P: Thomas A.Edison Inc. USA 1894
“Twirling and swinging cloth strips, three Japanese demonstrate a dance from the Mikado for the earliest Western filmmakers. This is the oldest surviving moving image featuring Japanese people from the BFI National Archive’s collection. It was produced for Edison’s Kinetoscope not in Japan but in W.K.L. Dickson’s studio in New Jersey. It is a film of the Mikado dance by the Sarashe sisters who were performing at the 5th Avenue Theater. The three Japanese dancers perform with their kimono sleeves tucked up for vibrant movement, they shake paper fans and strips of sarashi (gauze), which represent the dyed cloth being rinsed in the river. The fluttering movement of the cloth parallels the sensual flapping of the skirt in the Western serpentine dance, a popular subject in early films.”
Kosuke Fujiki & Bryony Dixon
R: Gaston Velle. P: Pathé Frères. Fr 1904
“Stencil colour and exotic décor add dazzle to a magic show conducted by white performers in yellowface.
Three Westerners, two men and a woman, dress up as Asians to perform a series of magic tricks. Their gaudy ‘Japanese’ costumes and yellowface make-up seem more a device to evoke a sense of exoticism than an accurate representation of the oriental culture. The male assistant wears a wig with a braided queue; a Manchu-derived hairstyle more closely associated with Qing-dynasty China than with Japan. The film employs editing and superimposition for its special effects. The film is produced by Pathé and is credited to Gaston Velle . After working for the Lumière brothers, Velle was hired by Pathé Frères to make a number of ‘trick’ films, a popular staple of early cinema. Like many such films, Japonaiserie features a magician; Velle himself had been a stage illusionist, as was his father.”
Among the Japanese
Original title: L’après-midi d’une japonaise (?)
P: Pathé Frères. Fr 1911
“Upper-class Japanese ladies dress up for an open-air afternoon tea, to appreciate the shortlived cherry blossoms.
This film introduces the young women as a particular social type – ‘M’lady’ – as can be discerned from their clothing and coiffure. With cherry branches in hand, they stroll about a well-maintained Japanese stone garden. Their luxurious kimono is highlighted by the film’s stenciled colourisation, which involved manually cutting an area of each frame to enable tinting. The film appears designed explicitly for a middle-class female audience, addressed in an intertitle as ‘dear lady’. Hanami (flower viewing) is a Japanese traditional practice of open-air luncheon parties during the season of cherry blossoms. In Japan, the delicate beauty of cherry blossoms, usually lasting only a week or so, is considered a quintessential symbol of transience. Distinct from the previous scenes, the final, interior scene features another woman admiring elaborate ivory figurines. The footage is likely included to show she belongs to the same affluent class as the other two ladies.”
Kosuke Fujiki (Film Studies, King’s College London)
BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon adds: This film may be a clip from the French cinemagazine Pathé-revue, originally titled L’après-midi d’une japonaise.
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