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Milestone Film & Video presents

The Dragon Painter (1919)

"I destroyed the divine gift you possessed."- Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki)

Stars: Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki
Other Stars: Edward Peil, Toyo Fujita
Director: William Worthington

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material)
Run Time: 00h:53m:52s
Release Date: 2008-03-18
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BA-B+ A-


DVD Review

Actor Sessue Hayakawa is best remembered today for his role as Col. Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but he was a popular star in silent films from very near the beginning of the American film industry. After a few years, Hayakawa started his own production company, Haworth Pictures, which issued 22 feature films, almost all of which are lost today. One of the few known to exist is The Dragon Painter (1919), which was one of the earliest pictures to take Japanese culture seriously. Starring Hayakawa and his wife Tsuru Aoki, it's quite an unusual movie for the silent era, and an interesting look at romanticized notions of the creative spark.

Hayakawa is in the lead as Tatsu, a deranged artist living as a hermit in the mountains of Japan. Insistent that his fiancee was turned into a dragon a thousand years before by the spirits of the mountains, Tatsu channels his madness into art, creating drawings of dragons and landscapes that come to the knowledge of aging artist Kano Indara (Edward Peil), who has no heir and is looking for a suitable mentor. Inviting Tatsu to come stay with him and study, the older artist convinces the younger that his daughter Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki) is actually the incarnation of the hidden princess. Duped by the scheme, Tatsu welcomes this resolution, but it has the unforeseen side effect of destroying his creative impulses, which leads Ume-Ko to a momentous decision.

While numerous films have considered what it takes for artistic creativity to thrive, few have been quite so express in equating creativity with insanity. While it is commonplace to look on the artist as different from the mass of society (often through the contrivance of the artist herself), there's a certain pejorative quality to The Dragon Painter's attitude that makes it hard to take too seriously. Yet it's hardly debatable that the striving is frequently more interesting than achieving the goal, and that seems to be at least one of the metaphors at work here, for once Tatsu has come back to what he believes is his fiancee, achieving his goal, his purpose for life deserts him and he has little idea what to do with himself. The notion of self-sacrifice for a higher cause also makes an appearance through Ume-Ko's determination that Tatsu regain his spark, at whatever cost to herself; that instinct is a strong one in Japanese culture and it is provided a poignant stage here, spoiled a little by the clumsy finale.

Hayakawa is suitably intense in the lead, though he also has no problem with presenting Tatsu as ridiculous on occasion (he even offers a humorously Elvis-like attitude at times), showing an ability to laugh at himself that's endearing. It's quite strange that Peil was cast as Kano Indara, since Hayakawa had a regular cast of Japanese actors that he worked with, but he does readonably well with the part. Tsuru Aoki tends to be a bit histrionic at times, which conflicts with Hayakawa's generally naturalistic approach to his role.

The film is quite beautifully shot, with the unspoiled Yosemite Valley standing in for the mountains of Japan. The only known print, found in a French archive, has had the intertitles retranslated back into English and replaced. It makes one long for a chance to see the other 21 movies created by Haworth Pictures, now lost to the dust of time and the ravages of nitrate decomposition.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame image frequently looks astonishingly good; clearly the source print was an early-generation nitrate with plenty of detail and texture throughout. Milestone offers a very nice transfer with no signs of ghosting or artifacting besides a little moiré on fine patterns, providing plenty of warmth and subtle tints derived from the original print. There's a fair amount of wear and modest scratching, with persistent speckling, but when there's only one source it's as good as it's likely to get.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Mark Izu contributes a Japanese-flavored score that is quiet and unobtrusive, which maintaining a respectful yet playful attitude. It's never distracting from the onscreen action, nor does it stoop to mickeymousing, but is consistent with the flavor of the scenes. It's quite clear and offers good range. In particular the samisen sounds good; the synthesized strings are somewhat less happily rendered, though that's not a fault of the transfer but of the rather lame samples used.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. The Wrath of the Gods (1914)
  2. Screen Snapshots #20 (1921)
  3. Screen Snapshots #20 (1921)
  4. Script for The Wrath of the Gods
  5. Original novel The Dragon Painter
Extras Review: To underline just how unusual The Dragon Painter was for its treatment of Japanese society, Milestone offers as a companion piece the 1914 feature produced and written by Thomas Ince, The Wrath of the Gods (57m:36s), which is chock full of both stereotypes and wild misinformation. This picture also features Hayakawa in a character role as the father of Toya San (Aoki), who learns that their family has been cursed by the Buddha. This weird imposition of Old Testament Jehovah onto Buddha sets things in motion as Toya San attempts to find love with the sailor Tom Wilson (future director Frank Borzage), culminating in a clumsily-executed volcanic eruption loosely based on the real eruption of Sakura Jima earlier in 1914. The somewhat truncated print offers an amusing curtain call for some of the cast before the beginning of the movie proper.

An excerpt from the short Screen Snapshots #21 offers a look at the lives of famous movie stars including Hayakawa as well as "Fatty" Arbuckle and Charles Murray, with Hayakawa horsing around in Civil War costume of all things. It runs about 5m and is totally silent.

A series of galleries show half a dozen illustrations from the novel, about 90 black & white and hand-tinted photos of 1910 Japan, photos of Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, and a dozen posters, stills and other promo materials.

But that's not all! Put the disc in your DVD-ROM drive and you'll find the Milestone press kit for the picture, which offers plenty of background and biographical information. There's also an essay on Hollywood's First Asian Cycle, which offers some historical background and a fairly close discussion of The Wrath of the Gods, and a tongue-in-cheek how-to guide to building your own volcano (though really the Italians were doing far superior effects work by this time). There are also PDF files of the original script for The Wrath of the Gods and the 200-page source novel for the main feature. It's hard to imagine much more being added to this well-stocked assemblage.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

A pair of very different looks at Japanese culture in the silent era, from exceedingly rare prints, are provided a stellar presentation on Milestone's disc. Highly recommended on all counts.

Mark Zimmer 2008-04-08