There’s nothing in film as quintessentially American as the Western. It’s not just the obvious in the setting, it’s the civilisations, the people, the stories they tell – the tales that made up the first “defining” genre of film could only have come about in the colonisation of the vast landscape that is America.
Or could they? Today in the TFP blog, we explore how the perfect bed for Western tales was created half the world away, on Japanese soil, and how Eastern filmmakers created some of the most everlasting standards of Western cinema.
Early Japanese Cinema
Now, before we dive into things, there are a few things you have to understand about Japanese history and culture for proper understanding. Forgive us some generalisations – we’re filmmakers, not historians – but hopefully, we’ll be able to get the general gist across. The first is that Japan has historically been one of the most isolated nations in the world. Its island nature and bounty of resources meant that it never really needed to interact with other countries. Even nowadays, Japan is one of the most homogenous nations on earth, with 98% of its populace (in a nation of 125 million – double that of the UK) racially Japanese. During the Edo Period (that’ll be relevant later), Japan actually pursued an active policy of isolation for more than 250 years. It wasn’t until the 1860s, when American gunships literally opened Japan up to foreign influences by force, that Japan started to recognise the outside world again. That means that Japan has its own unique, personal history and culture as a nation that doesn’t interact very much with other worldwide powers. The second is that this culture has traditionally had a strong connection to visual storytelling. The stylised Kabuki stage plays had long been a traditional Japanese pastime, and the likely Dutch (one of the few nations allowed to maintain a connection to Japan during Edo) introduction of the Magic Lantern sometime around the mid-1700s had created a fascination with moving imagery. So it’s no surprise that Japan took to cinema like a fish to water. Throughout the 1900s-1930s, Japan was constantly creating its own films, unique in style and influence to anything else in the world, and cinema quickly became a leading industry in Japan to rival Hollywood. But it’s the post-war period, that we’re interested in today, because that’s what laid the ground for some seminal films that are uniquely Japanese, but at the same time not.
Post-War Japan and the Jidai-geki
To call the post-war period of Japanese history “turbulent” is probably an understatement. On the one hand, the Second World War was over – the nation could stop focusing on fighting, and start focusing on healing. On the other, Japan was a losing partner in that war and had ultimately suffered a terrible, devastating price for that association. The totalitarian wartime government had been removed from power, but in its place was the occupational government of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, with a wide-ranging remit to control and censor all forms of Japanese media. So it’s understandable that as the occupation eased towards the end of the 1940s, culminating in the reinstatement of the Japanese government in 1952, Japanese national pride was in a bit of a sullen state.
The Japanese needed something to be proud of, something that didn’t harken back to the militaristic nationalism that’d led to their involvement in the World War – a simpler time, when things were less complicated, but no less Japanese. Enter the Jidai-geki, literally “period dramas” (yep, that’s where we get it from – surprised us too!). Born in the 1910s, these Edo period-set dramas told tales of heroic deeds against foul villains, of sword duels out of folktales brought to life on the screen, of kabuki brought to real life. Of a Japan full of art, culture, honour and the occasional danger. Of a uniquely Japanese way of life. They’d started to catch on in the 1930s before the wartime government forced Japanese cinema to focus on propaganda efforts, but in the late 40s and early 50s, they set Japanese cinema ablaze. They were just what the Japanese populace needed – tales of a Japan to be loved, to be remembered, celebrating everything the Japanese thought best about their culture.
The rise of jidai-geki created a number of prolific, legendary Japanese cinematic minds, but for the purposes of our tale, there’s one name that stands above the rest:
If you’re a film buff, we don’t have to explain this name to you. But we’re still going to anyways. Known for his unique visual style and striking imagery, Akira Kurosawa is a man who’s one of the strongest candidates for “best filmmaker of all time” – there are certainly few people who can match the influence he had on cinema. Cutting his teeth with wartime and post-war propaganda films (more a case of “needs must” than anything else), his first major film was Drunken Angel, a yakuza-focused work. But it was not until 1950, when he waded into jidai-geki with Rashomon, that things really started to kick-off, and the West really started to understand that it should be cribbing notes from the East.
Like many of the best things in life, Rashomon appeared at the 1951 Venice Film Festival almost by accident; it hadn’t by any means bombed in its home country, but it by no means broke box office records. Rashomon is an unorthodox film even in the modern era, and back in the 1950s, it left a lot of cinema-goers more confused than wowed. Nevertheless, thanks to the endorsement of one Giuliana Stramigioli, it caught the eye of Unitalia Film, who screened it at the festival – and boy, where it might not have impressed the East, it blew away the West. Rashomon walked out of Venice with its top prize – the Golden Lion – and the attention of all the major names in Western cinema. As a result of that Japanese attitude towards foreign powers, many of them had barely known that a Japanese cinema scene existed, let alone that it could produce something so good. It was new, it was different, it was completely unorthodox in its storytelling and its visual style. It’s not exaggerating to say that Rashomon laid the seeds for a revolution in Western cinematography, and it took the industry by storm. Rashomon came to the US box office in December 1951, to massive critical acclaim. At the following year’s Academy Awards, it was given an Honorary Award for being “the most outstanding foreign language film” – 5 years before the Foreign Language category would be made into an Award in its own right. Kurosawa had well and truly taken the cinema world by the reins. But how did this extremely, uniquely Japanese film end up kickstarting the most American of genres with it? Well, with that, we have to take a look at the post-war USA, and how different circumstances can sometimes lead to the same result.
From East to Western
The post-war United States was in many ways the exact opposite of post-war Japan. The US was on the side of the victors it was near-untouched by the war and had undergone a massive industrial boom as it geared up to put boots on the ground in the Pacific and Normandy. It was a time of wealth, of celebration, of happiness; American national pride had never been higher. But so had American national fear, because they weren’t the only superpower that had walked out of the Second World War with its head held high. Across an ocean, but within touching distance of the USA’s northmost point, sat the USSR, with its great gains across Europe, and its profoundly anti-American values.
As the 1950s wore on, and it became increasingly obvious that the USSR had cracked the atom bomb, the USA became more and more nervous as a nation, and the importance of “American values” grew higher and higher. Which left filmmakers with the task of making works that appealed to those values, whilst celebrating everything that made America the nation it was. Their solution came in the past – the Western. A genre that appealed to everything that brought America together as a nation – a time of black and white heroes and villains, of dastardly deeds and grand rescues, from before the world was big enough to worry about bombs from a continent away. A simpler time. Do you see where we’re going with this yet?
Even down to the timings, the jidai-geki and the Western managed to hit the exact same cultural buttons – the Western had started to get ahold of US cinema in the 1930s, only for the War to come in and turn things around, and when the post-war period started to clear, the Western set America ablaze. Then, along the way, with Rashomon and other jidai-geki starting to make their way across the Pacific, some bright spark realised that the two seemingly vastly different genres of film matched up thematically near-perfectly. Nearly every single element of the jidai-geki as a genre could be translated into an appropriate Western analogue. The lone ronin with his sword became the wandering gunslinger with his six-shooter, the helpless peasant farmers morphed into frontier settlers, just trying to survive; the noble samurai, the Lawmen and the US army. The bandits – well those barely needed translating. Even the climactic sword duels of the Edo period had their analogue in the one-on-one quickdraw duels. Then, you have elements of cultural history and appeal that the jidai-geki brought to the Japanese populace, which, in a striking case of “two sides of the same coin”, managed to find their appeal despite (or perhaps, because of) an entirely different approach to cultural identity. In Japan, everyone was Japanese; in the States, anyone could be American. The jidai-geki was a perfect ground to take a film, and wholesale transform it into an entirely different genre, without changing anything but the slightest elements of its plot, and audiences loved it.
Many of the most famous Western films from its golden age are remakes in some form of earlier Japanese films, especially Kurosawa’s. Rashomon itself became The Outrage in 1964; in the same year, Sergio Leone made his mark on the cinema world with A Fistful of Dollars, based heavily on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Even earlier, in 1960, Kurosawa’s legendary 1954 effort Seven Samurai – a film which itself took some cues from its Western compatriots – became the equally legendary The Magnificent Seven. Those that didn’t take their plots from across the ocean certainly took stylistic cues – the use of light, especially that of the sun, became a major feature of the cinematography of the period. The East had made its mark on the West and changed its cinema forever. They say that film’s one of the “Great Uniters” among humanity; sometimes little bits like this just go to prove it.
Of course, in Japan, they had something else to worry about whilst all this Western craze was going on. His name was Godzilla…