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Rashomon: the Soundtrack

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    Andrew

    I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on Rashomon’s soundtrack.

    For me, the medium scene in particular illustrates AK’s masterful application of the ‘multiplication effect,’ i.e., how sound and image combine to intensify the emotional effect. The superposition of the deep male voice as the female medium speaks for the dead samurai only makes the horror and awe of this scene more powerful. In addition, if I’m not mistaken, the dubbing of the voice is out of synch with her lip movements; this, as well as such subtleties as the asymmetry of her eyebrows only adds to the unease.

    When it comes to the music, however, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, the ominous music when we first see the woodcutter walking through the forest heightens the viewer’s sense of dread; while the sunny music at film’s end seems quite apropos for the optimism we’re supposed to feel. On the other hand, there are times where the music is so clearly derivative of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ that it causes something of a distraction. Do others share this same ambivalence?

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    Jon Hooper

    I need to go back and watch some of the scenes you mentioned with the soundtrack in mind. I do remember really liking the music that accompanies Shimura’s walk, particularly at the end when it punctuates the way he halts in surprise on discovering the hat etc. The music when Tajomaru leads the wife to the glade (used in the BFI DVD on the menu screen) is pretty stirring too.

    As for Bolero soundalike, well, both yes and no. I do think it really suits the action and works well in itself, as long as one does not keep thinking about how much it resembles Bolero. And of course the more one thinks about it, it really does ape Bolero rather too much for comfort.

    Your comments about the soundtrack in the medium scene are interesting and I’ll have another look. I also need to look again at some of the more beautiful and hypnotic use of sound and music in certain scenes (to accompany the play of light and shadow, the breeze, the stream) to see if it’s like I remember it.

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    Vili Maunula

    Very interesting questions. While always important with Kurosawa, the soundtrack in Rashomon is perhaps especially crucial considering that Kurosawa was consciously borrowing techniques and atmosphere from silent movies when making the film.

    Do you think that the dubbing is actually purposely out-of-sync with the medium? I often wonder about that.

    For me, the “Bolero problem” has never really been a real problem. I can hear the connection, and I am kind of able to understand why many like Richie make such a huge problem out of it, but for me it just doesn’t end up being an issue, to be honest.

    I actually don’t really like Bolero, and consequently try to avoid having to listen to it. Yet, I think that the imitational piece in Rashomon works very well, and I have nothing particular against it.

    Maybe it has also got to do with one’s age. I didn’t grow up with Bolero in the radio, but with Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna. So, hearing the imitation perhaps doesn’t make me so strongly think of Bolero as it does someone who grew up hearing it everywhere.

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    Jon Hooper

    I may be a little older, but Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna were on the radio when I was growing up too. But in the early eighties Bolero was inescapable because of a certain Bo Derek film, and became a cliche as music used to accompany foreplay or a sex scene. Of course, this was long after Rashomon and it’s bad luck that the music went on to be used in that way.

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    Vili Maunula

    Have you guys thought about the fact that most of the music in Rashomon is very western, indeed so much so that in the case of the main theme we can even point out which work it mimics. Yet, at the very end of the movie, in the final scene, the music is distinctly Japanese.

    Someone, I forget who (sorry for my laziness), has in print suggested that in doing this Kurosawa deliberately contrasts western (occupational) morals with those of Japan. The happy, optimistic ending is the product of Japanese traditions (it is also here when the characters bow in a very Japanese style), while the depressing confusion and the lies that have preceded have been the products of western influence.

    I am personally not entirely convinced by this argument, but it is nevertheless interesting to note that there is a strong emphasis on Japanese tradition (the music and the bows) at the very end of the movie. I might, however, rather stress “tradition” than “Japanese” here, and in doing so suggest that Kurosawa simply finds his solution in traditional (“human”) values. The fact that it is Japanese is incidental, and the product of the director’s own cultural milieu.

    There is also another curious point about the soundtrack that I have come to realise. This is that there is practically no music during the last half an hour of the movie, apart from those few Japanese notes at the very end of the film. The woodcutter’s second account is without music — all we hear is dialogue and, during the duel, loud breathing.

    Does this mean something? Are we actually witnessing there a sequence that is not embroidered, which is to say one that does not contain self-serving falsehoods? Or is it there just to create an effect?

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    Jon Hooper

    Does this mean something? Are we actually witnessing there a sequence that is not embroidered, which is to say one that does not contain self-serving falsehoods? Or is it there just to create an effect?

    I haven’t noticed this before. It’s very interesting indeed, particularly since I’ve often thought about whether the woodcutter’s second account is true. I do find myself more willing to trust the character than the others, and were it not for some details in the other accounts that simply cannot be explained away I would take it as such. It would mean, then, that Kurosawa is very aware of the way music can be used as a device to assist in storytelling and in the art of illusion. I wonder if there is any marked difference in terms of the imagery/lighting etc. in this last account as well? I seem to remember that the play of light and shadow persists, so that might not be the case.

    Another explanation for the lack of music might be that this second account, though perhaps no less mendacious, primarily serves to undercut and to deflate the images the protagonists have set up of themselves in their ealier accounts. The woodcutter, then, presents an account that punctures the inflated heroism of the bandit, the sombre seriousness of the husband, the melodramatic self-pity of the wife. The woodcutter’s account is down to earth and seemingly unembellished but that does not mean that it is necessarily nearer the truth.

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    Vili Maunula

    Another explanation for the lack of music might be that this second account, though perhaps no less mendacious, primarily serves to undercut and to deflate the images the protagonists have set up of themselves in their ealier accounts.

    That’s a very interesting take on the woodcutter’s second account!

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