Sōjin Kamiyama— How Sojin Does It (1927) 🇺🇸

Sōjin Kamiyama (上山 草人 ) and Uraji Yamakawa (山川 浦路) with one of their sons | www.vintoz.com

August 11, 2023

Beauty isn’t everything. Often an eccentric appearance or a deformity of some sort is as much of an asset on the screen as the most flaming of beauty.

by Julia Williams

Take Sojin, for instance— the Japanese actor whom you all must know from the many unique characterizations that he has given the screen. As himself Sojin isn’t such a bad-looking guy — though distinctly different in appearance — but when made up for one of those eccentric roles he plays, well, he’s an eyeful. Like Lon Chaney, he specializes in weird make-up. And it’s this very power to look strange and unnatural, combined, of course, with his Oriental nationality and a pronounced gift for acting, that has placed him in tremendous demand among the film producers. For certain types of roles he is unrivaled.

Seeing Sojin at work one day on the Metro-Goldwyn lot, during the filming of The Road to Mandalay, I strolled over and tried to engage him in conversation. But as he has not added a mastery of our language to his other accomplishments, our talk was not very satisfactory. I wanted to hear something of his entry into motion pictures. But he did not understand very well — “Bring my wife to-morrow,” he said. “She spik’ Engleesh ver’ good.”

So the next day I met Lady Sojin, and in very good English she told me something of her husband’s background and experiences.

He was born in Sendai. Japan. His father was a member of Parliament and from his early youth Sojin was surrounded by an atmosphere of learning and literary achievement. When still a very young boy, he entered the University of Japan, where his innate love of poetry and literature was fostered and encouraged. In this sympathetic environment he wrote and published several books of lyric poems.

As he grew older he became deeply interested in dramatic literature and decided to devote his life to the study and presentation of drama in Japan. Under the able direction of Professor Tsubouchi, the great Japanese authority on drama and literature, Sojin made rapid progress and later became associated with the professor’s dramatic school as teacher and director.

When the little-theater movement spread to Japan, he became one of its most ardent and valued supporters. Having been through a thorough training in acting and directing, he undertook to organize a company of his own, which became most successful. In his own theater, he presented in Japanese the best European and English plays. Often he played the lead himself, and numbers among his repertory such roles as King Lear, Macbeth, and Shylock, all popular in Japan, where Shakespeare is greatly admired. Ibsen, too. is a well-liked dramatist in Japan, so Sojin presented and appeared in many of his plays.

Finally, he was called to the Imperial Theater in Tokio, which is owned and controlled by a group of wealthy Japanese. Here Sojin reached the peak of his career.

Previous to this, while still director of his own company, he had fallen in love with his leading lady and married her. They now have two sons, one of whom shows great literary promise and is attending school in this country.

About six years ago, becoming interested in the possibilities in motion-picture work, Sojin came to America with a view of entering films. But, not knowing English, he had no means of gaining access to those in a position to help him. After a long, fruitless effort to find work, he decided to give up his movie ambitions for the time being. He went up to Canada and traveled about, enjoying a prolonged vacation, which he sorely needed after his years of hard work in Japan.

Later he settled in San Francisco, where he founded and edited a monthly magazine called The East and West Times. This was a Japanese publication intended to encourage friendly feelings between Japan and the United States.

Then, one day, when he was on a fishing excursion off San Pedro, he met an old friend, a Jap, who had heard that Douglas Fairbanks was in need of an intelligent Oriental to play an important part in The Thief of Bagdad. Thinking that perhaps this might prove to be his long-awaited opportunity, Sojin hastened to the Pickford-Fairbanks studio and made application for the part. Although many Orientals had already applied, Sojin’s appearance and long experience, added to numerous screen tests, finally secured the coveted role for him. His work in this important film was such an outstanding characterization that it led to many other important engagements for him, until now he is well established on the screen and in constant demand for unusual Oriental roles.

When Sojin was first considered for the part of the Japanese butler in The Bat, it was decided by Director Roland West that his appearance lacked a certain sinister quality necessary to the role — his teeth were too perfect, his smile too bland — so some one else was sought for the role. All this was not explained to the clever Oriental, because of his limited knowledge of English, but an effort was made to find a Jap or a Chinaman with a “fearful, frightful, frantic” smile, to paraphrase the famous song in “The Mikado.” Dozens and dozens of Orientals, were interviewed — tall, short, lanky, obese, with and without pigtails — but none had the proper tusklike teeth.

Finally it was decided that perhaps Sojin was the best bet after all, in spite of his too-pleasant smile. He was called in and given the part. But the director added that he did wish he didn’t have such nice, even teeth. And with much gesticulating, it was explained to him why he hadn’t been selected without hesitation. Slowly a broad smile spread over his usually impassive countenance. With a soft “Excus’!” he told Mr. West that was all right, he could fix it. “Come back tomorrow,” he said.

Wondering, Mr. West let him go, first signing his contract at a nice, fat salary to play in The Bat. The following day Sojin appeared. As he came into the room where West sat dictating, he took off his hat and smiled fiendishly, horribly, at the surprised director. For there, protruding from the corners of his mouth, were two short tusks. They lent just the proper amount of sinister ugliness to his appearance. West clapped him on the back joyously and asked him how he had done it.

“I have plenty teef,” he said, smiling fiercely and showing both tusks genially.

He pulled a case from his pocket and opened it, revealing set after set of false teeth. There was every kind imaginable. These, he explained proudly, were the main features of his wardrobe. His clothes were quite incidental, but the possibilities of teeth

Sojin long ago sacrificed his original ones, so he is in a position to substitute any variety he wants. When he is given a part he makes a study of it. If he has no teeth that seem just to suit the character, he has new ones made. Then, if necessary, he care full}* breaks off one or two to give an expression of cruelty, avarice, or greed. When he wants to portray a comic character, he removes both upper and lower sets, and the result is all that could be desired.

He sometimes has amusing accidents with his teeth. For instance, during the making of the storm scene in The Sea Beast, when he was exultantly and wildly urging John Barrymore on to overtake the monstrous whale, while huge mountains of water were dashing over the bridge, Sojin became so chilled that he could scarcely go on, and John offered him a “wee drap” to warm him up. The Jap gratefully accepted and drained off the “warmer.” But to his consternation, a few moments later one of his long tusks became very loose. When he felt to see what was the matter, it came out entirely. The potent warmer had spoiled his make-up. So shooting was suspended while Sojin fastened the tusk back in place with a rubber band.

In a scene in The Lady of the Harem, he was required to eat figs — lots of figs. And every one knows how difficult dried figs are to masticate, even with the best of teeth. After eating just a few Sojin calmly went on with the rest of the scene. But the director thundered, “Eat more figs!” And in spite of the danger to his precious teeth, not to mention the enormous discomfort, he was forced to go on eating, until just the right effect was obtained.

His costumes are worked out by the studio designer in conjunction with Sojin. When he was called upon to depict the wild, brutal coolie in The Sea Beast, he needed a worn coat, full of holes. Not having one available, Sojin sat up all night devising one. He took a good coat and burned holes in it with a candle, rubbing the grease on the edges to make them appear old and naturally worn through.

In each of his characterizations Sojin tries to bring an entirely new delineation to the screen. That he has been successful is attested to by his steadily growing list of triumphs.

Sōjin Kamiyama— How Sojin Does It (1927) | www.vintoz.com

Which should it be? Prominence in Japan or obscurity in America? That’s what Sojin and his wife had to choose between, and they chose obscurity in America — all because of the movies. They had won fame on the Japanese stage, but they left it behind them and came across the Pacific — all because of the movies. Strangers in a foreign land, and they didn’t know the language — not so good. But now the obscurity is gone, and they sit in their Hollywood home, and smile — all because of the movies.

One of their two sons is shown with them in the picture above.

Sōjin Kamiyama— How Sojin Does It (1927) | www.vintoz.com

Merely by removing his teeth Sojin acquired the comic expression that made him such a hit as the Jewish jeweler in The Wanderer.

Sojin as the brutal coolie in The Sea Beast.

For the role of the imbecile-looking Sultan in The Lady of the Harem, he made his teeth few and far between.

Sōjin Kamiyama— How Sojin Does It (1927) | www.vintoz.com

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, June 1927