. He decided to remain in his home country, leaving his wife and son here in the United States. He published an autobiography in Japanese, telling of his Hollywood sojourn, called “Hollywood Without Makeup” that year. The Margaret Herrick Library possesses the only copy in the United States, which features photos of him on the sets of films and visiting with such people as Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Murray. Sojin began working at the Shoehiku Studios, and in 1932 appeared in the Douglas Fairbanks film, “Around the World in 80 Minutes” with Sessue Hayakawa. Sojin continued acting into the late 1940s, before dying in Tokyo in 1954 at the age of 70.