Tsuru Aoki

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Tsuru Aoki
Tsuru Aoki (ca. 1915).jpg
Portrait in a newspaper, 1916
Born(1892-09-09)September 9, 1892
DiedOctober 18, 1961(1961-10-18) (aged 69)
OccupationActress (stage and screen)
Years active1913–1924; 1960
(m. 1914)

Tsuru Aoki (青木 鶴子, Aoki Tsuruko, September 9, 1892 – October 18, 1961) was a popular Japanese stage and screen actress whose career was most prolific during the silent film era of the 1910s through the 1920s. Aoki may have been the first Asian actress to garner top billing in American motion pictures.

Life and career[edit]

Born in Tokyo, Japan, Aoki came to California in 1899 with her uncle, Otojirō Kawakami, his geisha wife, Kawakami Sadayakko, and Otojirō's troupe of actors. At the their first stop in San Francisco, Tsuru performed with the troupe and assisted Sadayakko at a Palace Hotel tea ceremony where attendees raved over her "diminutive daintiness." But when the troupe ran into severe financial difficulties, Otojirō made arrangements to have Tsuru adopted by Toshio Aoki, a sketch artist for a local newspaper.[1] Tsuru Aoki started taking lessons in ballet dance in New York, when she went along with her uncle Toshio, who was hired by David Belasco for The Darling of the Gods. After Toshio's death a reporter looked after Aoki.[2] Aoki began her acting career after returning to Los Angeles and performing in stage productions in the city's Japanese Theatre where she was noticed by film producer Thomas Ince who placed the young actress under contract. She was also responsible for recruiting Japanese actors for Imperial Japanese Company, a subsidiary of New York Motion Picture Corporation.[2] Aoki made her film debut in the Majestic film studios release The Oath of Tsuru San in 1913 opposite actor William Garwood. Her follow-up film was the 1914 Ince produced O Mimi San, which starred the American child actress Mildred Harris and a handsome young newcomer named Sessue Hayakawa, whom Aoki had acted with onstage at the Japanese Theatre the previous year. The couple began a romantic relationship that would culminate in their marriage on May 1, 1914, just weeks before the release of their critically acclaimed and publicly successful film The Wrath of the Gods – a melodrama about an interracial romance between a man portrayed by Caucasian actor/director Frank Borzage and an Asian woman portrayed by Aoki. The film also starred Sessue Hayakawa and featured actress Gladys Brockwell. Hayakawa and Aoki would eventually make more than twenty films together throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

Tsuru Aoki (right) with actor and husband Sessue Hayakawa in a screen shot of the 1919 film The Dragon Painter.
Aoki, ca. 1915

One of Aoki's most recalled films of the silent period is the 1919 William Worthington-directed The Dragon Painter, based on the novel of the same title by Sidney McCall, in which Aoki starred as a young woman who convinces an isolated, mentally deranged artist named Tatsu (portrayed by Hayakawa) to come down from the mountains so that she may civilize him and he may further his artistic abilities. Other notable films of the period were The Typhoon (1914), The Vigil (1914), The Geisha (1914), The Chinatown Mystery (1915), His Birthright (1918), and The Breath of the Gods (1920). Throughout the 1910s, Aoki would appear in approximately forty films, often in leading-lady roles which was a first for an Asian actress. Some of her co-stars of the era included such notable names as Marin Sais, Frank Borzage, Gladys Brockwell, Mildred Harris, Jack Holt, Jane Wolfe, Dagmar Godowsky, Vola Vale, Florence Vidor, Earle Foxe, and Walter Long. After a series of moderately successful Ince-produced two-reel serials, Aoki's career in the United States began to falter (while her husband's career began to build momentum), and the couple travelled to France in 1923 and filmed the popular Édouard-Émile Violet-directed drama La Bataille. After returning to America, however, Aoki made only three more films before retiring from the screen to raise her and Hayakawa's three children. Her last silent screen performance was the 1924 release The Danger Line. Aoki would only return to the screen in 1960 (her first talkie) to once again appear with her husband in the drama Hell to Eternity. She died the following year in Japan of acute peritonitis at the age of 69.


Title Year Role Notes Ref
The Oath of Tsuru San 1913 Tsuru San Short
O Mimi San 1914 O Mimi San Short
The Courtship of O San 1914 O San Short
The Geisha 1914 Myo Short
Love's Sacrifice 1914 Little Faun Short
The Wrath of the Gods 1914 Toya San [3]
A Tragedy of the Orient 1914 Kissmoia Short
A Relic of Old Japan 1914 Katuma Short
Desert Thieves 1914 Owanono Short
Star of the North 1914 Star of the North Short
The Curse of Caste 1914 Kissmoia Short
The Village 'Neath the Sea 1914 Little Fawn Short
The Death Mask 1914 Princess Nona Short
The Typhoon 1914
Nipped 1914 San Toy Nakado Short
The Vigil 1914 Mira Short
Mother of the Shadows 1914 Laughing Moon Short
The Last of the Line 1914 Girl at Riverside Short
The Famine 1915 Misao Short
The Chinatown Mystery 1915 Woo Short
The Beckoning Flame 1915 Janira Short [4]
Alien Souls 1916 Yuri Chan [5]
The Honorable Friend 1916 Toki-Ye
The Soul of Kura San 1916 Kura-San
Each to His Kind 1917 Princess Nada
The Call of the East 1917 O'Mitsu - Arai's Sister
The Curse of Iku 1918 Omi San
The Bravest Way 1918 Sat-u
His Birthright 1918 Saki San
A Heart in Pawn 1919 Sada
The Courageous Coward 1919 Rei Oaki
The Gray Horizon 1919 O Haru San
The Dragon Painter 1919 Ume-Ko
Bonds of Honor 1919 Toku-ko
Locked Lips 1920 Lotus Blossom
A Tokyo Siren 1920 Asuti Hishuri
The Breath of the Gods 1920 Yuki Onda
Screen Snapshots 1920-1921 Herself
Black Roses 1921 Blossom
Five Days to Live 1922 Ko Ai
Night Life in Hollywood 1922 Herself
The Battle 1923 La Marquise Yorisaka
The Danger Line 1924 Marquise Yorisaka
The Great Prince Shan 1924 Nita
Sen Yan's Devotion 1924 Sen Yan's Wife
Hell to Eternity 1960 Mother Une (final film role)


  • The Americanization of Tsuru Aoki: Orientalism, Melodrama, Star Image, and the New Woman by Sarah Ross. Duke University Press, 2005. Camera Obscura 20 (3 60):129-157; doi:10.1215/02705346-20-3_60-129.
  • Ross, Sara (2005). "The Americanization of Tsuru Aoki: Orientalism, Melodrama, Star Image, and the New Woman". In Catherine Russell (ed.). Camera Obscura 60: New Women of the Silent Screen: China, Japan, Hollywood. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. pp. 128–157. ISBN 978-0-8223-6624-9.


  1. ^ Joseph L. Anderson, Enter a Samurai: Kawakami Otojirō and Japanese Theatre in the West, 2 v. (Tucson: Wheatmark, 2011), 1: 65, 88. According to Anderson, Aoki was an old friend of an American missionary couple the Kawakamis had met aboard ship, Merriman Colbert Harris and Flora Best Harris (89).
  2. ^ a b Anderson, Joseph L. (2011). Enter a Samurai: Full text and illustrations. Wheatmark, Inc. pp. 88–89. ISBN 978-1-60494-367-2.
  3. ^ "Advertisement for The Wrath of The Gods". Delaware County Daily Times. Chester, Pennsylvania. 11 July 1914. p. 5. Retrieved 10 December 2014 – via Newspapers.com. open access
  4. ^ "The Beckoning Flame". Arkansas City Daily Traveler. Arkansas City, Kansas. 18 February 1916. p. 6. Retrieved 10 December 2014 – via Newspapers.com. open access
  5. ^ "Alien Souls". Iowa City Press-Citizen. Iowa. 24 August 1916. p. 3. Retrieved 10 December 2014 – via Newspapers.com. open access

Further reading[edit]

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