An early Hollywood silent film, The Dragon Painter is a fantasy romance about love and creative inspiration starring Japanese immigrant Sessue Hayakawa. Tatsu (Hayakawa) is a reclusive artist who lives in the mountains of Japan painting images of the dragon princess he loved in another life. He comes to believe the daughter of a wealthy art collector is his lost princess, but as Tatsu finds happiness in love, his art begins to suffer.
In his prime, Hayakawa was as popular as Charlie Chaplin, as rich as Douglas Fairbanks and, to this day, the only Asian American to own his own Hollywood studio. Hayakawa founded Haworth Pictures Corporation after becoming fed up with the self-proclaimed Orientalist roles in which he was cast by the major studios, including his character in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat. Hayakawa’s studio subsequently released 19 films between the years of 1918 to 1922.
Although set in Japan, The Dragon Painter was shot on location in Yosemite National Park and stars a predominantly Japanese American cast, including Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru Aoki. Produced by Hayakawa’s own studio, the film deliberately strived to provide an authentic perspective on Japanese culture that countered the dominant narrative of stereotypes, violence, and melodramatic conflict expected in so-called “Oriental” films of the period. For these reasons, it is considered it to be one of the first Asian American films in history.