On Sunday, May 28 the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will screen The Oath of the Sword (1914), a three-reel silent drama preserved with National Film Preservation Foundation support. Made by the Japanese Film Company and featuring an all-Japanese leading cast, The Oath of the Sword is the earliest known Asian American film production. It is an important and rare surviving exemplar of an under-explored part of early Asian American film history: movies made by and for Japanese Americans.
The Oath of the Sword tells the tragic story of lovers separated when an ambitious young man leaves his beloved in Japan to study abroad at the University of California, Berkeley. It contrasts the morals of traditional Japanese society with the forces of assimilation and modernization in America. The film features one of the first onscreen appearances of Yutaka Abe, who went on to appear in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) and become a director after returning to Japan in 1925.
Denise Khor, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies and Visual Studies at Northeastern University, located a 35mm tinted nitrate print of The Oath of the Sword at George Eastman Museum during research for her book Transpacific Convergences: Race, Migration, and Japanese American Film Culture before World War II (UNC Press, 2022). She then approached the NFPF and the Japanese American National Museum about collaborating with George Eastman Museum to preserve the film and make publicly accessible copies.
The May 28th screening, held at the Academy Museum’s Ted Mann Theater, will be presented by the Japanese American National Museum, with live musical accompaniment by pianist and composer Naomi Nakanishi. A panel discussion will follow. Participants will include Professor Khor and Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media.