Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • The following content is provided under a Creative

  • Commons license.

  • Your support will help MIT OpenCourseWare

  • continue to offer high quality educational resources for free.

  • To make a donation or view additional materials

  • from hundreds of MIT courses, visit MIT OpenCourseWare

  • at ocw.mit.edu.

  • DAVID THORBURN: Kurosawa's Rashomon

  • is a particularly dramatic example

  • of a film that understands itself

  • to have the kind of claim on its audience

  • that the greatest art has always imagined

  • itself to have on its audience.

  • So I want to begin by talking very briefly about what

  • I call the moment of Rashomon.

  • There's a bit of confusion, or at least

  • chronological confusion, or inconsistency in the principle

  • that we end the course with a film that was made and shown

  • internationally before the last two films

  • that we've seen in our course.

  • My reasons for that, as I partly explained in an earlier

  • lecture, had to do with my desire

  • to show a certain continuity amongst forms

  • of European cinema and the link between Jean Renoir,

  • and the Italian neorealists, and the French nouvelle vague

  • is so intimate that it seemed to me

  • important to show you that progression in sequence.

  • But if we had been going by strict chronological order,

  • we would have introduced this Kurosawa film a bit earlier,

  • because it was made in 1950.

  • And in 1951, it won an important international prize, The Golden

  • Lion, the highest prize available at the Venice Film

  • Festival in 1951.

  • And this had a seismic effect on movies around the world.

  • The dramatic and powerful subject matter

  • of Kurosawa's film of course riveted attention.

  • But even more than that, the freedom and imaginative energy

  • of his stylistic innovations in the film

  • had a profound impact on filmmakers around the world.

  • And when the film was shown at Venice in 1951, another effect

  • it had when it won the prize was to introduce Japanese cinema

  • to a wider world.

  • It was the first significant Japanese film, Kurosawa,

  • the first important Japanese director

  • to gain a reputation outside of Japan itself.

  • In fact, there are many film buffs, and especially

  • specialists in Japanese film, who

  • are somewhat resentful of Kurosawa's eminence,

  • even though no one denies that he is an eminent

  • director, because there are other directors.

  • The two I've listed under item 2 in our outline

  • are the most dramatic examples, Mizoguchi and Ozu,

  • who are often thought to be his superior, even greater

  • directors than Kurosawa.

  • This is a debate of nuances.

  • All three of these directors are major artists.

  • But it is true, I think, and it is widely recognized

  • that Kurosawa was the director who crossed that barrier more

  • immediately, more dramatically than any other,

  • and opened the world, not just to Japanese cinema,

  • in some degree, but opened the world in some longer

  • sense to Asian cinema more generally,

  • that the so-called Western world,

  • the European and American cinema universes

  • had been fairly oblivious to Asian cinema

  • and certainly to Japanese cinema prior to this.

  • And the appearance of Rashomon, its enormous impact in 1951,

  • began to change that.

  • So that what was demonstrated in moment when Rashomon

  • won this reward, won The Golden Lion at the Venice Film

  • Festival, was a reinforcement of a principle

  • I've been discussing throughout the semester, the notion

  • of film as an international medium, the notion

  • that directors from different national cinemas

  • were now being deeply influenced by directors

  • from other nations, and that film itself

  • was in some deep way, a global phenomenon, even

  • an international form.

  • And I think it was in the '50s and early '60s

  • that this idea began to become more widely embraced

  • by film goers in the United States and in Europe,

  • but perhaps especially in the United States.

  • And one mark of this, the emergence

  • of cinema as a fully recognized independent art form.

  • Obviously people had thought this,

  • and many directors had achieved artistic distinction

  • before this.

  • But I'm talking about the public understanding of movies,

  • the way people in different cultures actually recognized

  • and thought about movies.

  • It was as if this is the moment in which movies were understood

  • to enter the museum in a certain way,

  • to earn in a public sense, the status

  • that more traditional art forms had had.

  • And one of the explanations for why this would have been so,

  • why it would have had such a powerful impact-- now,

  • I think I mentioned last time that this insight was

  • partial in the United States-- especially,

  • that is to say, in the '50s and early '60s,

  • it began to dawn on movie critics and scholars

  • of whom there were only a few at that time and then movie

  • audiences that European films and Asian films, especially

  • Japanese films, might have great artistic value.

  • But it was a longer time before Americans

  • began to realize that their own native forms of films

  • had had a similar kind of authority.

  • So this moment, in the early 1950s,

  • was a deeply significant one.

  • Let's remember historically what it represented in Europe

  • and in the United States.

  • It's the moment of the emergence of Italian neorealism, which

  • itself begins to establish a kind of very powerful claim

  • on people's attention.

  • One irony of Rashomon's success was

  • that it was not very successful in Japan

  • when it was released in 1950.

  • And the producer, the production company

  • responsible for the film was very dubious about entering it

  • in the competition, didn't think it was a significant film, even

  • though it transformed Kurosawa's career

  • because of the immense recognition it finally got.

  • And Kurosawa himself recognized--

  • he'd been making films for almost a decade before that,

  • but Rashomon was his most ambitious film to that point,

  • and it also incorporated more innovative strategy,

  • visual strategies than any he had tried before.

  • It established him as an international director.

  • And I mentioned the names of two other directors

  • just from different traditions as a way

  • of reminding you of another feature of this phenomenon,

  • another reason, as I began to say earlier,

  • for why this moment was such a significant one.

  • And the term I use here is modernism, modernist cinema.

  • Remember, one of the ways to understand this idea

  • is to recognize that a great revolution in the arts

  • had occurred at the turn of the 20th century,

  • the end of the 19th, and at the turn of the 20th century.

  • We've talked about this earlier.

  • It's the movement we call modernism.

  • It's the moment of Picasso.

  • It's the moment of James Joyce, and it

  • was a kind of revolution in both visual art, literature,

  • music took place in this period.

  • And among the characteristics of this modernist

  • movement was a newly complicated and self-conscious attitude

  • toward narrative itself, toward storytelling.

  • So modernism in literature and in art involved,

  • among other things if not a hostility or antagonism,

  • at least a kind of skepticism about

  • inherited traditional categories and ways of doing things.

  • And one form this took in narrative

  • was to dislocate or disorient the narrative line.

  • Instead of telling a story in a chronological sequence,

  • a lot of the great works of fiction of the modernist era,

  • books by writers like Joseph Conrad, or Proust,

  • the great French novelist who was so

  • preoccupied by memory and human subjectivity,

  • or the great German novelist, Thomas Mann,

  • a number of other great figures that we could mention

  • began to construct stories in which chronological order was

  • profoundly disrupted.

  • And they also began to create stories in which there

  • were multiple narrators.

  • And the effect of multiple narrators

  • begins-- even if you do nothing more than have

  • multiple narrators, you begin to raise questions

  • about the veracity, the truthfulness

  • of any single perspective.

  • And you will understand when you look at Rashomon

  • why this movie embodies many of these same modernist

  • principles.

  • But the point is that cinema, as a narrative form,

  • lag behind these more traditional arts.

  • And it really wasn't until the 1950s,

  • and partly because of films like Rashomon,

  • that it began to be recognized that the movies too

  • could embrace and embody the principles of modernism.

  • So one way to understand what happened in the 1950s

  • is to recognize that directors like Kurosawa and Ingmar

  • Bergman, the great Swedish director,

  • and Fellini, the great Italian director,

  • and the inheritor and expander of the neorealist tradition,

  • going far beyond a narrow realism,

  • that directors like that began to create films

  • that in a formal sense, in a structural sense,

  • and also in terms of their content

  • had the kind of complexity, nuance, and skepticism,

  • and even the philosophic self-awareness

  • that was characteristic of high modernism

  • at the turn of the 20th century.

  • So it's as if what was going on was the movies

  • themselves were now asserting themselves as a modernist art.

  • I don't mean as a contemporary art.

  • I'm referring specifically to the modernist movement,

  • and to the dislocated, and much more demanding

  • kinds of narrative strategies that

  • are characteristic of the modernist movement.

  • So Rashomon played a fundamental role

  • in this sort of transformation of what

  • we might call the cultural understanding of movies

  • among ordinary people, as well as among scholars, critics,

  • and other filmmakers.

  • I want to mention one other point.

  • I'll give you a kind of note to clarify

  • some of what I've been implying, some

  • of what I implied when I talked about Mizoguchi and Ozu

  • as directors who were often even more highly

  • regarded than Kurosawa.

  • I'll leave that to each individual film goer.

  • All three directors are astonishing and remarkable.

  • But it wouldn't be appropriate to talk, even

  • about this single film, Rashomon,

  • without paying respects to those two great directors whose

  • dates I've put on your outline.

  • I won't talk about individual films by these directors,

  • but I urge you all to look them up, read about them

  • in David Cook's history of narrative film,

  • and think about experimenting by extending

  • your knowledge of Japanese cinema

  • by trying films by these two remarkable directors.

  • One of the things that's characteristic of all three

  • of these directors, of Kurosawa, even more fully

  • of Mizoguchi and Ozu, Ozu most fundamentally of all,

  • is that their films are marked by a kind of impulse

  • toward stylization, toward fabular, fable-like equations

  • that distinguish them in some ways

  • from Western, from European, and American films.

  • And I think that one explanation for this

  • has to do with the longer artistic traditions

  • of Japanese society.

  • Japanese film grows out of theatrical traditions,

  • like kabuki theater, or Noh drama,

  • N-O-H drama, both of which have profoundly stylized and fable

  • like qualities.

  • They're anti-narrative, in some sense,

  • and any of you who have ever had even a minimal experience

  • with either of these two theatrical traditions

  • will understand what I'm discussing.

  • These are theaters of gesture and of very decisive,

  • symbolic representation.

  • What we would think of as sort of realistic characters

  • or realistic stories are not a part

  • of these very ancient traditions.

  • These theatrical traditions go back hundreds, even

  • thousands of years.

  • So there's a tradition in Japan of a kind of stylized,

  • of symbolic representation.

  • And you'll see, I think, how in Russia,

  • how powerfully this principle operates in Rashomon.

  • Even when film itself emerged in Japan in the silent era,