Sunday, August 24, 2008


This hour-long film, which survives only in a battered-up but watchable print from the George Eastman House collection, is included as a generous extra on the DVD of Sessue Hayakawa's THE DRAGON PAINTER. Certainly the oldest movie I've reviewed yet, it is also one of the earliest "disaster" movies. Hayakawa plays Yamaki, an old man who lives by the sea with his daughter Toya San (Tsuru Aoki). She lives under a family curse: because an ancestor defiled a sacred altar, Buddha has cursed the Yamaki daughters that if any one of them dares to take a husband, "the wrath of the gods shall be made manifest." Tom (Frank Borzage), an American sailor, is washed up on the shore after a typhoon wrecks his ship, and he falls in love with Toya San. He not only convinces her to marry him in a Christian ceremony, but also gets converts Yamaki to Christianity--a still rather starling scene shows the old man tossing a statue of Buddha off a cliff and replacing it with a crude wooden cross. Like in a Frankenstein movie, the incensed villagers march on Yamaki's house, tearing it down and killing him even as he wields his cross like a vampire hunter. In a well-done disaster movie climax, the long dormant volcano Sakura-Jima erupts, destroying the village and killing practically everyone except Toya San and Tom who escape on a passing freighter. Tom tells his wife that, though her gods may be powerful, his omnipotent Christian god has been proven greatest of all by saving her so she can "perpetuate" her race. I've never thought of Buddhists as being religiously intolerant, so their fury at the conversion of Yamakis was quite surprising. The two disaster scenes, the typhoon and the volcano, are both quite well done, even though to modern eyes the special effects involving miniature sets aren't terribly convincing. Hayakawa, playing a character who is a good 30 or 40 years older than him, is unrecognizable under the old-age make-up. He and Aoki were married in real life after the film was completed. Apparently this movie was inspired by the eruption of the actual Sakura-Jima volcano earlier that year. [DVD]

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