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Rashomon: The Medium

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    Vili Maunula

    In a response to my post on the ending of Rashomon, StoreHadji notes that “the presence of a Spirit Medium was rather too fantastical for me to buy into. My suspension of disbelief was already tenuous at that point, and I’m afraid the appearance of the medium sent it plummetting to earth.”

    I think that this is a fair observation. In fact, I have personally seen quite an interesting array of reactions that the medium has received. Some seem to totally condemn the scene for simply being too strange, while others absolutely love it — often for the very same reason.

    Whatever your reaction to it, the medium’s introduction is, I think it is fair to say, a particularly memorable part of the film that stands out while you are watching. And I would be ready to argue that there is a very particular reason for that.

    Akutagawa’s short story puts no focus on the medium — the only reason we know that the husband’s narration is through a medium is because the title of the section reads as “Story of the Murdered Man, as Told through a Medium”. The rest of that section is fully in first person, as narrated by the husband. In fact, to me it seems that the only reason why the medium is mentioned in the first place is to give an explanation for how we can have the husband’s account. The fact that the medium works as a vessel through which the husband speaks does not appear to have any meaning or importance.

    In Kurosawa this seems different. The medium is a commanding presence, something wild, explosive, very other-wordly. She is introduced with a burst of energy not previously given to any of the other characters. (In fact literally so, as there is a sound of thunder just before we cut to the courtyard for the husband’s/medium’s bit.)

    I personally think that the medium’s show-like ritual and the husband’s subsequent emergence through her constitute an absolutely brilliant scene, but I also feel that we are not meant to take it too seriously. To me it is as if, after the very serious and dark narrative offered by the wife, Kurosawa would deliberately go over-the-top and be winking at us, suggesting that we relax a bit.

    Indeed, if we were until now watching Rashomon as a whodunit thinking that our task was to find out how the husband actually died, I think that the introduction of the medium would be the point where we realise that we have been badly mistaken about our intended role as the audience.

    After all, how do you incorporate into your detective work, which is a task grounded on logic, a story allegedly told by a dead man through a medium? It was already bad enough to have so far been given only second hand accounts (we must assume that it was either the priest or the woodcutter narrating Tajomaru’s and the wife’s stories), but now we are talking about a third-hand account at the very best, and the very possibility of facing nothing more than a fanatic nutcase. What are you to do with that? (Richie, in his own attempt at trying to solve the Great Rashomon Murder Mystery ends up completely ignoring what the husband says.) Talk about an unreliable witness amongst unreliable witnesses. And what kind of a whudunit director would throw that at you? It is simply not playing by the rules.

    Which I would say is of course exactly the point. And the reason why the medium is so over-the-top is to make you realise that this is not a whudunit movie. That it doesn’t really matter why or how these stories differ from each other, the point is that they differ. The over-the-top medium is there to pull you out of the film and reconsider your position.

    In a way, I would say that the point is exactly to “unsuspend” your disbelief. To guide you away from watching the movie the way that you were probably watching it.

    If I may in fact go back to my theory that I referred to in my “baby post“, I could say that the introduction of the medium serves the purpose to make us start looking at the movie exactly as it is: as a movie.

    This is, of course, just one view of things, and I have personally not entirely convinced myself that the medium is actually purposely over-the-top. Would contemporary Japanese audiences have seen it as such? Mifune’s performance, I seem to remember, received some rap from both Japanese and later Western critics for being too theatrical, but I don’t remember anyone saying all that much about the medium.

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    Jeremy

    I going to agree in Vili’s post near its entirety, it requires abandoning some of my thoughts on how the audience is treated, but I find do so in this case rather easy.

    StoreHadji mention (s)he has only seen Rashomon once, in which case I can understand the comments. I too had much the same feelings upon my first watch. I do think a second viewing would rid of this, and you find more of the brillance the witch offers.

    Being now that I have watched Rashomon around 20 times, I do not find the witch over-the-top, unbelievable, a mistake, or a unaccurate interputator.

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    Jon Hooper

    I never saw the medium as being over-the-top. The first time I saw this scene I found it extraordinary, one of the best things in the film, and time has only strengthened that sense. As to her actions: if someone is possessed by a troubled spirit (the husband, if I recall correctly states that he is in darkness), wouldn’t they be likely to writhe and thrash about, to wail…

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    Andrew

    I agree with Sanjuro that the scenes with the medium are some of the most powerful in the film. Her role and presence, too, would seem to mesh well with the Shinto or folk religion practices of the time (at least from what I’ve read about these things).

    In this context, I don’t consider her acting to be any more over the top than that of the bandit or the wife, for whom the emotions and behavior are frequently exaggerated in classic Kurosawa style.

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