Kurosawa’s Wins the Grand Prize at Venice Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The unexpected capture of the highest honor at the Venice Film Festival by Rashomon established Akira Kurosawa’s international reputation and brought Japanese cinema to the attention of the West.

Summary of Event

When Rashomon was entered in the 1951 Venice Film Festival (August 20-September 10) at the prompting of Italian producer Guilliana Stramigioli Stramigioli, Guilliana , who had seen and liked it upon release the previous year, nobody in the Japanese film industry expected the film to do well. After all, this was a peculiarly Japanese film set in the medieval Heian period, which seemed unlikely to be of interest to a Western audience. Certainly, its director, Akira Kurosawa, had not made Rashomon with an international audience in mind, but Venice loved it. The Venice prize was, at the time, the biggest honor in world cinema; its award to Rashomon hinted at the riches of an, until then, almost-unknown cinema and established the reputation of Kurosawa as its most internationally powerful practitioner. [kw]Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice (Sept. 10, 1951)[Kurosawas Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice] [kw]Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice, Kurosawa’s (Sept. 10, 1951) [kw]Grand Prize at Venice, Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the (Sept. 10, 1951) [kw]Prize at Venice, Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand (Sept. 10, 1951) [kw]Venice, Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at (Sept. 10, 1951) Rashomon (Kurosawa) Venice Film Festival Rashomon (Kurosawa) Venice Film Festival [g]Asia;Sept. 10, 1951: Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice[03570] [g]Europe;Sept. 10, 1951: Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice[03570] [g]Japan;Sept. 10, 1951: Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice[03570] [g]Italy;Sept. 10, 1951: Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice[03570] [c]Motion pictures and video;Sept. 10, 1951: Kurosawa’s Rashomon Wins the Grand Prize at Venice[03570] Kurosawa, Akira Mifune, Toshiro Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke

Kurosawa had begun work as an assistant editor in 1936 under Kajiro Yamamoto Yamamoto, Kajiro , the man he credited with being his only teacher. In 1941, Kurosawa directed part of Yamamoto’s patriotic Uma Horses (Yamamoto) (Horses), and in 1943 he made Sugata Sanshiro, Sugata Sanshiro (Kurosawa) a martial-arts movie. In 1948, Kurosawa’s eighth film as a director, Yoidore tenshi Drunken Angel (Kurosawa) (Drunken Angel), starred Toshiro Mifune, whom Kurosawa had recently discovered, as a cruel young gangster dying from tuberculosis. Mifune played opposite Takashi Shimura Shimura, Takashi —who had worked on most of Kurosawa’s previous films—and these two remained the director’s major stars for many years, the central elements of an ensemble of talented actors who reappeared from film to film. At this point, Kurosawa temporarily left Tokyo to work at the other center of Japanese film production, the ancient capital of Kyoto, where many period films were made. There, in 1950, after making three more films, all starring Mifune and Shimura, he directed Rashomon.

Rashomon is a film about the subjective nature of reality and the ways in which one’s sense of oneself—one’s egotism—determines the way one sees and understands events. The film opens in the shadow of the ancient and massive ruined gate of Rashomon, outside Kyoto. A woodcutter (Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki Chiaki, Minoru ), sheltering there from the pouring rain, describe to a passing peasant (Kichijiro Ueda Ueda, Kichijiro ) four versions of the rape of a woman and the death of her husband, events that happened three days before and that they have heard recounted at a police inquiry. After the woodcutter, who claims to have witnessed the events, has described how he came to be in the forest dell where the events took place, the story is told first by the bandit and rapist, Tajomaru (Mifune), then by the wife (Machiko Kyo Kyo, Machiko ), then—relayed through a medium—by the dead husband (Masayuki Mori Mori, Masayuki ), and finally by the woodcutter himself.

Each succeeding version Cinema;narrative techniques of the “truth” denies the previous one, and the film offers no obvious way of determining which story or combination of stories is most reliable. The priest and the woodcutter seem much more horrified by the conflicting evidence than by the nature of the crime. At the end of the film, the three men hear the cry of a baby that they discover abandoned in a corner. The peasant takes an amulet from the child’s arm and goes off, proclaiming that all men are selfish and dishonest and need to be so in order to survive. The woodcutter, however, declares that he will rear the child with his own family. This gesture, the priest says, allows him to retain his faltering faith in human goodness.

Rashomon’s source lies in two classic stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, derived in their turn from a twelfth century collection of Japanese tales. Kurosawa sticks fairly closely to the Akutagawa tales, but the finding, robbing, and caretaking of the baby is his addition, one in which many critics have seen an expression of hope and compassion for humanity that would otherwise be missing from Rashomon and that is characteristic of Kurosawa’s philosophy.

Rashomon’s exploration of individual motivations and multiple points of view is reminiscent of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941)—which Kurosawa had not seen—but offers no equivalent to the final clue to Kane’s motivations presented in the American film. Like Citizen Kane, however, Rashomon is important—and was rewarded in Venice—as much for its cinematic qualities Cinema;stylistic innovation as for its moral or message. Rashomon is typical of Kurosawa’s films in its use of weather and landscape to comment on the action. The scenes in the forest where the rape and murder take place are played out in brilliant sunshine and amid the shifting shadows of the trees. The rain at the gate provides a striking contrast, symbolic of the anguish and obscurity against which the characters are struggling.

At the end, as the woodcutter leaves with the child, the sun is shown beginning to break through. This scene also illustrates another characteristic of Rashomon: the “180-degree cut,” in which the camera is positioned first looking in one direction and then in the opposite. Thus, the woodcutter is first shown from behind with the stationary priest in the foreground; the scene is then presented from the other side, so that the priest is in the background. Kurosawa also used “hard-edged wipes,” a technique in which a scene is changed by one shot “pushing” the preceding image off the screen, as if a line were passing across it. Western audiences were not used to such abrupt changes, which, like the complex series of flashbacks that constitutes the narrative, tend to draw attention to the construction of the film. The deliberate emphasis on the film’s construction was an obvious connection to the worldwide modernist movement in the arts that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century.


With Rashomon’s success in Venice, the Japanese film industry in general and Kurosawa in particular became objects of interest to filmmakers and filmgoers everywhere. Rarely has a national cinema been so abruptly brought to world attention. Kurosawa gradually came to be seen as the representative of a group of humanists working in the Japanese cinema. His films that followed Rashomon typically concerned integrity to self and the attainment of peace through suffering. In contrast to Japanese traditions of feudalism and strict obedience to others, Kurosawa’s work emphasized individuals coming to terms with themselves. If this can be achieved, his work often suggests, then there is hope for humanity even in the bleak world of Rashomon.

Despite his success with Rashomon and such brilliant follow-ups as Ikiru Ikiru (Kurosawa) (1952) and Shichinin no samurai Seven Samurai, The (Kurosawa) (1954; The Seven Samurai), Kurosawa’s desire to make epic films with expensive sets, his use of three cameras to shoot many scenes, his high shooting ratio (a measure of the amount of film shot relative to the amount used in the final film), and his attention to detail often made it hard for him to get financing for films. For this reason and because of his success abroad, Kurosawa, despite his often very Japanese concerns, became one of postwar cinema’s earliest international directors. In 1975, he made Dersu Uzala in the Soviet Union, and in 1980, Kagemusha Kagemusha (Kurosawa) (Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior) was financed partly with American money under the auspices of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Both films won major film festival awards.

Kurosawa had great respect for and was clearly influenced by the Western movies of John Ford, and Kurosawa, in his turn, influenced American cinema. George Lucas’s extraordinarily successful Star Wars (1977) was based on Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), which, in its use of landscape and characterization, was reminiscent of Ford. The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (1961), another samurai film, were remade in the West as, respectively, The Magnificent Seven (directed by John Sturges in 1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964).

Kurosawa’s influence is evident, too, in revisionist Westerns, such as those made by Sam Peckinpah, that question Hollywood’s Western stereotypes. Meanwhile, the modernist Cinema;avant-garde[avant garde] Modernism;cinema traits of Rashomon and other complexly narrated Kurosawa films such as Ikiru influenced such avant-garde films as Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961; Last Year at Marienbad), in which viewers can never be sure what has happened and in which the nature of storytelling, and thus filmmaking, is the primary concern.

In Japan, Kurosawa had few imitators, although the work of Masaki Kobayashi Kobayashi, Masaki —whose best-known film is the extremely long three-part Ningen no Joken Human Condition, The (Kobayashi) (1959-1961; The Human Condition), a meditation on the immorality of war—shared many of his concerns. While Kobayashi was struggling to make his masterpiece, a “new wave” was breaking in Japanese cinema, just as it was—in the work of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—in France. The leading figure in Japan, Nagisa Oshima Oshima, Nagisa , and his contemporaries in this movement had little time for Kurosawa’s humanist philosophy and psychologically motivated characters, preferring a radical break with such “realist” traditions in cinema. Nevertheless, a film such as Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film, Man Who Left His Will on Film, The (Oshima) which is concerned with the unknowability of events and which presents several different versions of a film a dead man may have shot prior to his murder or suicide, evidently replays many of the themes and questions of Rashomon. Oshima followed Kurosawa in finding international sources of funding for his films; In the Realm of the Senses (1976), his most widely known film in the West, was largely French-financed.

Many of Kurosawa’s films take as their theme the master-disciple relationship that develops between two, almost always male, characters. Toshiro Mifune, who played the disciple role in the early films, progressed to that of the master in later films, and it was perhaps Mifune, rather than any director, upon whom Kurosawa’s influence was greatest. Although recognized around the world primarily for his portrayal of warring samurai in such films as The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro (1962), Mifune played many very different roles for Kurosawa, from the dying gangster of Drunken Angel to the benevolent industrialist of Tengoku to Jigoku (1963; High and Low). Mifune credited Kurosawa for his development as an actor and for bringing him to notice both in Japan and elsewhere. He praised the director as an artist of extraordinary power and depth.

Kurosawa’s victory in Venice not only influenced future production but also led to greater interest in older Japanese directors, of whom Yazujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi were the most prominent. Their films were less accessible to Western audiences, as a result of a cinematic style much less influenced by Hollywood conventions than was Kurosawa’s. They are also more steeped in typically Japanese concerns and aesthetics than are most of Kurosawa’s, but together they represent some of the best of the formidable achievement of the Japanese cinema. Rashomon (Kurosawa) Venice Film Festival

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burch, Noel. “Kurosawa Akira.” In To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, edited by Annette Michelson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. The best account of the history of Japanese cinema, Burch’s book discusses Japanese culture and is theoretically sophisticated. Sees postwar Japanese cinema, with its closer relation to the Hollywood model, as inferior to that of the “golden age” between 1930 and 1945. Kurosawa’s work, however, is viewed as an exception. Many stills.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Excellent survey of films by the Japanese new-wave directors such as Oshima, whose work both develops and reacts against Kurosawa’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erens, Patricia. Akira Kurosawa: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. Lists articles on Kurosawa, sources for his films, and distributors of his work in the United States. Filmography to 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Translated by Audie E. Bock. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Kurosawa’s own, very accessible, account of his early influences and filmmaking up to Rashomon’s success at Venice. Intriguing insights into the making of the early films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonald, Keiko. Cinema East: A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983. Detailed accounts of various Japanese films from the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Rashomon, which is analyzed through its symbolism of light and dark as a masterly account of human pride and egotism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prince, Stephen. The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Rev. and expanded ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Detailed study of Kurosawa’s particular aesthetics and his contributions to cinematic style, both within and beyond Japan. Bibliographic references, index, and complete filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Film-by-film account of Kurosawa’s work. Sees Kurosawa as a philosopher working in film whose central message is one of hope against the odds in a cruel world. Many stills, excellent filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Focus on “Rashomon.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972. Collection of essays on Rashomon and its success at Venice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. Uses Kurosawa’s work to talk about the self-understanding of the Japanese people and the image of Japan prevalent in the West, arguing that Kurosawa unsettles both and is therefore disturbing to both Japanese and Western audiences.

Welles’s Citizen Kane Breaks with Traditional Filmmaking

Italian New Wave Gains Worldwide Acclaim

Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed

La Strada Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director

French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema

Bergman Wins International Fame with The Seventh Seal

Godard’s Breathless Revolutionizes Film

Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre

Categories: History