Hanako (1868-1945) was a Japanese stage actress who captivated European and American audiences in the early 20th century. Audiences believed she was an acclaimed leading lady in Japan, but in reality she was a vaudeville performer who had never acted in her native country.

She was born Ota Hisa and was a thirty-three year old entertainer in the city of Gifu when she joined a company of performers and suddenly sailed with them for Copenhagen in 1901. She probably would have remained in obscurity, like all the other Japanese variety players who toured Europe, if she hadn’t been discovered by American dancer Lori Fuller. Fuller had grown weary of financing the company of real Japanese actress Sada Yacco, so she recruited Hisa’s group and installed Hisa, a minor bit player, as the star, christening her "Hanako".

Fuller, with no knowledge of Japanese language or culture, wrote faux-Japanese dramas like "The Martyr" and "A Drama at Yoshiwara" for Western audiences which featured Hanako as the lead. At the end of each play, Hanako was featured in a melodramatic death scene, such as her committing hari-kiri or being strangled by a jealous lover.

Audiences on two continents ate this stuff up. Her skills as an actress were lacking, but she must have had a powerful stage presence, which accounted for the success of an actress who performed only in Japanese or broken English. One of her most ardent admirers was the great sculptor Auguste Rodin, who was quite taken with her and sculpted several masks of her face. (See one at http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?92163+0+0)

World War I forced Hanako to stop touring and settle in London, where she opened a restaurant in Dorset Square. Kogetsu was as close as you were going to get to an authentic Japanese restaurant in Europe, and was honored by a visit by then crown prince Hirohito.

In 1922, she returned to Gifu, Japan to retire, where she lived with her sister. She lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity, only bothered by artists admiring the two masks given to her by Rodin and the occasional reporter.

Hanako was the subject of a 1910 short story by the great Japanese author Mori Ogai. The story shouldn’t be viewed as biographical, as he departs radically from the facts. He uses the relationship between Hanako and Rodin to examine Hanako’s allure.

Source: Donald Keene, Appreciations of Japanese Culture, 1971.

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