On Kurosawa's 20th death anniversary, remembering Rashōmon and his only female-centric film

Baradwaj Rangan

Sep 06, 2018 15:09:54 IST

You’re lucky if you get one solid peg for an article. This one, about Akira Kurosawa, has two.

First, it’s the 20th death anniversary of the great filmmaker – he died on September 6, 1998. Second, the Venice film festival is underway, and it’s a good time to remember that Rashōmon (1950) was the first Asian film to win the top award. (Earlier winners of the prize, instituted in 1946, were from the USA, Czechoslovakia, UK and France.) This was huge not just for Kurosawa, but for the Japanese film industry. He writes in his memoir, Something Like An Autobiography, that the film was “praised at the Venice International Film Festival as the first instance of a camera entering the heart of a forest, [which] was not only one of [cinematographer Kazuo] Miyagawa’s masterpieces, but a world-class masterpiece of black-and-white cinematography.”

But the journey was not easy. During the shooting of Rashōmon, there were two fires at the Daiei studios, which produced the film. And after the film’s release, Kurosawa made Hakuchi for Shōchiku studios, based on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He had numerous fights with the studio heads, and when the film came out, the reviews were scathing. “On the heels of this disaster,” Kurosawa wrote, “Daiei rescinded its offer for me to do another film with them... I walked out through the gate in a gloomy daze, and, not having the will even to get on the train, I ruminated over my bleak situation as I walked all the way home to Komae. I concluded that for some time I would have to eat ‘cold rice’, and resigned myself to this fact.”

 On Kurosawas 20th death anniversary, remembering Rashōmon and his only female-centric film

A still from the trailer of Rashōmon. Courtesy: Youtube

The next incident he narrates is so... vividly cinematic, it could be a scene on screen as a metaphor in a movie about him. Kurosawa went fishing at the Tamagawa river. He cast his line. It immediately caught on something and snapped in two. He did not have a replacement. “Thinking this was what it was like when bad luck catches up with you, I headed back home.” If you’ll forgive the blasphemy, the Aamir Khan line from Rangeela comes to mind: “Aaj toh apna bad luck hi kharab hai.” Anyway, Kurosawa reached home, “with barely enough energy to slide open the door to the entry,” and his wife came bounding out, yelling “Congratulations.” Rashōmon had won the top prize – then called the Grand Prix – at the Venice film festival.

“I did not even know that Rashōmon had been submitted to the Venice Film Festival,” Kurosawa writes. “ The Japan representative of Italiafilm, Giuliana Stramigioli, had seen it and recommended it to Venice. It was like pouring water into the sleeping ears of the Japanese film industry.” Still, it wasn’t entirely good news, for when Rashōmon went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Japanese critics scoffed at this attention as Western curiosity for Oriental exoticism. Kurosawa was deeply hurt. He wrote, “Why is it that Japanese people have no confidence in the worth of Japan? Why do they elevate everything foreign and denigrate everything Japanese? Even the woodblock prints of Utamaro, Hokusai and Sharaku were not appreciated by the Japanese until they were first discovered by the West.”

There is something universal about this. Hitchcock, for instance, was dismissed by American critics as a mere “entertainer.” It took the French to anoint him an auteur. Would Satyajit Ray have become Satyajit Ray had he not been “discovered” by the West?

These considerations aside, the recognition at Venice – and Kurosawa, subsequently, becoming a star – is important for another reason. He never made a female-centric film again. By itself, this is not a major topic of interest – many filmmakers, after all, haven’t made certain kinds of films. But with Kurosawa, we have to remember that he made, in 1946, one of the greatest melodramas revolving around a female protagonist (Yukie, played by the legendary Setsuko Hara): No Regrets for Our Youth. The film is a fascinating counterpoint to Gone With the Wind, more political and less soap-operatic (and this is not meant as a knock on the Hollywood epic, which, even today, is magnificent).

Yukie is the daughter of a middle-class professor, who is suspended when he espouses views on what he considers fascism. (This narrative trigger is based on the 1932 Kyoto University incident, also called the Takigawa incident.) No Regrets for Our Youth follows Yukie through her love life (she is courted by two men, one of whom is safe and “husband material,” while the other is a passionate rebel; no surprises on whom Yukie is drawn to). We also follow Yukie through Japan’s political upheavals, for about a decade starting from 1933. By the end, Yukie is Scarlett O’Hara working in the fields, though the character is infinitely less self-centred, more socially conscious. She tells her mother, sitting at the piano she used to play as a student, “These hands playing the piano aren’t enough. And the work at the village is plenty. The life of farmers, especially the girls, is hard. I hope I can help in some way.”

What’s fascinating, today, is that Kurosawa matches the melodrama in the story with visual melodrama. After Yukie moves to the village, she washes her hands in a stream – there’s a dissolve to those hands playing the piano once. Elsewhere, the triangular romance (Yukie and her two suitors) is suggested by three flowers floating around a bowl. When one of the suitors leaves for China, Yukie is seen in her bedroom, standing by the door locked behind her – Kurosawa illustrates her anguish with a series of quick cuts of varying emotional states. This is not to suggest it was the Golden Lion (and the international recognition) that changed Kurosawa, but it’s curious how a lot of this melodrama eventually disappeared from his work, which became more “sophisticated,” in consonance with Western tastes. One wonders what this filmmaker might have been like had he remained someone only the Japanese knew about – though that would have been a tragedy, because, then, we wouldn’t have known about him at all.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South)

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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2018 15:09:54 IST