Greg M. Smith
Asian Cinema 13.2 (Fall/Winter 2002) 115-28
Most of us who write about films may as well relax and confess that we know nothing at first hand about Japanese movie production; that all we have as data has come to us from press-sheets, from quick consultations with the nearest Japanese bystander, or. . . whatever we have been able to find useful in the way of analogy and of seeing the "unaccredited" performances of Kabuki. - Vernon Young (1955: 416) When Rashomon appeared before Western eyes in the September 1951 Venice Film Festival (and in its subsequent 1951-52 release in the United States and Europe), reviewers were poorly prepared to comment on it. Most film reviewing depends on a knowledge of tendencies within the appropriate national cinema, an understanding of the auteur's oeuvre and a film's place within it, an awareness of the stars' constructed images, or a familiarity with the film's genre conventions. Film reviewing is a comparative exercise, construing the unknown (the new film) in terms of what one already knows. Yet few of Rashomon's reviewers had seen any film from Japan or were familiar with the highly specific classificatory system of Japanese film genres. Almost no one knew who Toshiro Mifune, Michiko Kyo, or Akira Kurosawa were (Variety's review of the film lists Kurosawa as a cast member with an "impassive, glowering presence"). (1951:15) Little inside information was available concerning the details of the production, removing another important source of reviewer data. Without much of the information upon which a reviewer depends, how does one write about a film? Does Rashomon's reception in the West constitute a moment in which film reviewers could confront a film purely on its own terms as a work of art which transcends cultural boundaries? This paper explores the contemporary critical writings concerning Rashomon not so much to provide fresh insight into the text itself but to investigate Western critical strategies. The criticism allows us to see clearly the schemata on which reviewers depend, even when they lack information about the film itself. Though most reviewers were as ignorant as Vernon Young, few approached the film with the same admission of ignorance.(1) Even those who admitted that Rashomon appeared out of the blue worked hard to maintain the appearance of superior knowledge. Given the pressure for a reviewer to appear culturally knowledgable, the writers made links between the film and what they did know, no matter how partial their knowledge. In this instance the strategies of popular reviewers bear great resemblance to those of more culturally highbrow sources (such as Cahiers du Cinema). This paper will rarely differentiate between high and low criticism because no productive difference was found between their assumptions in this case. In part this paper argues for a continuity of the uses made of knowledge across varying critical practices. Both high and low critics chose remarkably similar background sets to compare to Rashomon, and both used them in remarkably consistent ways.
The "First" Japanese Film in the West
Though most reviewers treated Rashomon as a film without precedent in the West, several reviews did note that it was not the first Japanese film to be shown in New York, citing the fact that another film was shown 14 years earlier. Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Tsuma yo Bara no yo ni) reached Manhattan theaters in 1937 under the title Kimiko, selected by a group of Chicago University professors who judged it as being both representative of modern Japan and appealing to American audiences. However, no reviews mention an earlier Japanese export exhibited in America in 1932: avant garde filmmaker Teinosuke Kinugasa's Crossroads (Jujiro). Undoubtedly this is because of the way in which Crossroads was marketed in the United States. In Europe the film was released as Shadows of...