The historical reception of Japanese cinema at Cahiers du cinéma: 1951-1961
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This dissertation documents and analyzes the reception of Japanese films in the French film journals of the 1950s, when postwar Paris was awash with cinephilia. The foremost of those journals, Cahiers du cinéma, began publication in 1951, the same year as Japanese cinema’s breakthrough into international film culture with the surprise victory of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashõmon at the Venice Film Festival. Previous scholarship has amply credited the critics at Cahiers with reinventing the tenets of film criticism and launching the French New Wave, but without focused attention on the Japanese case. Meanwhile, reception studies of Japanese cinema in the postwar West have tended to concentrate on the United States’ hegemonic position vis-à-vis the Japanese film industry. Entwining those two strands, I investigate how Cahiers’ sustained but selective engagement with Japanese cinema fueled intergenerational conflicts within the journal and debates with rival journal Positif, helped crystallize the key tenets of auteur theory and mise-en-scène, and navigated between orientalist notions of authentic national cinema and the vexed ideal of cinema as a universal language. In addition to mining the film journals, I draw on the rich archive of the Cinémathèque Française for unpublished quantitative data and correspondence related to screenings of Japanese films and Japan’s entries in the European film festival circuit, especially Cannes. This factual record underscores my argument that the French critics used Japanese cinema subjectively as a malleable canvas for limning their own partisan aesthetics and passionate advocacy for cinema as the seventh art. After setting the scene of 1950s cinephilia, I trace Cahiers’ encounter with the unknown of Japanese cinema which resulted in reactions from stunned amazement, through enthusiastic viewership and awareness of Japan’s already thriving film industry, to reaction against the exotic seductions of Japanese films suspected of having been made solely for export to the West. In particular, I show how Cahiers’ championing of the “incomparable” Kenji Mizoguchi as the first non-Western director admitted to their pantheon of world-class auteurs emerged from a decade of polarizing head-to-head comparisons with Mizoguchi’s increasingly disparaged countryman Kurosawa. My transregional approach thus taps and commends a fertile vein in historicocritical film studies.