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Wrath of the Gods

Directed by Reginald Barker

Starring: Sessue Hayakawa; Tsuru Aoki; Frank Borzage; Kisaburo Kurihara; Henry Kotani

Wrath of the Gods

(The Destruction of Sakura-Jima) (1914)

    A terrific tale of “forbidden” love, featuring not just an inter-racial relationship, but also a rather uncomfortable inter-faith subtext, Wrath of the Gods is an extraordinary film.  A reversal, of sorts, of the story of Madame Butterfly, Wrath of the Gods, features a shipwrecked American sailor, a young Japanese woman who has recently renounced her faith in Buddha, an angry mob, and an even angrier volcano!  What’s not to love?

On the beaches of Japan, a young Japanese woman, Toya San (Tsura Aoki) is smitten by the attentions of a Japanese fisherman.  But when the Prophet, Takeo (Thomas Kurihara) warns the fishermen that Toya San comes from a family that has been cursed by the Gods, they leave Toya San in disgust.  Toya San returns to the pitiful shack of a home she shares with her poor fisherman father, Lord Yamaki (Sessue Hayakawa), and learns from him that the family has indeed been cursed.  In a fit of rage, Toya San visits the little temple and statue of Buddha they have in their back garden, and renounces her religion.  Meanwhile, off the coast of Japan, a schooner succumbs to a raging typhoon.  Yamaki sees much of the wreckage washed up on the beach, and soon finds sailor Tom Wilson (Frank Borzage), the lone survivor of the shipwreck.  He brings Tom back to the house, and Yamaki and Toya San nurse him back to health.  After many months, Tom declares his love for Toya San, and although she clearly reciprocates his affections, she tells him of the curse.  Tom introduces Toya San to the Western God, and together they tell Yamaki of this God that is more powerful than Buddha, showing him the cross necklace, trying to convert him.  Toya San and Tom head to the local mission to get married.  But the men in the town see the white man with their Japanese woman, and poise to riot against them.  Toya San and Tom escape, but the rampaging men, encouraged by Prophet Takeo, head to Yamaki’s home.  Meanwhile, Yamaki has made his own make-shift cross out of two sticks.  Out back, he takes down the statue of Buddha and smashes it, replacing it with his cross, just as the rioting townsmen arrive to burn down his home and kill Yamaki.  And that’s when the volcano erupts…

Heady stuff, indeed, but Wrath of the Gods is presented rather matter-of-factly, and somehow, given the film’s subtext, is not too preachy.  That’s its saving grace, for the denouncing of one religion over another is a pretty potent plot line, especially in a film from 1914.  But somehow, Wrath of the Godsgets away with it.  Perhaps it’s because the renunciation is inspired by a perceived curse, and not caused by the instigation of the another’s affiliation.  Too bad religion had to play any part in the film at all (although the title clearly states that God, or more accurately Gods, gets riled enough to show his [their] wrath, by setting off the volcano.)  

The more intriguing aspect of the film is the relationship between Tom and Toya San.  Unfortunately it’s a mere inter-title that tells us Tom has been living with Yamaki and Toya San for six months and we are not treated to seeing the budding relationship between the two lovers.  But their love is organic, having grown while Tom convalesced, and the fact that he is American and she Japanese never even occurs to the two of them.  Nor does it to Toya San’s father, Yamaki, who is more upset at the fact that his daughter has embraced the Western God than he is at her falling in love with a Western man.  Watching the film, and their relationship, we too, nearly forget that they are of different heritage, and it is only when we see them through the eyes of the townsmen that we are reminded of their differences.  The kiss they share, smack on the lips, is one of romance and love, and race and religion have little to do with it.  How remarkably refreshing, especially in such an early film.

Under heavy make-up, Sessue Hayakawa is unrecognizable as Lord Yamaki, but certainly portrays the old man with a dignity and respect.  It is tough to watch, however, the scene in which he smashes the Buddha statute.  Would that he merely placed it off to the side.

The future Mrs. Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki is wonderful as Toya San.  Her early flirtations with the fisherman, before learning of her family’s curse, are natural and infectious.  And the wrath that she herself feels, upon learning that the curse is true, is quite visible in Aoki’s performance.  While the relationship between Toya San and Tom Wilson is interesting to watch, Aoki and Frank Borzage don’t have much chemistry together, and that, and not the fact that they are of two different nationalities, is where the film falters, albeit slightly.  Still, as mentioned, the actual “romance” is kept to a bare minimum in this film that runs less than an hour, so their lack of actual chemistry matters little.

Director Reginald Barker keeps things moving at quite a clip and yet allows for some breathing room when it is required.  But the action sequences–the rioting mob and, of course, the volcano, are as exciting as they come.  In long shot, we see the Japanese village along the coast line, smoke and fire engulfing the frame as we cut closer to see some of the glorious detail of the wrath the volcano has wrought.  A convenient ship is right off the coast, enabling our couple to row to relative safety.  But Barker very effectively shows that the deck of the ship itself is being pelted by flaming lava, as a nearby vessel should be.  There are many impressive shots of crewmen frantically putting out little fires as they ready to vacate the premises.  This attention to detail negates the sequences where the “evil” townsmen (nary a woman in the town that I could see) succumb to the volcano, by merely falling to the ground.  While their deaths are “deserved” (and unconvincing), Barker’s cutting back to the flaming schooner deck helps make the sequence more believable, and allows one to determine for themselves whether the volcano’s eruption was a convenient coincidence, or actually was the wrath of the gods.

Wrath of the Gods is available as a special feature on the Milestone release of The Dragon Painter.  The print, from the George Eastman House, is in in fair condition, with some noticeable wear, but never to the point of distraction.  The musical score by Marco Lionhand is terrific.

Kevin M. Wentink

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