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Rashomon vs Ugetsu Monogatari: The nature of truth

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    Ugetsu

    In an earlier thread I quoted the following comparison of Rashomon to Ugetsu Monogatari by the film critic and writer David Thompson:

    Rashomon is a simpleminded proof of an idea that informs many films. At that period of his career, Kurosawa was visually inventive, but Rashomon is as obvious as it sounds in synopsis. Whereas, Ugetsu simply incorporates the principle that people see events differently -as, incidentally, do Strangers on a Train, Exodus, Citizen Kane, and many other films less struck by the mock-parable idea of variable truths. (The New Autobiographical Dictionary of Film, 4th edition p.483)

    Elsewhere in the same page it is stated that ‘… Rashomons debate on truth is trite beside Ugetsu

    Both films are based on older stories, and as such can be said to be indebted deeply to Japanese culture and writings, with no obvious external non-Japanese influence. Despite the presence of a Priest and a ghostly voice, I think it is fair to say that Rashomon can be described as a ‘secular’ film is that it presents a problem of rationality – how to identify the truth when people cannot even stop lying to themselves (it of course also implies that even a dead man can lie). Ugetsu Monogatari seems to owe its vision of the impossibility of truth at a more mystical and spiritual level – we cannot be sure of the truth because we cannot even be sure that what we see is ‘real’. As such it is both a primitive view, consistent with folklore and ancient myth and pre-Enlightenment notions of reality, while also bringing to us more modern concerns about the nature of objectivity.

    Leaving aside questions about the quality of both films (I think most of us here would agree that both are masterpieces from great film makers), I wonder if there is any real link or comparison to the notions of truth and reality as presented in these different films. As usual with Kurosawa, his concerns are expressed somewhat more didactically through the film, as the characters repeatedly agonize of the nature of humanity, and peoples fundamental aversion to unpleasant truths and in particular the role of guilt in distorting self awareness. Mizoguchi on the other hand, seems to present us a world in which all reality is subject to a spirit world without comment. It is the context for the story and the morals or lessons of that story. The ‘reality’ of the spirit world is never questioned, nor does it need clarification.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Dear Ugetsu, you tantalize with your mention of a spirit world…! In both Rashomon and Ugetsu we see the spirit world presented as fact. Does that influence “reality”? Is acceptance of the spirit world as fact something that needs to be considered in deducing the nature of reality?

    Or are we meant to take the medium of Rashomon as another example of subjectivity and dissembling? Is the medium really just making it all up?

    Far from a simplistic message, Rashomon keeps me guessing still at the nature of humanity, and our relationship to truth.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    Or are we meant to take the medium of Rashomon as another example of subjectivity and dissembling? Is the medium really just making it all up?

    Isn’t it interesting that just about every writer on the film assumes that she is telling the truth, and that if there is dissembling, it must be by the dead Samurai? It shows how completely Kurosawa took us into that world, that we ourselves start to think like a 16th Century Japanese, assuming the dead can give testimony.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – The reliance on the medium was one of the things that bothered me about the movie the first time I saw it, and it was something I planned to mention when I posted about the film. I’m waiting until I am able to rewatch it before doing that.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    The reliance on the medium was one of the things that bothered me about the movie the first time I saw it, and it was something I planned to mention when I posted about the film. I’m waiting until I am able to rewatch it before doing that.

    I’d just make one comment about the version of events as told by the medium. On my first two viewings of Rashomon I though this was the weakest of the four ‘versions’ of what happened. I thought it didn’t quite work, and lacked the visual poetry of the other versions.

    However, last year I was fortunate to see Rashomon for the first time on the big screen, and that scene had the hairs standing on the back of my neck! The actress, (who I’ve only just realised was a Kurosawa regular from Stray Dog right up to Madadayo) is incredible and dominates the screen. From being my least favorite segment of the film it became, for me, one of the best.

    Its just a reminder I think that films like these were designed to be seen in a darkened room with other people, with a huge screen dominating your field of vision. So inevitably, even with the best of transfers, something is lost when seen on even a good large TV screen.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – The medium didn’t bother me as much the second time around because I was prepared for it. (And yes, I’ve only ever seen the movie twice so far. I’ll be watching it for a thir time soon.) I agree that her performance is stellar. It still raises questions over how much to trust what is double hearsay and being filtered through two consciousnesses.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Its just a reminder I think that films like these were designed to be seen in a darkened room with other people, with a huge screen dominating your field of vision. So inevitably, even with the best of transfers, something is lost when seen on even a good large TV screen.

    Right on, Ugetsu, though not all share our feeling about “live” film v.s. personal electronic viewing.

    I loved the scene of the medium from the git-go, but seeing it on the big screen was downright spooky!!!!

    So many questions about historiography, film as documentation, and film as art come into play when I think about the wonderful scene with the medium. It makes me think about our own time and place…when she comes on screen it jolts me from the nestled-in watching into a questioning of how to address her…and makes me self-aware. That’s not always good, but I think Kurosawa’s films often do that-jolt me from the fabric of the narrative into self-awareness.

    In this case, it layers questions about the nature of objective truth and the process of filmmaking. You know that old chestnut “Art is a lie that tells the truth”…well, maybe…

    Makes me wonder what we do indeed know about how people in Japan thought and what they believed about spirits, mediums, ghosts and death at that historical moment, and how that may be related to how they think today…and how I think.

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    lawless

    I suspect that most, if not all, Japanese viewing the movie when it came out would take the medium as accurately conveying the husband’s thoughts. I don’t know if that would be true today. A Western audience seems more likely to question the medium’s credibility.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I suspect that most, if not all, Japanese viewing the movie when it came out would take the medium as accurately conveying the husband’s thoughts. I don’t know if that would be true today. A Western audience seems more likely to question the medium’s credibility.

    lawless, perhaps this is the best remark you’ve made yet, to stand as proof that Kurosawa made films for Japanese audiences! I always feel so bad when I come across the accusation that he was the most “western” of Japanese directors. I feel as all he could do was protest….I wish he would have had this as ammunition!

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I wonder if there is any real link or comparison to the notions of truth and reality as presented in these different films

    I would think along similar lines as you here and elsewhere, namely that the spirit world in Ugetsu is in no way external to “reality” or “truth”. While it probably is true as Thompson writes that Lady Wakasa is only visible to Genjuro, I don’t really see that as playing with the notion of subjectivity in the way Rashomon does. That’s just how spirits sometimes seem to work in Japanese folk stories, and it seems to me that Thompson is complicating it too much.

    This (alone) doesn’t make Ugetsu inferior to Rashomon. It’s just a question of apples and oranges.

    medium

    The medium in Rashomon fascinates me. I both dislike and love her, and simultaneously both believe her (or the samurai through her) and see her as the most deceitful of all characters, a standard trickster who makes people believe in mumbo-jumbo — or if I believe her, I’m not sure if I can believe the dead husband. (In any case, lawless’s comment about the historical and cultural context of her scene is very good.) The actor’s performance is also a brilliant mixture, being simultaneously both totally ridiculous and absolutely awe-inspiring.

    While I’m not normally one to prefer the big screen, I must agree with Ugetsu and Coco that this particular scene works much better in a real cinema.

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    lawless

    Vili:

    I don’t really see that as playing with the notion of subjectivity in the way Rashomon does. That’s just how spirits sometimes seem to work in Japanese folk stories, and it seems to me that Thompson is complicating it too much.

    I agree . By undermining the objectivity (or, as Coco puts it, the documentary nature) of what we’re shown, Rashomon does something far more revolutionary than Thompson acknowledges. Sure, its successors (with the exception of movies like Memento, which gives me as much pause as Rashomon itself) don’t tend to go as far, instead providing multiple perspectives but eventually reconciling them and revealing what really happened (usually one of the multiple perspectives). See, for example, an episode of the American forensic procedural CSI. I don’t remember the episode title off the top of my head, but it includes a reference to Rashomon.

    If I remember correctly, the medium’s performance is Noh-inspired. I haven’t made my way through Donald Ritchie’s commentary yet, which is where I’d expect this to be touched on. My reaction to her performance the first time I saw the movie was horror (I didn’t realize that the husband’s testimony was given through the medium of a medium) and the second time was discomfort at some of her theatrics, but by the third time, I saw the grace in the performance.

    I’ve never seen Rashomon on the big screen, so I can’t speak to the differences, but the medium’s scene still has a lot of impact even on a middling-sized tradtional TV (as opposed to a huge HDTV).

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