A Japanese-American film discovered by a professor from the Northeast
For 108 years, “The Oath of the Sword”, a 1914 silent film released by one of the few Japanese-American film companies, was not seen by the public. Tucked away in the archives of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, the only remaining copy of the film was gathering dust, until Denise Khor discovered it.
Now, thanks to Khor, an associate professor of Northeast Asian and visual studies, the film — potentially the oldest recorded Asian American film — is being restored and, for the first time in 108 years, will return to the screen. Though only spanning three reels and 30 minutes, the silent drama reveals the untold story of an all-alternative film production network at a time when the medium was just beginning.
“He’s buried in this vault, and unless you’re a researcher like me, you’re just not going to see him,” Khor says. “It’s just such an important part of Asian American film, media and history, but it’s also just such an important part of American cinematic history.”
The restoration and preservation project, funded by a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation and carried out in partnership with the George Eastman Museum and the Japanese American National Museum, is the culmination of years of work for Khor. It started with his thesis, a deep dive into the origins of the film industry and the role Japanese Americans played in it.
Many films from this era have been lost to time, even more so for those made by Japanese Americans. This meant that Khor could not rely on traditional sources to trace this story.
Instead, she turned to the Japanese-American press. Sifting through century-old newspapers, Khor uncovered, piece by piece, the relatively untold story of Japanese-American cinema.
“It’s about things that haven’t materialized as well – film practices, film cultures, film productions,” Khor says. “It was really just to put this puzzle together.”
Eventually, Khor generated a list of about eight films made by Japanese Americans during this period, not expecting that she would ever see any. Not expecting much, Khor circulated the list among curators and archivists she knew – and she got a lead. Unexpectedly, the George Eastman Museum had the only surviving copy of the film in its archives.
Even though the museum had created a backup copy of the film in 1980, it was still incredibly fragile, which meant that Khor could only see it once without rewinding. Playing it frame by frame, Khor took an hour to watch the 30-minute film.
“I think I was the first person in this contemporary era to see it,” Khor says.
Created by the Los Angeles-based Japanese American Film Company, one of the few small movie houses run by Japanese immigrants, the film tells the tragic story of an ambitious young man, Maseo, and his beloved Hisa. Maseo leaves Japan to study at the University of California, Berkeley and, after finding success, returns to find that Hisa, alone since Maseo’s departure, has married and had a child with an American ship’s captain. white whose ship crashed on the shore of their village. .
Maseo flies into a rage and fights the captain, eventually overpowering him and throwing him overboard. He returns to Hisa, only to find that, out of shame, she has committed suicide.
The film is representative of many values and ideas that would have been relevant to Japanese Americans at the time, such as Western modernity and, in Maseo’s character, racial upliftment.
“Certainly this would have been a story that was also circulating for Japanese immigrant communities, who in many ways embraced respectability campaigns to respond to this anti-Japanese movement that was going on at the time,” says Khor.
“The Oath of the Sword” is just one of many films produced by Japanese Americans in the early 20th century, most of which will never be recovered. For Khor, the film helps reveal a network of Japanese-American theaters, film companies and filmmakers that operated separately from the still-nascent commercial film industry, which she chronicles in her book, “Transpacific Convergence.” Without proper distribution channels, audiences were limited, but films like “The Oath of the Sword” played a vital role for Japanese Americans.
The films were a form of community connectedness for Japanese immigrants and their families. They not only connected people in Japan, but with each other. And that connection didn’t just happen in movie theaters.
“We’re talking about Buddhist temples being repurposed to become movie theaters and community halls,” Khor says. “We’re talking about makeshift theaters that are set up outdoors in large fields or an orange packing warehouse being converted so that Japanese workers working in the fields can come in and watch movies. “
Central to the cinematic experience of Japanese Americans was bunshi. As a performer, the bunshi narrated the film for the audience, but they also served as an exhibitor, bringing the film projector and setting up the programming for the audience.
“The benshi became these quasi-celebrities who rivaled what was on screen,” Khor explains. “The benshi came once a month, and everyone went. If you were Japanese, it became that gathering place.
Restoration work is still ongoing, and Khor says the work will be done in October and a screening of the film will follow. But she hopes the project can go beyond a single film and help raise awareness of this larger cinematic story and the Japanese Americans who helped build it.
Between #OscarsSoWhite and ongoing conversations about representation and who can tell certain stories, Hollywood is at a time when it’s being asked to consider its history. Khor says these conversations are nothing new. In 1915, during the “early cinematic era,” protesters stood outside screenings of Cecil B. DeMille’s famous film “The Cheat” to talk about its depiction of Japanese Americans.
At a time when there’s an Asian Marvel hero on screen and a hit rom-com focused on an Asian and Asian-American cast, Khor says it’s important to remember that change has put some time to come – and that it is not guaranteed to stay.
“I think a lot of people are really hoping for this moment, that we see people like [Academy Award-winning director] Chloe Zhao and we see things like Crazy Rich Asians,” Khor says. “But I feel like for me, as a media historian and scholar, I’m kind of interested in seeing if this is just a moment or something more.”
For media inquiriesplease contact Marirose Sartoretto at [email protected] or 617-373-5718.