Who left the gooks out?
Curiously, there's no hint here of the disparaging ethnic stereotyping that is assumed to be inseparable from earlier US films.
Instead, we are shown a young male with his companions, behaving in much the same way as the "Club of the Sons" were shown in Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, playing games in the Eternal Gardens. We are given an extended display of the swordplay of the Japanese martial art of kendo, where we can see one of the companions, unlike the others, is smartly dressed in a Western-style sports jacket and slacks. The scene firmly establishes The Hero with as a well-bred and refined member of Japan's elite.
The frivolities end when a soldier delivers a message to The Hero. As duty calls, he dons his uniform, performs some rituals, then heads off to battle.
From here on, the plot gets so murky (with no intertitles) that it seems this film must have depended on a narrator to explain what was happening on the screen. As the film itself displays little of interest other than the somewhat impressive battlefield explosions, the most pressing questions are:
- Why was a tale of a foreign war with no US involvement deemed of interest to US audiences?
- Given the prevalent US fear of the Yellow Peril, why was the hero on the side of Japan, rather than Russia?
In this case, however, we have fortunately been spared that drudgery by the fascinating and enlightening essay, Gregory A. Waller's Narrating the new Japan: Biograph’s The Hero of Liao-Yang (1904) .
Why a film about a war abroad?
The essay supplies essential context:
- The film presents a fictional episode of The Battle of Liao-Yang, a fierce and bloody battle of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), a war over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. The film was completed less than three weeks after the battle, exploiting topical interest in re-enactments of armed conflicts abroad, as Williamson's (more exciting) Attack on a China Mission and Edison's Capture of Boer Battery by British had done in 1900.
- The Russo-Japanese War received unprecedented attention from foreign correspondents, and was not only highlighted as a top news story, but also featured as an attraction depicted in a variety of visual media: general-interest magazines such as Collier’s and Harper’s Weekly, postcards, three-dimensional stereoview cards, and editorial cartoons. It was the first war of the new century, using armaments that were more technological and consequently led to massive carnage. Particular attention was paid to the modern tactics and organization of the Japanese forces.
- The Russo-Japanese War increased American fascination with Japan that began with the forced "opening of Japan" to US trade through US "gunboat diplomacy" in 1854.
If essays are automatically chucked in the tl;dr bin, try this snippet from "history of japan":
What's happening on screen?
To aid understanding of the murky plot, the essay also provides a written synopsis of the film published in Biograph’s advertising catalogue:
A young Japanese officer interrupted from the quiet pleasures of his
home life by official notice to join his regiment at once, swears fealty
to his Emperor on the sword of his ancestor, and in a characteristically
unemotional way bids farewell to his wife and children. The following
scenes find him at the front, where he is intrusted [sic] with a deed of
desperate daring – the carrying of a message through the enemy’s
country to the commander of the second Japanese army. In the
accomplishment of this feat he is severely wounded and captured by
Cossacks, but, though seriously wounded, manages to devour the
paper upon which the despatch is written. He is taken to a Russian field
hospital, and there, by feigning death and with the assistance of a
faithful Chinese coolie, escapes and arrives at the headquarters of the
second army while the ‘Battle of Liao-Yang’ is raging. In the midst of
terrific cannonading and shells bursting about in every direction, he
hands his despatch to the officer commanding and is decorated upon
the field with the emblem of highest honor in Japan, taken from the
breast of the general himself.
From this synopsis it seems that the surviving print may be incomplete, since the hero never appears to be decorated.
Why was the hero on the Japan side?
Unfortunately, the essay - the work of a film historian, not a political scientist - comes up short in its explanation for the film's
That Japan unquestionably stands as the heroic side in this war is a
crucial given in "The Hero of Liao-Yang", even though nothing in the title
of the film suggests the nationality of the hero, who could conceivably
have been an interloping American or a valiant Cossack. However, this
partisan perspective is not at all surprising, considering US newspaper
and magazine coverage of the Russo-Japanese War.
But this does not explain why US newspaper and magazine coverage of the Russo-Japanese War stood on the side of Japan in 1904, while the
"Yellow Peril" fear that raged at that time had led to, among other acts:
- The Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, when 500 white rioters attacked Chinatown,torturing then hanging an estimated 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants - the largest mass lynching in American history.
- The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers
- The Rock Springs massacre of 1885 in Wyoming, where white immigrant miners killed at least 28 Chinese miners, and burned 78 Chinese homes.
But historically the "Yellow Peril" was not clearly identified at first. Although its chief initial purveyor, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, applied the term to both Japan and China to justify Germany's late nineteenth century imperialist interests in Asia, he was unsuccessful in selling his version of the "Yellow Peril" to the other Western powers.
The UK was least aligned to the German perspective, as they had already established that China posed no threat, only an opportunity for trade and colonization, through swift defeats in the Opium Wars and the resulting capture of Hong Kong as a British colony. And Japan was not only not a threat, it was an ally after the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902, following decades of British assistance in the modernization of Japan's military, and Japan's membership in the European alliance that ended the Boxer rebellion. The UK saw Russia as the main threat to their interests in China, and viewed Japan as a counterforce to Russian expansion.
The US policy at that time was close to the UK's (although somewhat more wary of Japan's rising power), with the "Yellow Peril"
interpreted as the possibility another Boxer-like surge of nationalism threatening Western colonialism interests in China, and Chinese
immigration to the US. When The Hero of Liao-Yang was released Japanese immigration was not yet an issue, according to US records:
...by 1880 the total Japanese population in this country was only 148 persons...By 1890 there were 2,039 Japanese immigrants and
native-born American citizens of Japanese ancestry in the United States; by 1900 there were 24,326; between 1901 and 1908, a time of
unrestricted immigration, 127,0OO Japanese entered the United States.1
Consequently, anti-Japanese sentiment did not start taking shape in the US until 1905-07.
In summary, the UK sided with Japan against the Russians. So it is no surprise that the US sided with the UK, and that US newspaper, magazine, and film coverage of the Russo-Japanese War portrayed Japan's military as the heroes. And, instead of the classic disparaging Asian stereotype, the film provides an early example of one of the romanticized Japanese stereotypes: a male of martial impulses, even in leisure at home; reverently linked to the past through ritual worship of the sword; elegantly dispassionate and formal, even under emotional pressure. In short: the Noble Samurai, a stereotype so enduring that it has even transcended its ethnic roots to conquer the galaxy.