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The Outrage: So what exactly is it about?

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    Ugetsu

    Rashomon is a film that continues to perplex and mystify. But it fascinates, because its ambiguity is not due to a weakness in its story, it is in its exploration of the unknowableness of the human heart.

    The Outrage, on the other hand, only perplexes and mystifies us in considering how such talented people made such a horrible film. Apart from its relationship to Rashomon, it is a film that is rarely mentioned, it seems to have died a death of embarrassment, without the merit of even an obituary (ignoring for the moment a few rather bizarre reviews on imdb).

    And yet, it was based very closely on what we know to be an acknowledged masterpiece (film and short story), with a top class director, experienced scriptwriters, and a mostly very good cast. Yet somehow, it misfires horribly.

    The only writings I’ve found on it are in Martinez, and she seems as puzzled as I am as to what on earth the motivation was behind the film. The film makers seem to have deliberately undermined the ambiguity of Rashomon, making it a mystery which is solved,rather than a philosophical puzzle. They introduce elements of class consciousness, race, and sexism, but rather than challenge them, they seem to confirm our worst prejudices.

    So what were they trying to say? The choice of setting and characters seems to have been an attempt to move from the philosophical concerns of Rashomon to more concrete issues of contemporary concern. The Bandit is no longer just a half naked sexy bundle of animal id. He is a dirty scruffy Mexican, enraged at his treatment at the hands of a white establishment, yet undoubtedly guilty of doing plenty of terrible things. The Wife in all her beauty and ambiguity, with (possibly) a deeper rage hidden behind the facade of her class becomes an overwrought Southern Belle, her manners concealing her white trash roots. The Gentleman and Samurai are perhaps most similar, except that with the Gentleman we have hints of his disreputable past as a slaveowner and rebel. The Conman is purely cynical where the Commoner was pragmatic. The Prospector wishes to explain his theft of the blade, while the Woodcutter leaves us to guess his guilt and his reasons. The Priest struggles with the deeper meaning of what he saw, while the Preacher just seems to have his own doubts confirmed.

    The setting seems deliberate. If they wished to replicate Rashomon, surely they would have placed it in a more obviously mythological setting – perhaps among early settlers, or in medieval Europe. If they wished to make contemporary commentary, I would assume they could have used a more up to date setting – perhaps as Martinez suggests during the Korean War. Perhaps the use of the wild west was just a compromise between different views? We know Ritt sufferered during the McCarthy hearings, and yet there is not the slightest hint of this in the film (I recently watched High Noon for the first time, and I found it amazing how unambiguous it was in its use of the setting as a metaphor for the McCarthy era). There is a suggestion in the relationship between the Wife and the Bandit that they were seeking to tap into the audiences fears of miscegenation, but if so, they tiptoe past it without having anything interesting to say.

    So what were they trying to say? Martinez notes the theory of Davidson that the original as read by the Japanese audience was about the Wife and Samurai as Japan, violated by the foreign-seeming bandit, with the baby representing future hope for the nation. If the makers of The Outrage were aware of this, Martinez suggests that making the Wife guilty is a direct commentary on this i.e. confirming the Guilt of Japan. Yet this seems very obscure and unlikely.

    Martinez posits that the film is nothing more than a desire to offer a solution to the original’s enigma (P.53):

    ‘The more convincing possibility, to my mind, is that the film is nothing more than a desire to offer a solution to the original’s enigma and what subject is considered to be more enigmatic than a woman? But a feminist reading leaves us with this as the film’s own outrage: the implication that it is all the wife’s fault. If there is sexual tension in the marriage, caused by infidelity and guilt, the focus has shifted from all human guilt to that of modern women’s – an interesting view to take in 1965 American society.’

    Other interpretations which occur to me are that it was simply assumed that the wild west setting was a direct ‘equivalent’ of the original, and that the alterations were simply to make it more legible to the audience – the intention was the same as the original. But this doesn’t explain the changes to the original, most obviously the implied ‘solution’, which is such a fundamental change I have to assume it was very deliberate. Unless of course, Ritt and the Kanin’s simply grossly misunderstood the original film (which is not entirely unlikely given the hugely divergent interpretations given at the time, as indicated by the contemporary reviews in Richies book on Rashomon).

    Of course, another explanation may simply be the pragmatic Hollywood one. It was a quick and cheap remake of a foreign hit, designed as a showcase for its hot young stars, giving them a mix of intellectual respectability along with some risque scenes. The alterations to the script were nothing more than the usual tampering by producers and studio heads.

    So, are there any more possible interpretations out there?

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    Amnesty11

    Great post Ugetsu!

    Must ponder…I am inclined to believe that it was just a slicked up Hollywood remake with a “pat American ending.” Would like not to be cynical about that, but there you have it.

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    Ugetsu

    Just reading this review from DVDTalk it introduces another explanation for the film, one i quite like – that the truthteller is the Conman, and the theme is that humans are all suckers and liars. By this view, the final scene where the Preacher and Prospector walk out happy in some way that their worldview has been confirmed are just fooling themselves.

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    Vili Maunula

    It is interesting how strong a negative reaction you have had for the film, Ugetsu. While I think that The Outrage is not very good, I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a horrible film. It is a little pedestrian at times when compared to its source, but I don’t think that they have entirely managed to destroy Rashomon.

    As for the purpose of the film, this has puzzled me as well. So, I took a look at the play by Fay and Michael Kanin to see if it might shed any light on the matter. To describe it quickly, the play is basically The Outrage set in medieval Japan; in other words, while it retains Kurosawa’s setting, the major additions and changes that we see in The Outrage are already present. These include the fact that the priest has lost his faith and has decided to leave, and the changes to the woodcutter/prospector’s story.

    While the priest’s struggle with his faith in humanity is also part of Kurosawa’s film, Kanins’ work turns it into a supporting story arch for the entire work. This makes their play (and also The Outrage) structurally more conventional than Kurosawa’s film, as it now has a very well defined beginning (a priest lost) and end (a priest saved), with something of a character’s wakeup story in the middle.

    In any case, I think that it is actually the second major change that is more important: the way the wife is dealt with. Like in The Outrage, her character is more fleshed out than in Kurosawa, thanks to the additions to the woodcutter/prospector’s story. Also similar to The Outrage, her past is quickly introduced at the beginning of the wife’s story, although while in The Outrage it is the wife herself who tells how she grew up a servant in her to-be-husband’s household, in the play it is actually her mother who is brought to the police to tell us that.

    My guess is that the Kanins’ interest in tackling Rashomon was to explore the female character in more depth. And I don’t think that this is such a bad idea as she is, after all, at the very centre of the story. In Kanins’ version (both the play and The Outrage) the question “was it a rape at all?” becomes very relevant, while it is quite irrelevant in Kurosawa. I think that these intentions behind the adaptation were good and had potential, but somehow the project backfired and the results didn’t quite work out as well as one could have hoped. In my view, the wife in Kurosawa is both stronger and weaker as a character than her counterpart in the play or The Outrage, where she is a little lost, and perhaps overexposed. The last part of the film is a little bit of a nose dive in that sense.

    Having said that, I can think of a possible albeit a little far-fetched idea that at least half-saves the ending. You see, I assume that since the prospector (or the woodcutter in Rashomon, for that matter) saw the actual duel between the two men, he probably saw the sexual act as well. What this man is therefore guilty of is not only stealing a knife, or leaving a dying man to die, or not stopping a fight that ended in someone’s death, but also of failing to help a woman who was being sexually assaulted. He was there the whole time, yet did nothing but watched (in the case of Rashomon, this is the point where you can start thinking about Japan and the war).

    Now, I would say that it is possible that this peeping tom also derived some sexual pleasure from his voyeurism. And if this indeed was the case, it could well be that the way he tells the story at the end projects his own sexual shame onto the woman, turning his voyeurism into her (imaginary) sluttery. This would make the prospector’s story the least trustworthy of all, not the truth, as is typically suggested. And this would, I think, at least partly save the film. It would also make the ending, with the priest supposedly saved by the prospector’s actions, far more interesting.

    Unfortunately, I’m not quite able to convince myself that the film really wants me to derive this meaning from it.

    Finally, about the setting. It is interesting, but I would say also very understandable, that the film adaptation of the play moves away from Japan, and into the wild west. It probably worked on the stage, but I don’t think a Hollywood studio would have been able to pull off a samurai film. As for the chosen setting, I don’t think that old west is in any way a surprising move. Unlike you Ugetsu, I think that it is the place of mythology for American cinema, and the place where much of the nation’s cultural identity was built throughout the 20th century. In my view, it is the perfect place for an American version of Rashomon.

    (Edit: My original post mistakenly suggested that Kanins’ play made the woodcutter character a wigmaker. I’m not sure why I wrote that as it is the commoner who is made into a wigmaker, nicely using a little more of Akutagawa’s original short story “Rashomon”, while the woodcutter is still the woodcutter.)

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    My guess is that the Kanins’ interest in tackling Rashomon was to explore the female character in more depth. And I don’t think that this is such a bad idea as she is, after all, at the very centre of the story. In Kanins’ version (both the play and The Outrage) the question “was it a rape at all?” becomes very relevant, while it is quite irrelevant in Kurosawa. I think that these intentions behind the adaptation were good and had potential, but somehow the project backfired and the results didn’t quite work out as well as one could have hoped. In my view, the wife in Kurosawa is both stronger and weaker as a character than her counterpart in the play or The Outrage, where she is a little lost, and perhaps overexposed. The last part of the film is a little bit of a nose dive in that sense.

    While I think it almost certainly was their intention to explore the female character in more depth, what that doesn’t explain is why the film opts in the end to blame her for everything that happened.

    Unfortunately, I’m not quite able to convince myself that the film really wants me to derive this meaning from it.

    Its an interesting idea, but I think one big problem with The Outrage is that it seeks to ‘explain’ so much that the viewer (or me anyhow) stops thinking of different possibilities, so its difficult if not impossible to derive any meanings from the film other than those we are told about. It is all far too literal. The wonder of Rashomon to me is that we see so much and yet we can interpret it in an almost infinity of ways.

    I don’t think that old west is in any way a surprising move. Unlike you Ugetsu, I think that it is the place of mythology for American cinema, and the place where much of the nation’s cultural identity was built throughout the 20th century. In my view, it is the perfect place for an American version of Rashomon.

    My problem with the choice of the wild west is that while it is the place of mythology for American cinema, in some ways its not really mythological enough. This goes back to my other thread on stereotypes – I think Kurosawa was wise to pick a period so far back that the characters become archetypes – the Wild West is in some ways just too ‘close’ to our period for the characters not to have back stories which intrude on our understanding of them. I think that with the characters in The Outrage we are tempted to provide them with motives (indeed, the scriptwriters do just this for the Wife). In Rashomon, the characters are more ‘pure’, they simply exist as they are, mysterious but profoundly human.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu’s comment here about the con man being the truthteller and the theme being that everyone is a sucker and a liar rings fairly true to me. But on a conscious level, I think the movie was an attempt to transfer Rashomon to an archetypal American setting while at the same time rationalizing it.

    One of my difficulties with Rashomon, which is interwined with my critique of the movie’s depiction of rape, is how implausibly the characters act given the events depicted. Even though every summary I’ve read of the film calls it a movie about a rape and murder, it makes far more sense to me as a movie about a violent death (whether suicide or murder) resulting from a spontaneously-formed triangle rather than a movie about a violent death and a rape. The Outrage, on the other hand, makes the characters’ actions in each version of the story more understandable.

    Vili wrote:

    In Kanins’ version (both the play and The Outrage) the question “was it a rape at all?” becomes very relevant, while it is quite irrelevant in Kurosawa.

    This is why I object to the depiction of rape in Rashomon. From my perspective (and, I suspect, from a feminist perspective), rape is never irrelevant and should not be reduced to a plot device as it is here. To do so demeans the experiences of actual rape victims and feeds still-prevalent societal narratives dismissing and recategorizing rape as something other than the power play and violation it is. WARNING: The first of the foregoing links is a first-person description of acquaintance rape using a date rape drug; the second is an article and video about South African teens who filmed themselves allegedly raping a mentally-challenged classmate and distributed it among their friends. For one thing, do we get any sense that what happens in every narrative other than the wife’s deserves to be called a crime?

    The Outrage constructs a backstory and narrative that makes the husband and wife’s actions more understandable. Thus, the original film has the narrative ambiguity for which it has been justifiably praised, but the remake has the narrative plausibility that the original lacks.

    Before anyone brings it up, yes, I’m aware that most of what’s in Rashomon is also in the Aktugawa short story “In a Grove” on which it’s based, but (a) reading the story doesn’t bring home the peculiarity of the narrative the same way the film does and (b) the short story doesn’t include the woodcutter’s second (and final) story. The technique of telling a story through interlocking but contradictory narratives could have been applied to different underlying events.

    Also — and I’m not sure which thread this point is most relevant to, so I’m including it here — changing the setting to a Western one in and of itself diminishes ambiguity. Two of the four versions of the events in Rashomon posit that the husband was killed with a knife and two that he died in a sword fight. A gun is the weapon of choice in a Western, and it’s not as though there was a crime scene investigator around to determine what calibre bullet it is and thus whose weapon it was. Nor do I know enough to know whether or not calibres varied; for all I know, unless a rifle or shotgun was used, the calibres available were the same or virtually the same. So that’s one level of ambiguity that would disappear in a Western adaptation.

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    Vili Maunula

    It’s really interesting to hear your response to The Outrage, lawless.

    Ever since watching Rashomon and The Outrage, I have been thinking about my own reaction to rape and the question whether rape can ever be irrelevant, something that you categorically deny. I have noticed that I am actually quite desensitised about the subject, and wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that, whether we like it or not, in the world of fiction it has been a common plot device for ages, with the history of literature teeming with rape left and right, and in every other direction as well.

    In my world, perhaps sadly, fictional rape appears to have been reduced to the same level of effectiveness as explosions in action films, which is to say, they hardly register on my emotional scale at all. Unless well depicted, of course (by which I mean that I have some other vested interest in the events).

    Which has led me to wonder whether we can fault Kurosawa (or Akutagawa) for not really emphasising the rape in the story. After all, there is a murder in there as well, and surely killing someone is worse than raping them and should become our focus?

    Or is it? I don’t really know. I can easily understand if someone wanted to rank them differently.

    Yet ultimately, the needle on my emotional scale doesn’t really move anywhere when confronted with a fictional murder, either.

    Which is perhaps why Rashomon works so well, being as clinically cold as it is when it comes to murder and rape. The events don’t really matter. What matters is the unobtainable truth behind them. It is as if the film looked at typical story structures and came to the conclusion that murder and rape themselves are no longer very interesting, as we have seen them so many times before.

    Of course, this was in an era before postmodernism, and I now wonder if in our own era of post-postmodernism, Rashomon itself starts to be similarly a little passé. I mean this purely intellectually — the film itself remains excellent. But when it comes to the nature of truth and subjectivity, we have after all since had people exploring these topics left and right.

    Which perhaps makes The Outrage‘s slightly more conventional and human approach to rape and murder again more interesting than it may have been at the time of release. Or at least that may be the case if you have become desensitised to postmodern approaches to knowledge, or already embrace them.

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    lawless

    I think you’re right that rape (and murder) now function as plot devices and in many instances don’t have much emotional heft of their own, particularly in film and other visual arts. But I would argue that at least with respect to rape, that is part and parcel of a societal devaluation of of the social effects of rape on those who’ve experienced it. This is further illuminated by the comments I recently posted on the male gaze thread I posted regarding Rashomon.

    Also, from the victim’s perspective, rape and torture are far worse than murder. The effects last a lifetime. Murder has more of an effect on the surviving relatives. But even so, I suspect rape and torture and the like are as likely to cause psychological trauma to the victim’s family as murder is, if not more so, because not only does the family have its own trauma and grief to deal with but must witness the victim’s trauma and try to help cope with it.

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    lawless

    Vili – I assumed that the links were to recent works. Now that I’ve looked at them, I realize that they aren’t. It’s a little disingenuous to use Leda and the Swan, which is mythological and in most versions isn’t depicted as a rape anyway, the Rape of the Lock, which uses the term “rape” metaphorically, and a historical rape from the days when rape and looting were common and accepted results of war as examples of literary use of rape when we’re examining a modern work. The use of the term “rape” in the Rape of the Lock shows how loosely the term was used and how lightly it was viewed. In some ways, these works remind us of the progress we’ve made.

    That doesn’t change my agreement with you that rape and murder are used as plot devices, but in contemporary writing, they’re not usually portrayed this ambiguously.

    Art is a different matter; a realistic depiction of rape would be too horrifying for most venues and patrons. Either it would concentrate on physical violence and thus amount to torture porn or it would concentrate on the sex and would not look much different from consensual sex, thus reinforcing the notion that rape is just sex. Probably the only way to create art that people wouldn’t shy away from would be showing the moment in which the woman is captured or realizes that she can’t get away. But most art that I’m aware of focuses more on the man’s (or men’s) aggression, not on the woman’s/women’s revulsion.

    Also, I should probably qualify my statement by saying that IRL, rape is never irrelevant. But Rashomon and The Outrage are depicting supposedly RL events.

    I wrote a lengthy addition to my most recent post on the Rashomon: POV and the Male Gaze thread and managed to lose it before posting. Most annoying. It’ll probably be several days before I try to reconstruct it. It mostly dealt with Japanese attitudes toward the depiction of rape as demonstrated by classic literature (The Tale of Genji) and manga.

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    Vili Maunula

    Lawless: Vili – I assumed that the links were to recent works. Now that I’ve looked at them, I realize that they aren’t. It’s a little disingenuous to use Leda and the Swan, which is mythological and in most versions isn’t depicted as a rape anyway, the Rape of the Lock, which uses the term “rape” metaphorically, and a historical rape from the days when rape and looting were common and accepted results of war as examples of literary use of rape when we’re examining a modern work. The use of the term “rape” in the Rape of the Lock shows how loosely the term was used and how lightly it was viewed. In some ways, these works remind us of the progress we’ve made.

    This was actually the point that I was trying to make — the topic has been tackled from all sorts of angles and has such a long history. I have read so many stories of rape that I wonder whether my own desensitized reaction to “yet another rape story” is also affecting how I view rape in real life.

    No disingenuity intended.

    I’m really sorry to hear that you lost your post. I hope you can reconstruct at least some of it in some future time.

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    Ugetsu

    I came across this lovely essay by Maria Konnikova on the power of ‘Once upon a time’ with reference to the late Maurice Sendak. I think she makes more eloquently than I could the point I was obliquely making in my original post about the difference between a semi-mythological setting for Rashomon and the historical setting for The Outrage. Kurosawa was, we know, always very careful in choosing precise periods for setting his historical films. I think the choice of a very distant past was deliberate to emphasise the folkloric and mythological elements of the story. This in my opinion was lost in choosing a more recent historic setting for The Outrage.

    Dolores Martinez has written quite a bit on the influence of folklore on Kurosawa, especially Yojimbo – I think this is an overlooked element of many of his films, Rashomon included. I believe he was at least partly making a folktale, not a conventional narrative and as such I’m not comfortable with applying conventional notions of morality to the film, any more than you would do so to Red Riding Hood.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – Unfortunately, the West is about as mythological a setting in the US as you’re going to get unless you use the pre-Columbian era. I’m not sure a US version of Rashomon set in Anasazi or other First Nations culture would be an improvement, however, and those are still historical settings. In fact, it’s entirely possible that they’re historical settings in which the wife’s story and her reactions in the other versions make even less sense than they do now.

    To my mind, The Outrage highlights the problems with using a rape to illustrate the ephemeral nature of perception and reality. It has the effect of diminishing rape to a point where it’s not real, either.

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