Film History Essentials: Imperial Japanese Dance (1894)

What it’s about:

Three women in what appears to be Japanese garb stand in a line before the camera. The one in the middle holds out a fan which she twirls on her finger before spinning in a circle, dropping into a crouch, and then standing and continuing to dance. Meanwhile, the two women next to her hold handles in each hand with long streamers of gauzy cloth attached. The left streamer each one holds is light, and the right streamer is dark. The two turn in unison, first facing right, then left, then forward, etc. As they turn, they wave their arms, causing the streamers to create a mesmerizing pattern in the air in front of them.

Why it’s essential:

Filmed late in 1894, this is likely the first film to feature Japanese people, and possibly the first appearance by any Asian in a motion picture. I say “likely,” not just for the usual reason that it’s hard to be certain when so many early films are lost, but because in this case, it’s difficult to be sure of the women’s actual origins. In general, we have to take the claims from the Edison catalog regarding what we see in a particular film on a certain amount of trust. This may or may not be justified, but when the information from the catalog can be corroborated with additional information from outside as to the nature of the act and its participants, then it seems reasonable to accept it.

In this case, I can discover very little about these dancers, except that they were performing on the vaudeville stage as the Sarashe Sisters. This is certainly a stage name, taken (according to art historian Hsuan Tsen) from the Japanese word sarashi, a reference in this case to the streamers being waved by two of the dancers. In another blow to its purported authenticity, the catalog description of the film states that it is: “A charming representation of the Mikado dance by three beautiful Japanese ladies in full costume.” This probably refers to The Mikado, a hugely popular Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera from a decade earlier, rather than to an actual Japanese dance. But at the same time, it’s hard to know whether the word “Mikado” was used here simply to connect the dance to something the audience might recognize, which would not be unprecedented.

All of this suggests that, whatever its level of authenticity, the film was calculated to meet the general demand for all things Japanese that existed throughout this time. After Japan was forced to open itself to Western trade in the 1850s, Japanese style and culture experienced a period of significant popularity as a source of inspiration in the Western visual and performing arts. This trend came to be called Japonisme. Today, of course, we would call it cultural appropriation. However, just as with Native American “Wild Westers,” this demand seems to have created at least some opportunities for actual Asian performers that may not have existed otherwise.

Why you should see it:

There is just something about this film that I find absolutely fascinating. I think at least in part it’s just how well-suited this act is to the constraints of early silent film. It doesn’t feel as though the sound is “missing,” and you can watch it on an loop almost without noticing when it has started over again. My favorite bit comes about 14 seconds in, when the central dancer’s fan catches on the white streamer next to her without either her or the dancer on the left noticing until she has spun around and wrapped it around her body. For a moment, it seems that the dance is about to end in a tangle, but then the central dancer drops into a crouch and flips her fan up with a flourish, and the other dancer, watching carefully, detaches the streamer with a single deft flick, and they continue. This suggests that, as with many of the acts filmed in the Black Maria, the performers were used to considerably more space in which to perform.

Incidentally, the BFI have published a much higher-quality version of this footage that also eliminates the vertical “jogging” that is visible throughout this clip, but their version cuts off before the end of the film. If you’re interested, you can see it here. The Edison catalog listing states that hand-colored prints of this scene were made, but none have been found.


~ by Jared on February 4, 2023.

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