Sadayakko as Ophelia (1905)
“Sadayakko (貞奴) was her stage name as an actress and dancer, derived from a combination of her real name, Sada Koyama, and her geisha name, Yakko.
Born in 1871, the twelfth child of a Samurai family, which had fallen into poverty, she was indentured to the Hamada okiya (geisha house) in the Yoshi-cho hanamachi (geisha district) of Tokyo at the age of four. In 1893, after a successful career as a geisha, she retired at the age of twenty-two to marry Otojiro Kawakami, a ‘new wave’ actor and theatrical entrepreneur. However, after only a few years of marriage they were in severe financial difficulties when one of his major ventures failed.
So, in 1899 the couple leapt at an opportunity to tour the United States of America where, at the age of twenty-eight she re-invented herself as Sadayakko (or Sada Yacco), the first female actor in Japan for two hundred and fifty years. After a tumultuous beginning, Sadayakko eventually found acclaim and they went on to tour Paris and the European capitals where Sadayakko was feted as a star, her performances influencing artistic luminaries of the time such as, Pablo Picasso, Isadora Duncan and Claude Debussy.
The couple returned to Japan in August 1902 and went on to champion ‘new wave’ theatre and European-style productions at home, re-interpreting many of the Western classics for a Japanese audience.
Her portrayal of Orié (Ophelia) was a triumph, her long black tresses tumbling to her waist, her face like that of a little lost child, wearing a pale water-blue dress trimmed with white lace, flowers in her hair and in her hands, singing snatches of nursery rhymes “rain is falling on his grave…no, not rain, it is tears of blood”.” (source)