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how Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece changed criticism forever

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Year 1951. Venice Film Festival. It is the first time that, in the official section, a film that is not European or American competes. The tape consecrates its author almost automatically, and ends up winning the Golden lion. Japanese cinematography is directly placed in the focus of cinephile eyes of the old continent, and 'Rashomon' becomes a cinematic milestone.

Akira Kurosawa has since risen as one of the emblems of classical Japanese cinema, on a podium covered by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu or Mikio Naruse. Also thanks to the recognition of the Japanese director, The critical canon was forced to stretch and broaden his sights to films outside the US, French or Italian, which led to include within the indisputable hierarchies of the seventh art other looks, so far, unknown by the West.

And it is that 'Rashomon' called into question, at the same time, historical cinema as a representation of the present, the expression of the stark pathos of humanity after World War II or the truth as a relative and volatile budget to the designs of each individual.

Kurosawa's hypnotic proposal, inspired by a story by Ryounosuke Akutagawa, gave voice to four different characters who narrate as alleged witnesses of the murder of a samurai during the twelfth century. From that premise, the film developed the version of each of those involved -including that of the murdered himself- to perform a marvelous work on the point of view.

Masterful use of flashback

Rashomon

It is through his particular use of flashback when the most visible is the narrative brilliance of the film. And it is that this tool is fundamental and almost foundational of 'Rashomon' when externalizing the same relativistic premise of its own history, Well, flashbacks are both real and fake, contradictory to each other.

While 'Rashomon' continuously borders the line between truth and lies, his conflict advances with resolution as the desired goal but never reached. And it is already in its outcome when the film is configured as a terrible image of World War II, in which there is no possible truth, only guilty.

The film revolutionized the cinephile scene after its victory at the Venice Film Festival. It was this award that catapulted Japanese cinema to the hermetic circuit of the great European festivals and allowed (re) learn about the history of cinema in Japan, and its splendor during the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, especially thanks to the spread of the French Cinémathèque.

Kurosawa's movie, one of the most recognized of his prolific career as a filmmaker, marked a before and after in the representation of non-Western cinema. It was not only for sowing the seed of interest in Europe of Japanese cinema, especially in France (the Cinémathèque hosted numerous cycles of Japanese films), but also because it was the one that gave entrance to cinematographies flagrantly ignored by European critics to the obtuse canon of First half of the 20th century.

Redrawing the critical map: 'Rashomon' and cinephile curiosity

Rashomon Kurosawa

When 'Rashomon' was seen in Venice, there was a clear problem of understanding with a film that moved away from the usual guidelines and codes of cinematographic fiction known to European critics. How to approach a work whose coordinates seem non-existent or undetectable because there is no background in the history of Japanese cinema? And, from there, another question: is Japanese cinema born in 'Rashomon'?

These doubts must have devastated those who, astonished, discovered Kurosawa's work, which already had ten films made so far. It was the case of Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, co-founder and critic of Cahiers du Cinéma who saw 'Rashomon' in Venice, and it was clear that the film was a revelation.

"The West did not even imagine that it could be surprised with such a technical perfection, a dazzling courage in the search for media, such a confusing momentum of history", the critic wrote with a marked exoticist astonishment in the October-November issue of the magazine in 1951, the year of the foundation of the legendary magazine.

Lo Duca did not analyze the film beyond his blunt statements, but not because he did not want to, but because He was unable to explain the film in critical terms: its origin, its genre, its deep meaning, its meaning, its historical context … A reading that required an extra effort with respect to a look completely alien to normative western production, and for which the available information was minimal.

Rashomon 2

Something similar to what happened to Henri Pevel, from L'Ecole libératrice, who highlighted Europe's ignorance of Japanese production: "Is it an exceptional work? What resonances does the Japanese viewer wake up to? To what extent does it cover the themes of Japanese folklore, theater or poetry? These are all very difficult questions to answer. The result is a kind of masterpiece, without kinship, without a past, and that seems as unique as an aerolith of another world. "

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Who did try to radiograph the phenomenon of 'Rashomon' was Henri Agel, a critic of Positif – the magazine antagonized to Cahiers for his differences in his analytical approach -, who pointed out possible influences of the tape beyond the shock that the tape caused:

"Let us record the dramatic and spiritual commotion caused by such a work, and also review the resonances it raises in us and that extend to the memory of Greek tragedies. By giving its psychological material, at the same time close to Police and the theater of Pirandello, a solemnly symphonic form, the author has transfigured the drama. He acquires a way of life so extraordinary that our sensations range from dizziness to discomfort. "

With 'Rashomon', Japanese cinematography was put in the international spotlight and its distribution increased considerably -especially in France-. This was also highlighted by the experimental filmmaker Curtis Harrington in his review for Cahiers du Cinéma: "Japanese cinema can compete with other countries that have created crucial film schools: France, Sweden, England, United States, Germany, Italy, Russia and Sweden ".

Cinémathèque and Japan: The prolific relationship of Henri Langlois and Kashiko Kawakita

Langlois Kawakitas On the left, Henri Langlois, on the right, Kashiko and Nagamasa Kawakita

There were two fundamental figures in the diffusion of Japanese cinema in France: Henri Langlois and Kashiko Kawakita. The first, one of the main instigators of the French Cinémanthèque, was a archivist and programmer convinced of the power of cinema and its function as a cultural exchanger.

This interest was also Kashiko Kawakita, wife of the founder of the Towa Shoji company, one of the pioneers in international film distribution and one of the companies responsible for the arrival of foreign cinema in Japan, as well as one of the promoters of the Kurosawa team at the Venice Film Festival.

The Kawakita marriage was part of the delegation of Japan at the Venice Festival that crowned 'Rashomon', and was also present in the 1953 edition, where Kenji Mizugochi won the Silver Lion with 'Tales of the pale moon of August' . But it would be in Berlin where Kashiko Kawakita met for the first time with Lotte Eisner, critic and curator at the Cinémathèque who put the Japanese producer in contact with Langlois, kicking off the diffusion of Japanese cinema in France and, by extension, in Europe.

Thanks to this prolific relationship, the Cinémathèque began to screen Japanese films. First, in collaboration with the Japanese Cinematheque, a sample in which up to eight Kurosawa films were shown, including 'Rashomon'. But, after the interest that Positif showed in Kurosawa's cinema, the "Turks" of Cahiers, ideologically confronted with the other critic magazine, took sides with Mizoguchi, who was also the subject of a retrospective in the same institution.

The effort of the distribution of Japanese cinema in France crystallized in a ambitious exhibition held in 1963 by the Cinémathèque in which almost a hundred Japanese films were screened. Both Langlois and Kashiko Kawakita were part of the programming committee of this exhibition, in which, a decade after the triumph of 'Rashomon', films were chosen that could introduce the public to the history of Japanese cinema, including, therefore, tapes from all possible times and genres.

'Rashomon': The first triumph of non-Western cinema

Rashomon

It would be several decades later, with Japanese cinema already institutionalized in cinephile retinas, when Akira Kurosawa won ex-aequo the Golden Palm of the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 for his film 'Kagemusha, the shadow of the warrior'. An award that he dedicated to his friend Henri Langlois, one of his main supporters in Europe and one of the great responsible for the knowledge of Japanese cinema in the world.

Then, Critical attention reached more and more countries, especially during the 1990s, like the poetic work of Abbas Kiarostami, the fascination with the filmography of Wong Kar-wai or the astonishment at the images of Hou Hsiao-hsien, not forgetting the works of Kurosawa compatriots like Naomi Kawase or Hirozaku Koreeda, both with special recognition Critical today.

It is not, therefore, far-fetched to point out the triumph of 'Rashomon' during that Venice Festival as the trigger for an opening that still has many borders to break. A victory, that of the film by Akira Kurosawa, without which you cannot understand the success and attraction caused by phenomena such as 'Parasites', brand new Golden Palm of Bong Jon-hoo at the last Cannes Film Festival 'Rashomon' was, perhaps, the first stone of a cinema beyond Europe and the United States; a monument still under construction, but increasingly high.

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