It’s difficult to judge a performance, to articulate why some expressions or intonations worked while others do not. For me, the best performance I’ve ever seen on film was Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Tatsuji Suga in the 1950 war film Three Came Home. The movie follows Agnes Keith (Claudette Colbert), an American writer being held in a Japanese POW camp run by Col. Suga. Their interactions are cordial (he’s a fan of hers), but Agnes never forgets that he’s dangerous.
In this regard, the character is reminiscent of other roles Hayakawa played after World War II. He became typecast as the honourable Japanese officer, seen most famously in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). However, in most of those films, Hayakawa’s character rarely exists as separate from the American protagonist. In Three Came Home, he is allowed one final heartbreaker of a scene.
If you haven’t already seen the film, you might want to skip this paragraph. Japan has surrendered. Suga receives news of Hiroshima, where his family was staying. He gathers up all the children from the camp (including Agnes’ son) and drives them to his estate for a tea party. As the young ones gleefully devour the sweets, the camera holds on Suga, sitting off to the side, not participating in festivities. As the sounds of happy children play in the background, his façade slowly crumbles with sorrow. The real-life Suga committed suicide shortly after being captured by Australian troops.
Ever since Hayakawa’s rise to stardom in the 1910s (he was the original Rudolph Valentino), he stood apart from his acting peers. Instead of continuing the theatrical excesses of the stage, he recognized the power of a closeup and how subtle changes to his expression could carry substantial weight. In my opinion, the level of control that he had over his face has only ever been matched by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Those talents would continue into Hayakawa’s post-war “rediscovery.” For example, in Hell to Eternity (1960), he delivered an emotionally powerful speech entirely in un-subtitled Japanese. But, here, in Three Came Home, especially in that final scene, I believe that his talents saw their best implementation. For a few seconds, a man’s entire life passed across his face, wordlessly conveying more pathos than an entire monologue.
If you want more stories about surviving a Japanese POW camp, be sure to check out Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand, 2011) from the 2AD Memorial Library. You can also reserve a copy of Agnes Keith’s original account of these events: Three Came Home: A Woman’s Ordeal in a Japanese Prison Camp (Agnes Newton Keith, 1948). The film is in the public domain and can be watched for free on the Internet Archive: