Bright Lights Film Journal

Tokuko Nagai Takagi (1891-1919): Japan’s First Actress

Takagi with unidentified actors during a 1912 Thanhouser production

Aaron Cohen’s profile of the obscure Japanese silent star Tokuko Takagi (also known as Taku Takagi), who came to America in 1906 and made a few films for Thanhouser Studios, first appeared in Bright Lights in October 2000. At the time we lamented that none of her films survived and the only extant photographic image was a single postcard. Fourteen years later, the films remain elusive, but we were able to find a number of intriguing images and an interview with Takagi from Moving Picture World, September 12, 1912, reproduced below courtesy of the archive.org. The interview is typical of the racist views of the time, but Takagi emerges with spirit. We were so jazzed by this bit of cinematic archaeology that we thought we’d share it.

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From Moving Picture World, September 28, 1912

This forgotten star was caught up in – and perhaps crushed by – larger historical forces

The filmography of the first Japanese film actress consists of no more than four short features released in America and England in 1911 and 1912. Tokuko Nagai Takagi (1891–1919) subsequently introduced toe dancing to Japan and became queen of operetta there. Stricken by a nervous disorder, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on tour, before she could reach a career peak. Apart from the simple historical significance of her films, those appearances are of interest in that they (1) reflected the tone of U.S.-Japanese political relations and established a precedent for anti-Japan themes in American films, and (2) conveyed an all-too-familiar stereotype of the Japanese.

Tokuko, a native of Tokyo and daughter of a junior technician working for the Ministry of Finance, started working as a maid at the Bank of Japan after graduating from primary school. She was 14 when Japan startled the world by emerging as victor of the Russo-Japanese War, in 1905. America had been neutral, but American financiers helped fund the war effort, and Teddy Roosevelt, who knew jiu-jitsu and a good deal more about Japan, negotiated the peace settlement at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Japan in a sense was a proxy for the United States. Limiting the activities of the expansionary Russian bear was helpful to American political interests, which had turned sharply toward imperialist expansion in Asia during the nineties. At the same time, racist sentiments and violence that had long been directed at the Chinese on the West Coast had come to be focused on the Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry. The same year that the Russians surrendered, labor organizations in San Francisco formed the Asian Exclusion League. Then in 1906, anti-Japanese sentiments grew stronger as a result of the earthquake and fire in that city. In 1907, Roosevelt signed a law that tightened restrictions on Japanese immigration and issued an Executive Order prohibiting Japanese from coming to the mainland via Hawaii, Mexico, or Canada.

In 1906, a Japanese man, Chimpei Takagi, 24, who had gone to California to seek his fortune, returned to Japan after the Great Fire in San Francisco and married Tokuko, age 15. Late in the year the two arrived in Seattle, then went on to New York and took lodgings in a Sands Street boarding house in Brooklyn. A number of Japanese acrobats and variety hall performers were living there, but Tokuko soon took on a live-in job as a maid. Chimpei, who had worked at the Japanese pavilion at the St. Louis Fair, saw an opportunity to make money running a tea garden such as had been a hit in St. Louis. He opened one in Canton, Ohio, before moving to Pittsburgh to open a restaurant in Jenkins Arcade.1 After that business failed, he tried his hand at operating a variety shop in Boston, but that one failed, too. In 1909, he started a new career with a magic act, and the couple toured in Canada and New England. The following year, at the suggestion of a Japanese woman studying voice in New York, Tokuko took dancing lessons in that city. Soon Chimpei contracted for her to appear in films for the Thanhouser Company, in New Rochelle, New York.

Q. David Bowers, who has documented the history and achievements of this important early film production company, states2 that Thanhouser was seeking to capitalize on forthcoming Japanese plays expected during the 1912 season. The only films depicting Japan and the Japanese thus far had been documentaries or two Edison films depicting Russo-Japanese War events using mockups. Tokuko had done one film, in 1911, and was making cinema history.

Her films, all for Thanhouser, are The East and the West (1911), The Birth of the Lotus Blossom (1912), For the Mikado (1912), and Miss Taqu of Tokyo (1912). Apparently no prints have survived nor are stills available, but from motion picture magazine ads and reviews collected by Bowers, we can know something about what this actress did.

Publicity art for Miss Taku of Tokio, from Motion Picture Story magazine, December 1912

In The East and the West, a tame and conveniently assembled vehicle for the young dancer, an American college graduate visits his Japanese schoolmate in Japan whereupon his host (Tokuko), a girl related to the friend, falls in love with him. She is a dancer, and he offers to help her get work in America, where his father is a theatrical manager. In time he does this, but he is engaged to an American girl, a discovery that brings heartbreak to the dancer. She is summoned home … to marry the American’s friend.

It is in For the Mikado that the plot thickens. Tokuko is the wife of a spy sent to Russia by the Mikado. In she plays the wife of a nobleman (the Japanese had long since imitated the British and created the titles of baron, count, and marquis) who is recruited as a spy by the Mikado. When her husband gets drunk and cannot complete his mission, she disguises herself as him and steals the secret documents, but is shot through the heart. The background to this film is power politics. During the nineties, the U.S. engineered a coup and annexed Hawaii, gained a foothold in Samoa, and took control of the Philippines. Japan, after defeating a much larger country, China (in 1895), began to clearly demonstrate expansionist tendencies. In the international peacekeeping force that subdued the Boxers in 1900, the Japanese were the most numerous and most impressive. But after they scored an upset victory over the Russians, elation soon changed to anxiety. For all apparent purposes the nations were on friendly terms, but in 1907 both secretly identified the other as the hypothetical enemy upon which defense plans were drawn up, and when Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet on its round-the-world display of his big stick, the first country the ships visited was Japan (where they received a warm official welcome). By this time the Japanese government was using intelligence agents, and newspaper reports of spies – real, alleged, or imagined – began to increase. In 1911, Japan threatened to boycott the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco unless anti-Japanese activities abated. In due course not only did bilateral relations continue to deteriorate, but anti-Japanese themes were presented not so much on the stage as in the cinema.

In many of his films, Sessue Hayakawa was cast as a villain, often Asian and especially Japanese. As a professional, Hayakawa took the roles that were best for him, and he certainly did not have an antipathy towards either Japan or America. But the fact that his films worked contrary to the efforts of Japan and the Japanese to obtain social justice in the United States at one time led him to publish an apology in a Japanese paper published in Los Angeles.

The Birth of the Lotus Blossom is a period piece, but concerned a samurai and war and the God of War. Japan had propagated concepts associated with bushido vigorously from the time of the war against the Russians, and the Western world had come to associate Japan with this concept. Thus it too perpetrated a militarist, war-loving image of Japan.

Tokuko subsequently performed in London and Moscow, but upon the outbreak of the Great War the couple returned to Japan. She scored an immediate hit as a toe dancer, appeared as Salome, triumphed singing Tipperary, and had a rollercoaster career even as her marriage to Chimpei collapsed. Her life in the United States was often unendurable, and no doubt her novelty was an important factor in getting bookings. Back in Japan, she was an innovator, a popularizer, and a pioneer in promoting radically modified versions of European operettas. She had been born with talent and had the good fortune to be able to develop it. Her life with Chimpei was rarely comfortable, and perhaps that was one reason for the illness that ultimately took her life. As the first Japanese to perform professionally in motion pictures, she unknowingly conformed to the great forces that move one nation against another.

  1. The arcade, akin to the “galleria” type shopping center of today, was demolished during the 1980s. For a picture postcard showing Jenkins arcade, go here. []
  2. Pre-publication draft of Q. David Bowers, Thanhouser Films: An Encyclopedia and History, 1909-1918, Lanham MO; Scarecrow Press, 1997; also available as a CD-ROM produced by the Thanhouser Company Film in cooperation with the Library of Congress. Go here for a review in the Journal for Multimedia Studies (No. 2, 1999). []