What did people in 1951 know of Japan? Only six years after a punishing conflict, perceptions were still deformed by wartime propaganda that told of a uniquely malicious nation, one so fanatical that a brand new type of weapon was required to halt its advance.
So the selection of a Japanese film for the Venice Film Festival of that year was a statement of intent, inviting Western delegates to look at Japanese faces, hear Japanese voices and – perhaps, just perhaps – to go beyond their prejudices. It’s likely there were snide remarks, not least about Italy’s recent alliance with Japan, but these were silenced when the film in question was awarded the top prize.
Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, caused a sensation. Adapted from a story by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke – Westerners would eventually discover that he was a major Japanese writer – it is set during Japan’s feudal era; a bandit is on trial for rape and murder, and the witnesses give their evidence.
But what made the film so novel was that these witnesses – the woman who survived, the bandit himself and even the man who died (speaking via a medium) – give decidedly contradictory accounts of what went down. What is the truth? Well, that depends on who you ask.
The pageantry and processes were thrillingly unfamiliar to Westerners, and it helped that it looked gorgeous; the period costumes and decor, not to mention the lustrous cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, were very different the blunt aesthetics of the then-dominant Neo-Realist movement and considerably more seductive.
Above all, there was a great humanity: as alien as Rashomon first appeared, Kurosawa showed people not so different from those watching them in Europe, both bad and – as the film concludes – good. Why, it was as though he had brought something of the Japanese soul to the screen.
There is, though, an irony to all this. Rashomon might have come as a culture shock to Westerners, but many critics in Japan reckoned Kurosawa was insufficiently “Japanese”, that he drew too liberally on foreign influences in contrast to truly Japanese directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi and, especially, Yasujiro Ozu, whose small-scale, contemporary dramas were so very different to Kurosawa’s bombast.
Japan was a historically insular nation, one that maintained outsiders could never understand its culture. And most foreigners heretofore agreed. But Kurosawa – imperfectly “Japanese” though he might have been – proved both sides wrong. Rashomon ignited a Western love affair with Japanese film, and one that in turn revealed Mizoguchi and Ozu to the world as masters. In time, this grew into a broader interest in Japanese culture, something that now extends from food to video games.
Kurosawa’s best work remains exceptional, even if few today would place Rashomon amongst it – it looks a bit trite next to the masterpieces he went on to create, like Seven Samurai (1954) or Red Beard (1965). It is, though, the most important thing he ever made: the film which opened Japan to the world, and the world to Japan.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill