Extract from an essay entitled 'The significance of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) for the historical development of global film cultures'
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Ioannis Tsirkas





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   Preparative to set forth my thesis, it would not consist a deviation if we looked back to what has been written about the film and its worldwide impact. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1951 and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1952 ‘becoming the most honored of all Japanese films […] in the West’ (Richie 2001, p.139) and thereby opening ‘the doors of the western art circuit to Japanese cinema’ (Komatsu 1997, p.716). The tremendous impact of its international success opened West’s eyes about the cinema of Japan inspiring a ‘great deal of curiosity’ about it (Rotha 1967, p.765). Certainly, it was long before the film’s ‘unexampled breakthrough into the “foreign market”’ (Richie 1999, p.80) that ‘Japanese cinema has attained a level which deserved but did not receive international recognition’ (Anderson and Richie 1959, p.15). Stephen Prince (1991, p.127) justly claims that Rashomon was ‘responsible for the Western world’s belated recognition of the Japanese cinema’. Its unexpected appearance in the world’s “film map” declassified Japan as a “terra incognita” in it. However, the electrification of the international film culture was a ‘distinct surprise’ (Rowland 1952, p.48) not only for the West.
   Scott Nygren (2007, p.102) calls to attention that ‘Japan never considered Rashomon that important’ and ‘Japanese critics had not liked the film’ with everyone in the industry being shocked about its win of the grand prize in Venice. James Goodwin (1994, p.55) ascribes this to the ‘insular and purist logic’ of Japanese by that time as well as to the belief that the ‘truly Japanese culture in unintelligible to foreigners and is thus untranslatable’. The success of the film constituted an actual disproval of this belief making the Japanese realize ‘the significance of the international film market’ (Richie 1999, p.1). Darrel William Davis (1996, p.33) mentions the paradox that after Rashomon the Japanese critics started to take international festivals so seriously that ‘delegations returning from festival without a prize apologized publically as if they had personally failed the nation.’ What counts is that the worldwide acceptance of Kurosawa’s film gave to Japan the ‘opportunity to rearticulate consciously what constituted the national and cultural specificity of Japanese cinema’ (Richie 1999, p.10).
   But how clear was Rashomon’s text about this? To what extent was the film a “mysterious stranger” also for Japan? Donald Richie (1971, p.7) agrees with the Japanese critics that Rashomon, with ‘its ambiguity and questioning of all absolute truths which was an unusual assumption for the Japanese audience, was actually an un-Japanese film’. Its ‘multiple worlds of reality presented a line of thought completely foreign’ to them (Anderson and Richie 1959, p.322). But what is truly significant about Rashomon is the problematizing questions which rose about what ‘the “West” of the United States and Europe and the “East” of Asian culture” might meant (Nygren 2007, p.100).
   Akira Kurosawa, especially from Rashomon and after, engaged in ‘active “deconstruction” of the Western codes which, at certain periods of history, have tended to gain prevalence’ (Burch 1979, cited in Rosen 2006, p.24). The international acceptance of Rashomon allowed him to continue contributing not only to his own Japanese tradition, but at the same time to the Western modernism as well (Rajadhyaksha 2000, p.32). It was his belief that ‘social values, borrowed from the West, could be therapeutic additions to Japanese culture’ (Prince 1991, p.9). One of the reasons why Rashomon won such praise among Western critics was its appeal of a style that ‘views Japan through a kind of Western veil’ (Iwasaki 1965, p.61). After this film Westerns started to discuss the content and style of Kurosawa’s work always mentioning ‘the osmosis of Eastern and Western cultures that permeates’ it (Bowye 2004, p.45). Rashomon was not only ‘close to the West’ (Tucker 1973, p.74), but the first celebrated Japanese film which achieved to ‘speak to everyone’ (Richie 1999, p.80) considering all his potential viewers as ‘equally outsiders’ (Nygren 2007, p.103). But which was the “secret” of this very achievement?
   Rashomon was a covetable “visitor” to the West because it placed “human” to the center of its problematic. It was one of the first films that proved worldwide ‘the seriousness of film and its identity, not as a machine or an industry, but as sensuous human expression’ (Prince 1991, p.8), an expression ‘of culture fashioned by human design’ (p.10). As Greg M. Smith (2002, p.123) informs us:
‘[…] many reviewers saw Rashomon as conveying versimilitudinous information about the character of humanity itself, not just the Japanese. They saw Rashomon as a humanist document which crosses international boundaries because it reveals something about the human condition.’
Rashomon, an unknown film from an unknown film industry, dramatically demonstrated film’s ability to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries if it deals with themes which are basic to all humanity.’
Of course, the humanism of the film should be considered within its historical context, the ‘perplexity of the post-war period’ (Rhode 1976, p.492). For Scott Nygren (2007, p.108) ‘the film seems to allegorize the Japanese experience of World War II as a period of uncertainty and violence, followed by hope for a new future’. Donald Richie (1999, p.189) at the ‘chaotic situation depicted in the film set in the Heian period’ recognizes allegories with the ‘tumultuous conditions of wartime and postwar Japan’ and on the ‘structural absence’ of the film’s ‘textual surface’ the ‘censoring eyes of the Occupation’. However, Rashomon became so honored in the West because Kurosawa did not confine himself to a general ‘postwar questioning’, but through it attempted to make an ‘existential statement’ (Richie 2001, p.139).
   David Desser (1992, p.65) points out that Rashomon is an ‘existential allegory’ which ‘finds its existential tone from the Atomic Bomb experience’. He also adds that the main problem rising from the film is ‘how to live in an existential world, a world rendered meaningless by the death of certainty’ (1992, p.59). In opposition to the certainty of death Kurosawa belauds the uncertainty of life by setting in question the relativity of truth, raising thus a matter of peculiar interest among scholars over the years. I will illustrate below some of its aspects and extensions which are indicative to this paper’s subject. In Rashomon, Kurosawa demonstrated not only the many-sided ‘nature of human truth’ (Fleishman 1992, p.47) and the ‘non-existence anywhere of any absolute truth’ (Iwasaki 1965, p.61), but also the concept of “reality” ‘in a manner as “nihilistic” as any pre-war period director could have wished’ (Richie 1990, p.53). The film fashions an ‘existential despair over the instability of truth and value’ (Prince 1991, p.128) being something like a ‘vast distorting mirror or, better, a collection of prisms that reflect reality’ (Richie 1999, p.76)[2]. What we also have to mention is that Rashomon’s demonstration of “truth” and “reality” depending on the “point of view” abuts on the manipulation of the “point of view” in its narrative.
   Rashomon through its innovating for its time ‘narrative fragmentation’ (Nygren 2007, p.109) questions ‘the reliability of narration in image’ (Richie 1999, p.188) and can be seen as a ‘site of refolding of narrative possibilities’ (Nygren 2007, p.114)[3]. Furthermore, it was a ‘major inspiration for non-linear narratives worldwide’ (Chaudhuri 2005, p.95). According to Hiroshi Komatsu (1997, p.714), ‘by presenting multiple, conflicting views of the same event’[4] the film ‘made many interpretations possible and demanded active reading by the audience’. Thereby, what Kurosawa evinced was both that ‘an interpreter’s perspective is determined by the position he assumes’ (Boyd 1989, p.72) and that there is not an “absolute truth”, because truth most of the times is objective. The film’s emerging philosophical issue about the ‘nature of subjective and objective truth’ helped to the definition of the 1950s art cinema as ‘a place where philosophical issues were debated in ways that they were central to the intellectual community’ (Smith 2002, p.124). Rashomon, actually, by being an ‘enormously powerful and symbolic cultural entity’ made up a ‘”useful ally” for the establishing of cinema as an art’ (Prince 1991, p.128) and contributed to the conception that ‘films themselves contain and communicate values of demonstrable social importance’ (p.10).
   [...]


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[1] This thinking cap could easily be developed to the field of the film’s ontology in general.
[2] This ‘questioning of moral certitudes’ came up as an additional connection with ‘the existentialist skepticism of the West’ (Rhode 1976, p.492).
[3] This was only one of the film’s innovations. Rashomon, in general, not only introduced the ‘concept of the modern into the Japanese cinema’ (Komatsu 1997, p.714), but it was ‘one of the first examples of post-modern art in the twentieth century’ (Marinez 2007, p.114).
[4] The connection of the “network narrative” to the globalized art cinema came under discussion among scholars the last years (Kerr 2010, p.37).



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