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Film Club: Rashomon and the Notion of Truth in Akira Kurosawa’s films

Rashomon court
Welcome to the new and improved Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club! How improved, you ask? Well, after finishing our second run through Kurosawa’s body of work, we discussed alternatives and came up with a plan to move forward which will cast our net wider than ever before.

The film club originally kicked off in May 2008 with Rashomon, so it is fitting that our third edition of the club starts with the same film. However, this time around instead of watching and discussing just Rashomon, we will be using it as a starting point for a wider discussion of the notions of truth and subjectivity in Kurosawa’s works. While Rashomon is obviously the most famous and straightforward example of Kurosawa’s exploration of these themes, it is by no means an exception as the topic can be found across much of Kurosawa’s oeuvre.

Can, for instance, Scandal be seen as something of a related work in its handling of tabloid journalism and its various characters’ reactions to it? Is the play acting of dreams and wishes in One Wonderful Sunday an example of a post-war need to create your own subjective reality? How about the dualism of Stray Dog, the construction of personal meaning in Ikiru, the all consuming fear in Record of a Living Being, or the question of identity in Kagemusha? In what ways does the notion of subjective reality come into play in Kurosawa’s own autobiography or the film Dreams which many have seen as a cinematic take on Kurosawa’s personal history? And in what way is all this for instance a reflection of the rebuilding of post-war Japan?

While Rashomon is intended as the primary film to watch for this month’s film club, the overall topic certainly is wider. But as always, you are also more than welcome to discuss any other topic in connection with Rashomon, jump into any of our previous discussions of the film, or indeed discuss any other Kurosawa film. To refresh your memory of Rashomon, I have even put together the first Kurosawa filmography page for the website: see here for the result and do let me know what you think. The image galleries may not function yet on all mobile devices, but I’m working on it, and the body of the text will undoubtedly also need some more work at some point, but it should be a start.

Now, if you think that the topic of “Kurosawa and the notion of truth” is way too big for a single month to sufficiently cover, you are absolutely right. That is why we will in fact be devoting about half a year to our investigation. After Rashomon, we will move onto films that are in one way or another related to it, with Rashomon and other Kurosawa films at the back of our minds.

Here is the full film club schedule for the next months:

August: Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)
We will rewatch the original to kick off our discussion. Widely available.

September: The Usual Suspects (Singer, 1995)
An example of rashomonesque unreliable narration with just one narrator. Probably the film most often cited as Rashomon influenced from recent Hollywood works. Widely available.

October: Les Girls (Cukor, 1957)
Martinez‘s discussion of Rashomon remakes notes two films which she believes “seem truer to Kurosawa’s point about the human heart than do the more faithful remakes, despite the fact that the plots of both films only resemble the original in terms of some of their narrative structure” (65). Of these two films, Cukor’s Les Girls is in general more easily attainable than the Italian Four Times That Night, so we’ll watch it.

November: Hoodwinked! (Edwards, 2005)
An example of a film which fairly closely utilizes Rashomon‘s narrative structure, and one that is better (and certainly funnier) than many others of its kind. A little like Rashomon, it also reinterprets something from the past, or from the mythic domain of storytelling. Widely available.

December: Hero (Yimou, 2002)
An example of unreliable and conflicting narration. We can also discuss Kurosawa’s influence (if any) on martial arts films. Widely available.

January: Ghost Dog (Jarmusch, 1999)
A film which at its very core emphasises the subjectivity and uncertainty of perception and makes numerous references to Rashomon. Ghost Dog also shares themes with many other Kurosawa films, especially Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. Widely and cheaply available for digital rental and purchase.

And nothing (but perhaps time and availability constraints) will, of course, prevent you from watching other films related to Rashomon. For a list of those, see the lsit of remakes and films influenced by Rashomon.

For a little more information about our film club, see the Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club page. If you have any questions, use the comments below or feel free to open a new forum topic.

Let’s talk subjectivity!


Discussion

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Ugetsu

I’ve just finished Haruki Murakami’s latest ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage‘ and, perhaps because Rashomon was on my mind, I couldn’t help noticing echoes of the film in the story. A quick google doesn’t turn up anything (although I’ve a vague memory of reading a review which raised this possible influence), but there are both plot elements and broader philosophical notions shared by them, and I doubt if its entirely coincidental.

To summarise the book (while avoiding any spoilers for anyone who wants to read it), the book’s main character is a typical Murakami protagonist – a man in his 30’s, seemingly floating through life without many friends who has apparently been pychologically damaged by an incident as a teenager, when his tight-knit circle of five friends completely reject him without explanation. He is persuaded by his girlfriend to track down the friends to try to resolve what happens – she feels he will never be able to free himself from his psychological issues if he doesn’t. The route the book takes is typical Murakami – the character is never quite sure what is real, what is important, or whether stories told or dreams dreamt have more importance than reality. But eventually he finds out the reason for his friends rejection, and they relate to two incidents which do indeed echo what happened in the forest glade. Half way through the book, I was convinced it was going to turn full Rashomon, with each of the four friends having a different variation on the story of what happened, but the book doesn’t take that route – instead, we are left with a few facts, and the rest unresolved, with the characters apparently comfortable with the lack of facts.

While I do think there are specific references to Rashomon in the book, the notion of the slipperiness of truth, or the difficulty between distinguishing objective and subjective ‘truths’ is of course something which is a constant throughout almost all Murakami books, so it can’t be attributed to a Kurosawa influence. It is traditional I think to refer to Murakami’s books as being themed around the notion of the fractures caused by modernity in the notion of ‘self’. I cannot claim to be very widely read in Japanese literature, but this does seem a very constant theme in other Japanese writers I’ve read, particular more modern writers such as Banana Yoshimoto – although I suspect that she (along with a number of other Japanese writers) are heavily influenced by Murakami.

The wider point I think this raises is whether the particular way Rashomon deals with ‘truth’ was less radical within a Japanese literary and philosophical context. Other writers, most notably Martinez, have outlined their view that many western writers have tended to give too much focus to the notion of subjective truth within the film, and less to its allegorical intent – specifically she refers to the puzzling manner in which all the characters in Rashomon seem to incriminate themselves in their individual versions. This can only be explained by each of them suffering guilt, and perhaps projecting a desire for punishment even when they seem to want to justify themselves.

To add to this somewhat rambling post, I would note that in his book ‘Compound Cinematics’, the key writer of Rashomon Shinobu Hashimoto never once mentions the philosophical issues within the story. Now, while his long passage on the writing of the book tells us much about the dynamics of the writers and Kurosawa, he focuses mainly on structural issues, not the story itself. I find it quite remarkable that he never addresses the many issues which numerous writers on Rashomon have puzzled over. Is he deliberately just leaving it to the viewers to decide, as Kurosawa would no doubt have wanted? Or is it that the notions of the unreliability of the subjective eye is such a truism within Japanese thought that Hashimoto considered it not even worth commenting upon?

For what its worth, as time goes by I am inclined to think that the notion of truth within Rashomon has been overemphasised, and that the true intent of Kurosawa and the filmmakers was to reflect the folkloric nature of the story – and of course within folklore, truth and fantasy and dreams are almost always the same thing (or at least cannot easily be distinguished), while the true core of the story is almost always allegorical. And the core allegory intended was Japanese post-war guilt.

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Ugetsu

I forgot to say – Vili, the new filmography page is terrific, you must have put a lot of work into that! A perfect reference, and at least as good as the imdb and wikipedia pages as a reference.

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Vili Maunula

I don’t really know enough to comment on whether Japanese culture or thought is more open to Rashomon like situations, but my understanding is that at least in studies of cross-cultural communication and psychology, Japanese tend to score relatively high in both ambiguity tolerance (they tolerate ambiguities) and uncertainty avoidance (they try to avoid uncertainty), which is a slightly puzzling combination in itself. How relevant these concepts actually are to our discussion, I don’t really know.

What I do know is that Masaichi Nagata, the head of Daiei, didn’t reportedly really understand the film and the studio didn’t really know what to do to market it. The film also baffled some Japanese critics, although probably not quite to the extent that the later mythology around the film has come to suggest. Based on these reports, it would seem to me that not all Japanese at the time felt entirely at home with the ambiguities of Rashomon.

It is a good observation though that Hashimoto doesn’t really dwell on the film’s philosophical content in his book. On the other hand, it must also be said that Kurosawa in turn practically bases his own autobiography on it, making it quite clear that what he has written is something of a “Rashomon”, and therefore not necessarily anything resembling an objective truth.

I find it interesting that Hashimoto’s original title for the screenplay, which at that point was entirely based on “In a Grove”, was Shiyu (雌雄) which stands for “female male” or “feminine masculine” (sixteen years before Godard’s Masculin Féminin). I wonder if that might give us an idea of Hashimoto’s own interest in the story.

In any case, I don’t think that the notions of truth can really be overemphasised when discussing Rashomon. When I watched the film a couple of weeks ago, I decided to approach it as a silent film and turned off both sound and subtitles. I can warmly recommend watching the film this way as it makes you concentrate on the brilliance of the editing, acting and camera work. It’s not my first time watching the film without sound, but this time around the exercise made me increasingly convinced that the issue of truth and point of view permeate throughout the film. It is also a great way to see the influence that silent film had in the construction of Rashomon.

This definitely isn’t to say that an interpretation such as that of post-war guilt or identity would in some way be impossible, or even secondary to the film’s exploration of truth(s). In fact, if Rashomon were in no way connected to the realities of postwar Japan, it would be the only such film in Kurosawa’s filmography in a time period of about a decade. Every other film between 1946 and 1955, eleven in total, deal with very specific and identifiable postwar topics. It would be strange if Rashomon somehow didn’t.

It also seems like an important point to be made that when Kurosawa added the frame story he didn’t add just the Rashomon gate that is in the final film but his screenplay also called for a black market crowd for the opening scene, which many have interpreted as a clear nod towards postwar Japan. The scene of course never got filmed, apparently for budgetary reasons.

So, while I think that the notion of truth hasn’t necessarily been overemphasised, we probably need to treat it as the first step and ask what exactly the intended second step might be. With this in mind, I think I may need to revisit not only Martinez but also other writers who have offered a postwar interpretation for the film.

And if Rashomon indeed deals with postwar guilt as Martinez has suggested, how does the film compare to or complement No Regrets for Our Youth, in which Kurosawa trod topically fairly similar ground?

There’s plenty to think about!

Thanks also for the congratulations on the Rashomon film page! I guess it says something about something that putting the page together only took me two afternoons, much of which was spent playing around with the gallery script. I’m hoping to find enough time to work on the other films soon.

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Ugetsu

Vili

I don’t really know enough to comment on whether Japanese culture or thought is more open to Rashomon like situations, but my understanding is that at least in studies of cross-cultural communication and psychology, Japanese tend to score relatively high in both ambiguity tolerance (they tolerate ambiguities) and uncertainty avoidance (they try to avoid uncertainty), which is a slightly puzzling combination in itself.

That is an interesting observation! I think its worth pointing out of course that its not just a Japanese/western difference, there seems to have been a very big difference between the way some European critics saw the film from US critics – the latter seemingly taking a more ‘literal’ interpretation of the story, while some writers seem to have suggested that writers from the defeated nations in the war were more inclined to view it allegorically (which may of course owe as much to intellectual traditions in those countries as much as historical circumstances).

I find it interesting that Hashimoto’s original title for the screenplay, which at that point was entirely based on “In a Grove”, was Shiyu (雌雄) which stands for “female male” or “feminine masculine” (sixteen years before Godard’s Masculin Féminin). I wonder if that might give us an idea of Hashimoto’s own interest in the story.

I found that very interesting, and I must admit I was wondering when reading it where the ‘female male’ aspect came from the original story, which also had multiple (not two) viewpoints. I did wonder if perhaps he was thinking of the notion that the wife had a very different view of what happened from the main two male protagonists – something to do with the male and female gaze perhaps (rather than a particular focus on the samurai and his wife).

In any case, I don’t think that the notions of truth can really be overemphasised when discussing Rashomon.

I’d agree that it is of course central to the film – I just think that rather than simply an exploration of the nature of objective/subjective truth there are deeper elements, including the allegorical. And I don’t think you can remove notions of ‘truth’ from the historic context of the film, whereby history was being rapidly rewritten in to suit everyones immediate post-war narratives.

And if Rashomon indeed deals with postwar guilt as Martinez has suggested, how does the film compare to or complement No Regrets for Our Youth, in which Kurosawa trod topically fairly similar ground?

I’ve always wondered why Kurosawa seemed so keen to distance himself from No Regrets from our Youth, when it is such a fine and powerful film. One reason, I suspect, is that as a pure film maker he saw it as perhaps a little over-literal and non-visual and in that sense, not very interesting. I think the use of visuals and allusions and the power of messing with audiences mind over notions of truth was far more to his taste as an artist.

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Vili Maunula

I have tried to put my thoughts together about Rashomon‘s place as a postwar film, the results of which can be found here. It may be a little rough, but after three days of wrestling with the topic, I felt the need to get it done and push it out there. I can no longer think straight, and don’t want to leave it unfinished.

I have also been thinking about the male/female aspect of the film’s origins and have some sort of a starting point for that inquiry, but to be honest the linked little essay has exhausted me quite thoroughly, so I will need some time to recuperate before attempting to put my thoughts in order about that subject. But rather than male or female gaze, I am thinking about it more in terms of the original sin where the grove becomes the garden, which I of course realise is a Christian concept, but perhaps also applicable to what Hashimoto may have had in mind with his original draft. Perhaps not. I really don’t know before I have tried to properly go down that particular rabbit hole.

Of course, if the above gets anyone’s thought processes working, feel free to grab it and run with it.

As for No Regrets, I think the film was compromised not only by the censorship board but also by Toho, who forced major changes especially to the last third of the film, partly for ideological (leftist) reasons, and partly because they had another film based on the same incident in production. I think Kurosawa’s criticism of the film also comes primarily from his autobiography, written at a time when he was very much indebted to foreign and especially American financing to continue his career. No Regrets I think problematises some issues that Kurosawa perhaps felt could be misinterpreted, especially by some western audiences more accustomed to a less granular approach to the war.

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jesgear

I haven’t visited this site in a while, but I came back recently and have enjoyed getting caught up on reading posts and am looking forward to participating in the Film Club. I don’t own a copy of Rashomon, so I reserved a copy from my local library. It arrived late, so I was able to watch it only last night/this morning.

Because of the delay in receiving the DVD, I planned on waiting to read what’s been posted on the current topic … but my curiosity got the best of me and I couldn’t wait any longer. I’ve enjoyed reading what Ugetsu and Vili Maunula have each posted, and I’ve very much enjoyed reading the filmography page on Rashomon and also Vili’s essay Rashomon as a response to postwar Japan. I have to admit that the essay and Ugetsu and Vili’s posts stayed in mind as I watched the movie, and I believe they contributed to my enjoyment of the film this time. I’ve never claimed to be analytical in any way, so my comments here will not be anywhere near as informative as Ugetsu and Vili’s, but I appreciate being able to share my thoughts about the film.

Although I enjoy most of Kurosawa’s films, I don’t include Rashomon among my favorites … please don’t be angry with me 🙄 .To explain, for the most part I have no problem with most of the movie, but there’s one aspect that ruin’s it for me: the testimony of the dead husband through the spirit medium. I’ve never liked any supernatural element in any form of art or entertainment. Not that such elements terrify me; I just feel uncomfortable when anything supernatural are involved.

I’ve twice watched Rashomon completely and, as I mentioned, it was only the one scene that I didn’t care for. So, when I watched it just now, when it came up, I have to admit that I skipped right over that DVD chapter 😕 . I apologize if I’ve done something considered offensive or sacrilegious to fellow fans of Kurosawa’s work, but as I explained above, that scene makes me very uncomfortable. I know I’m skipping a vital part of the story, but it’s just something I feel I have to do when rewatching Rashomon. Apologies 🙁

Despite this, I would like to share my thoughts on the rest of the movie. Without watching the scene that bothers me, I did enjoy the film more than previously … and I think a big reason is that I read up about it here before putting in the DVD. For example, Vili’s essay on the film’s relationship to the postwar environment of Japan gave meaning to comments made by the priest near the beginning of the film. These were comments about how tragedies experienced there up till then (earthquakes, fire, famine) weren’t as terrible as the tragedy that’s the subject of Rashomon. If I hadn’t read the essay before hearing the priest’s comments, I wouldn’t have given his comments much thought … actually, I’m sure that when I watched the film previously I thought that his comments didn’t make sense: how could an attack on one woman and the murder of one man be more terrible than earthquakes, fire, famine, and other tragedies that affect many more people? But on this watching, having in mind what the essay describes the film possibly representing, the priest’s comments took on more weight, and the scene made sense to me.

That’s the most analytical I can get. I’m not one to reach such conclusions without some help. If I misunderstood that scene, I again apologize 🙂 . The rest of this post will be simple comments from this simple Kurosawa fan.

When thinking of Rashomon, my first thought is always the Rashomon gate. I think the film set of that gate is my favorite in all of Kurosawa’s films. I don’t know what it is about that set that appeals to me, but it just seems so cool and big and interesting. I would have loved to have seen it in person. Kurosawa’s description in his Something Like an Autobiography (excerpted in the DVD booklet) of his planning of the construction of the gate is interesting to read.

I should say that I’ve never read Kurosawa’s Autobiography, but I have read excerpts at various times. I enjoy anecdotes he’s shared about the making of his films, such as his description of his employees having to rub salt on themselves before entering the forest to film Rashomon. Those stories add a small dimension to what’s being watched on-screen, in my opinion.

I’m sorry to ramble, but there’s one more scene that I’d like to briefly comment on. Just before the bandit Tajomaro gives his testimony. He’s shown in the courtyard bound and held by the police agent, and the priest and the woodcutter are visible sitting behind them (it’s the scene pictured at the top of this Film Club page). When the scene first came on-screen, almost immediately I thought, “hey, there are four of the Seven Samurai!” I’m a big fan of Seven Samurai, so to see this many of the Seven together alone in a shot was quite a treat 😀 .

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Ugetsu

Jesgear: I’ve twice watched Rashomon completely and, as I mentioned, it was only the one scene that I didn’t care for. So, when I watched it just now, when it came up, I have to admit that I skipped right over that DVD chapter 😕 . I apologize if I’ve done something considered offensive or sacrilegious to fellow fans of Kurosawa’s work, but as I explained above, that scene makes me very uncomfortable. I know I’m skipping a vital part of the story, but it’s just something I feel I have to do when rewatching Rashomon. Apologies 🙁

No apologies needed! I actually disliked that scene with the medium when I first two times I watched Rashomon (on a small screen). But when I finally got to see Rashomon on the big screen when it was released a couple of years ago, I found the scene amazing, the hairs crawled up the back of my neck watching it. Sometimes you need the big screen to really know what the film maker was trying to do. Having said tat, if you find the scene uncomfortable for other reasons, perhaps you do need to cover your eyes if you ever do see it in the cinema!

But its good to have you commenting here – the nice thing about this site is that everyone can pitch in. I guess after a few years of reading and watching the films I know more than most about Kurosawa, but I came here first as a complete beginner to any type of film analysis, let alone Japanese film analysis, so do stick with it.

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Vili Maunula

It’s really interesting to hear about your dislike of the medium, jesgear. I wonder if this is somehow related to the cultural differences that we discussed earlier with Ugetsu. Perhaps the medium’s appearance is somewhat less of a “paranormal” situation for a Japanese viewer. A bit like a scene with a Christian ritual such as eucharist looks perfectly natural to someone who has grown up in a Christian background, but appears alien and exotic to anyone who hasn’t.

I also have this feeling that the medium is meant to be something of a joke. You thought you heard all the possible variations of the story that we can have access to? Well, you thought wrong — here’s the dead man, and the story still doesn’t make any sense! In Akutagawa’s version the story ends with the husband/medium’s testimony. Something of an “everything and the kitchen sink” sort of an ending. The story pretty much goes from the believable to the less-believable: the woodcutter, the priest, the policeman, the wife’s mother, Tajomaru, the wife, the dead man.

Anyway, there’s absolutely no need to feel sorry about skipping bits of films on this website! I too skip around films that I know already. It can actually give new insights into the whole work.

I’m glad to hear that our discussion here has made you enjoy the film more. And you are right about the priest’s comments making more sense when the story is given a more metaphorical interpretation. At the very least, one must think that the priest is thinking about human nature in general, and not just this specific instance of what happened in the forest.

jesgear: Just before the bandit Tajomaro gives his testimony. He’s shown in the courtyard bound and held by the police agent, and the priest and the woodcutter are visible sitting behind them (it’s the scene pictured at the top of this Film Club page). When the scene first came on-screen, almost immediately I thought, “hey, there are four of the Seven Samurai!” I’m a big fan of Seven Samurai, so to see this many of the Seven together alone in a shot was quite a treat 😀 .

I wonder if there is any Kurosawa film (apart from Seven Samurai of course) which contains a scene with more of the samurai. Five of the actors (Shimura, Katō, Kimura, Chiaki, Miyaguchi) have roles in Ikiru, but I don’t think they share a scene at any point. Stray Dog has four of the samurai (Mifune, Shimura, Kimura and Chiaki), but again I don’t remember them at any point being in the same scene.

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jesgear

Ugetsu No apologies needed! I actually disliked that scene with the medium when I first two times I watched Rashomon (on a small screen). But when I finally got to see Rashomon on the big screen when it was released a couple of years ago, I found the scene amazing, the hairs crawled up the back of my neck watching it.

Thanks for responding to my posting, Ugetsu. Actually, ‘hairs crawling up the back of my neck’ is partly what I’m wanting to avoid when I skip such scenes. 😀 When I watch Rashomon again, I’m sure it’ll be on a small screen. 🙂

And thank you for your encouragement concerning my posting my thoughts at this site. I don’t see myself ever reaching the level of master analysts as you and Vili; I just appreciate being able to be included here.

Vili Maunula It’s really interesting to hear about your dislike of the medium, jesgear. I wonder if this is somehow related to the cultural differences that we discussed earlier with Ugetsu. Perhaps the medium’s appearance is somewhat less of a “paranormal” situation for a Japanese viewer. A bit like a scene with a Christian ritual such as eucharist looks perfectly natural to someone who has grown up in a Christian background, but appears alien and exotic to anyone who hasn’t.

This is an interesting idea, Vili. I have to say, though, that I classify that scene with all the paranormal that’s often found in even non-Japanese art/entertainment. I’d say it’s due to my family upbringing more than anything else; even as adults, my siblings and I are just not comfortable with such scenes. I feel that way about select segments of Dreams, and I can’t watch Throne of Blood at all ❗

I do like your idea about the medium testimony possibly being included as a joke. That adds another dimension to the film. So many layers to Kurosawa’s work 😎

I wonder if there is any Kurosawa film (apart from Seven Samurai of course) which contains a scene with more of the samurai.

I remember seeing a website where actors were listed as to in which of Kurosawa’s films they appeared. Often while watching a film I’ll see an actor whom I’ll recall having seen in another film. It’s kind of a fun game to play while enjoying their work.

Thank you, Vili, for responding to my posting.

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