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
Sessue Hayakawa (m. 1914–1961)

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 emigrated to Los Angeles, California in 1903 with her aunt and uncle, Otojirō Kawakami, who had previously owned a theatrical group called "Kawakami-za" in Japan. Aoki was later adopted by another uncle Aoki Toshio and relocated to San Francisco. Toshio worked as a sketch artist for a local newspaper. 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.[1] 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.[1] 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.

One of Aoki's most recalled films of the silent period is the 1919 William Worthington-directed The Dragon Painter, in which Aoki starred, playing 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 Ref
The Oath of Tsuru San 1913
O Mimi San 1914
The Courtship of O San 1914
The Geisha 1914
Love's Sacrifice 1914
The Wrath of the Gods 1914 [2]
A Tragedy of the Orient 1914
A Relic of Old Japan 1914
Desert Thieves 1914
Star of the North 1914
The Curse of Caste 1914
The Village 'Neath the Sea 1914
The Death Mask 1914
The Typhoon 1914
Nipped 1914
The Vigil 1914
Mother of the Shadows 1914
The Last of the Line 1914
The Famine 1915
The Chinatown Mystery 1915
The Beckoning Flame 1915 [3]
Alien Souls 1916 [4]
The Honorable Friend 1916
The Soul of Kura San 1916
Each to His Kind 1917
The Call of the East 1917
The Curse of Iku 1918
The Bravest Way 1918
His Birthright 1918
A Heart in Pawn 1919
The Courageous Coward 1919
The Gray Horizon 1919
The Dragon Painter 1919
Bonds of Honor 1919
Locked Lips 1920
A Tokyo Siren 1920
The Breath of the Gods 1920
Screen Snapshots 1920-21
Black Roses 1921
Five Days to Live 1922
Night Life in Hollywood 1922
The Battle 1923
The Great Prince Shan 1924
The Danger Line 1924
Sen Yan's Devotion 1924
Hell to Eternity 1960


  • 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. ^ a b Anderson, Joseph L. (2011). Enter a Samurai: Full text and illustrations. Wheatmark, Inc. pp. 88–89. ISBN 978-1-60494-367-2.
  2. ^ "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
  3. ^ "The Beckoning Flame". Arkansas City Daily Traveler. Arkansas City, Kansas. 18 February 1916. p. 6. Retrieved 10 December 2014 – via Newspapers.com. open access
  4. ^ "Alien Souls". Iowa City Press-Citizen. Iowa. 24 August 1916. p. 3. Retrieved 10 December 2014 – via Newspapers.com. open access

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