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108-year-old Japanese American silent film found in NY museum to be preserved

  • Denise Khor, associate professor of Asian American and visual studies at Northeastern University, has been tasked to preserve a 108-year-old Japanese American silent film thought to be lost in the archives of a museum in New York.

  • The only surviving copy of the 1914 silent film “The Oath of the Sword” was reportedly tucked away in the archives of the Rochester-based museum.

  • Khor, in partnership with George Eastman Museum and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, received a grant in 2021 from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve “The Oath of the Sword.”

  • Khor said representation in the film is reminiscent of representation we see in the media today.

A Northeastern University professor has been tasked to preserve a 108-year-old Japanese American silent film thought to be lost in the archives of a museum in New York.

Denise Khor, associate professor of Asian American and visual studies at Northeastern University, received an email about the film from George Eastman Museum while doing research for her book “Transpacific Convergences: Race, Migration, and Japanese American Film Culture before World War II” in 2016.

The only surviving copy of the 1914 silent film “The Oath of the Sword” was reportedly tucked away in the archives of the Rochester-based museum.

The IMDb synopsis of the film, which was created by Japanese immigrant-led Japanese American Film Company, reads in part: “The scene opens in Japan, and in a number of wonderfully beautiful scenic settings the young love of Masao and the lovely Hisa are shown. Sweethearts from childhood, the two decide to marry, just before Masao goes away to study in America. Masao is very ambitious and makes a very great success at the University of California, taking many prizes for his athletic prowess, and becoming the favorite of both faculty and students. … The picture takes us back to his beloved Hisa, who is very lonely, and her grief is added to by the death of her father. As he is passing away he administers to her ‘Katano,’ or the oath of the sword, which means that in case she commits sin, she is bound by honor to commit hara-kiri, killing herself with the sacred family sword.”

Khor, in partnership with George Eastman Museum and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, received a grant in 2021 from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve “The Oath of the Sword,” a project which started out as her dissertation.

“It’s buried in this vault, and unless you’re a researcher like me, you’re just not going to see it,” Khor told the university of the 30-minute film which spans three reels. “It’s just such an important part for Asian American film and media and history, but it’s also just an important part of American film history.”

To do an in-depth examination of Japanese Americans’ place in the origins of the film industry, Khor sifted through 100-year-old Japanese American newspaper clippings.

“This is all about things that didn’t actually materialize as well–film practices, film cultures, film productions,” Khor shared. “It was really just putting together this jigsaw puzzle.”

A safety print of the film was reportedly created in 1980, but it had become so frail that the professor could only watch the film once without rewinding it. It took Khor about an hour to view the short film.

“The Oath of the Sword” resonated with Japanese American audiences of that period, most of whom were part of immigrant communities. Khor said representation in the film is reminiscent of representation we see in the media today.

“I think a lot of people are really hopeful for this moment, that we are seeing people like [Academy Award-winning director] Chloe Zhao and we’re seeing things like Crazy Rich Asians,” the professor said. “But I feel like for me as a media historian and scholar, I’m sort of interested to see whether this is just a moment or something more.”

Featured Image via University of Massachusetts Boston

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