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!
5 August 2015
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.