Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon: A Bridge Between Japanese Cinema and the World

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In 1951, the world of cinema underwent an epochal transformation: at the Venice Film Festival, a Japanese film entitled Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, won the prestigious Golden Lion. This was not the first Japanese film to be presented at the Venice Film Festival but this victory opened the doors of Japanese cinema to international audiences, shattered the narrative conventions of the time and profoundly influenced the world’s film scene. Rashomon was not just a film: it was an open window into a rich and complex culture, and an invitation to see the world through different perspectives. This introduction into the international context marked the beginning of a cultural dialogue that would redefine cinematic narratives for decades to come. Thus, the triumphant entry of Kurosawa and Japanese cinema into Venice became a symbol of how art can unite distant worlds and cultures, revealing the universality of human stories.

Original film poster, image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashomon 31/05/24, 16.20

I was able to interview Maria Roberta Novielli, university lecturer at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice with a diploma (kenkyuusei) in Cinema at Nihon University of Tokyo and numerous publications on Japanese cinema behind her. She explained to me why Rashomon was a turning point for the relationship between Japanese cinema and the West. 

The historical context of Japanese cinema

The history of Japanese cinema begins roughly parallel to that of Western cinema. After the unification of Japan in 1868 the Meiji period began, characterized by an unprecedented openness to the West. Only two years after the famous first projection by the Lumière brothers in the Indian Salon of the Grand Café of Paris in December 1895, cinema arrived in Japan. In the first decades, silent films became widespread and the first large studios were founded. From the 1930s onwards we can speak of a more structured system: technical, sound, and stylistic innovations. From the content point of view, films began to explore more complex and profound themes, such as family dynamics, social tensions and psychological issues. 

During World War II, the Japanese government imposed severe restrictions on film production, encouraging propaganda films that promoted militarism and nationalism. However, even in this context, some directors managed to create works that reflect the complexity of the human condition and moral dilemmas, such as Akira Kurosawa. Professor Novielli explained: “If Rashomon was the first positive turning point and from then on Japanese films accumulated victories at the Venice Film Festival there were darker moments. For example, in the 1930s a film by director Tomotaka Tasaka with war content about fascism was presented”. Other important moments of experimentation from a narrative point of view can be mentioned, such as Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness from 1926, but, along with other avant-garde trends, it remains a single case mostly unknown in the history of Japanese cinema. 

After the war, Japanese cinema began a period of reconstruction and renewal. Filmmakers explored themes of post-war devastation, loss and reconstruction. The United States had to authorize the distribution of films, and indirectly would do so also beyond the 1950s. The films had to meet a set of guidelines aimed at de-ideologising Japanese cinema. In short, they had to present typically Western characteristics: gender equality, the status of women (in the early years of Japanese cinema, female characters were still played by male actors, the on’nagata) but also democracy and equality. Professor Novielli added: “A special case, however, was Godzilla, by Ishiro Honda, which started the so-called monster cinema, the Kaiju. The film portrayed anti-American characters but was so successful that it was bought by Columbia, which reworked it and cut it heavily, until it became a film conceived as pro-American ”.

The Innovative Narrative Structure of “Rashomon” 

Akira Kurosawa made his debut as director in 1943 with Sugata Sanshiro inspired by the story of a real-life judoka: Saigō Shirō. In this film while responding to the governmental demands of that historical period, he inserted destabilizing and atypical elements for the panorama of that time, thus positioning himself as an innovator of the Japanese seventh art. For instance, in this coming-of-age film, the protagonist has a romantic relationship with a woman, which was considered a point of weakness for the hero. Then, at the moment of the duel between protagonist and antagonist, the camera moves away, showing the fighting figures in a field of vision in which they are lost, as if to take away their importance.

The story of Rashomon was inspired by two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and In the Woods: from the former he drew inspiration for the setting of the film’s main narrative thread, while from the latter he drew on the layered narrative structure. Additionally, to coherently tie the stories together in a screenplay without loopholes, he enlisted the help of his colleague Shinobu Hashimoto, who would be a frequent collaborator with Kurosawa for the rest of their career. The film is set in an unspecified epoch of the past, a ploy that made it possible to free oneself from American impositions and represent the cultural characters that the latter forbade: patriarchy, samurai, feudal organization of society. From the beginning of the film at the Rashomon portal, which introduces us to the city of Kyoto, we see a Japan in shambles in which the greatness of a country will not emerge so much as a complex history that puts the human being at the center.

The film begins precisely at the Rashomon portal, where three people meet after attending a trial about the murder of a woodcutter, for which a bandit has been accused. During the trial, it is discovered that the bandit accused of the crime is actually a samurai, at the top of the social pyramid, complicating the dynamics for the conviction. Also during the trial, the woodcutter’s wife confesses that she was the one who killed her husband and at the same time the woodcutter’s spirit, interrogated with the help of a medium, confesses that he had in fact committed suicide. The film is organized in a rather complex manner from a temporal point of view: there is the present at the Rashomon portal where the people who participated in the trial discuss, the near past of the trial and the distant past of flashbacks that arise from the stories told by the alleged perpetrators during the confessions in the trial. The trial does not have an outcome and the film ends with a stimulus for reflection on human violence. 

The film was a great innovation from the point of view of genres: in the West today we could consider it a sort of detective story, but at the time it could not be ascribed to any genre in Japan. Even the characters deviate from the classical Japanese character system: a samurai who may have killed a man, a wayfarer (a marginal figure in the social system) who breaks the prestigious Rashomon portal to get some wood and make a fire to warm himself. Another extremely interesting aspect concerns the role of the magistrate during the trial: the judge is not physically present and visible but he exists, his gaze coincides with the position of the camera and so with the one of the spectator, who is therefore called upon to be the actual judge of the case deciding who is guilty. Rashomon was certainly a pivotal point for the point of view shot, a mode of representation that, by bringing viewer and film into dialogue, makes him complicit in the events. In this sense, the spectator is led to ask himself: can one have faith in the human race despite its capacity to create so much violence? A question that will remain relevant throughout human history. 

The three men at the Rashomon portal, image taken from https://screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/Rashomon/pages/Rashomon-108.htm 28/05/24, 15.40

From Japan to Venice to the World 

When I asked her how the film was received in Japan, Novielli replied: “Rashomon was an instant success there. On one hand Japanese considered it so indigenous that they did not want to bring it to the West (…) on the other hand, for the producers themselves, the film would have been unattractive to western audiences, due to the fact that it was intrinsically Japanese: it was only thanks to the will of Giuliana Stramigioli, the former Italiafilm representative for Japan, that the film was presented at the Venice Film Festival”. 

Japanese cinema had already been present at the Venice Film Festival, mainly in the form of contemporary military films, admittedly in small numbers. However, from 1947 onwards Japanese films had not been selected until Rashomon. The film was sent to Venice as a somewhat exotic film, at the same time its narrative construction recovered a number of mechanisms that had already been used in Europe and the West and were therefore recognisable to the audience. However, the film also received a lot of negative criticism right from the start: for example, many critics accused it of being too contaminated by Western canons.

In 1951, Rashomon won the Golden Lion, the best possible award, which led to it being awarded a cascade of other prizes until it won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1952. The film triggered a virtuous circle that led Japanese cinema to circulate much more, even becoming fashionable in Europe. 

Moreover, Rashomon contributed to raise awareness of the imagery linked to the movement called japonisme, which in the early 20th century inspired art nouveau, made of kimonos, geishas and prints but also of ideological cages that linked Japan to nirvana or Buddhism in an improper way. However, it also introduced a new face to the storytelling potential of Japanese authors: “Kurosawa’s film brings out a dynamism and an incredible sense of contemporaneity despite the fact that the events narrated are set a long way from the present of the film. The same agile and dynamic directing style far surpasses the American style of the time”, said Novielli. 

The cinematic legacy of “Rashomon”

The victory at the Venice Film Festival was an important recognition that opened the door for Japanese films in international markets. Rashomon not only showed the depth and complexity of Japanese narratives, but also proved that Japanese cinema could compete on a world stage. This success encouraged many other Japanese filmmakers to seek international audiences, leading to greater export of Japanese films and contributing to the growth of Japanese cinema as a global cultural force. Concerning the diffusion of Japanese cinema in our days, Novielli added: “Since then, the presence of Japanese cinema in European theaters has been fluctuating. For example, at the moment, if we exclude the worldwide success of Hayao Miyazaki, we do not have the opportunity to see many films from Japan as well as a lot of other Asian countries, especially from South-east Asia. The last phase in recent history in which Japanese films have been watched and appreciated by a wider audience is certainly that of J-horror. However, with the exception of a few sporadic cases that are not able to make history on their own, Japanese cinema does not circulate much”.

The film’s unique narrative structure, presenting different versions of the same event told by various characters, has challenged traditional narrative conventions and influenced countless Western filmmakers. “The cinematic legacy of Rashomon is extremely widespread for many filmmakers. It would perhaps be more correct to talk about the legacy of Kurosawa’s entire oeuvre rather than just this film”, said Novielli. Western directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino but also George Lucas for Star Wars have cited Kurosawa as one of their main influences. But even contemporary filmmakers such as Takashi Miike, although referring to other genres, carries forward the sense of action that typically belongs to Kurosawa. The Golden Lion won by Rashomon had a lasting impact on world cinema. It laid the foundation for cultural dialogue between East and West, showing how stories and film techniques can transcend cultural barriers. For Japan, it was a moment of national pride that showed the world the richness of its film culture. For the world, it was an opening to new narrative perspectives and an enrichment of the global cinematic landscape. This victory not only celebrated an extraordinary film, but also marked the beginning of a new era for international cinema, where stories from different cultures can be appreciated and celebrated everywhere.

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