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Playing at the film club: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

Film Club: Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)

Rashomon

After a month-long summer break, the film club returns with Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon.

As you are all probably well aware, Rashomon was Kurosawa’s international breakthrough and remains one of his most acclaimed and discussed works. The film looks at notions of truth, representation and interpretation, but it has also been argued to deal with the guilt and trauma of postwar Japan. You can find a full introduction to the film on the Rashomon page while previous discussion is available through the discussion forum’s Rashomon tag. We have featured the film already twice in our film club series, first back in in 2008 and again in 2015. But it’s a film worth returning to, over and over again.

The film remains very topical in today’s “fake news” world and as a result its influence on other artists continues perhaps as strong as ever. Steven Spielberg’s production company is reportedly working on a TV series inspired by the film, as has been NBC studios, and although that one didn’t make the programming cut, the show is apparently now being eyed by Netflix. A couple of years back, Alex Cox ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to finance a western inspired by Rashomon, while there has been talk (although less so recently) also about a Taiwanese remake. Ten years ago, the protagonist Tajomaru sort of kind of but not quite got its own film, which while not very good, gave me the opportunity to write a review which remains one of my personal favourites from the ones that I have written for this website. Rashomon was also remade in Thailand for a 2011 release. It was pretty but perhaps not that necessary.

How would you adapt the film for a modern audience? Or would you? What is your response to the film? How does it stand up in our modern times? To ponder these questions and many others, the comments section below and the discussion forum are open for your thoughts, responses and theories.

For the film club, Rashomon kicks off a series of Kurosawa’s samurai films, with the equally magnificent Seven Samurai following it next month, so get ready! For the full film club schedule, see the film club page.


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Discussion

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njean

So much has been written about Rashomon – in print as well as on this site – that it’s hard to know what else to say. I took Vili’s advice and watched it with the sound turned off, which made me realize (all over again) how beautiful a lot of the film is. Kurosawa called it “an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I mounted the setting a large forest.”

I was also taken by how LONG the woodcutter’s walk is at the beginning. I especially liked the shots near the end of the film when the commoner is trying to pry the truth out of the woodcutter – just great closeups in a variety of different placements of the heads and facial expressions. Speaking of the commoner, I think Kichijiro Ueda is perfect for the part, with just the right amount of cynicism, suspicion aggression, and body language.

About the dialogue: there isn’t much of it. It’s one of the ways Kurosawa made Rashomon resemble a silent film. I once measured: out of 86 total minutes, 33 minutes have no – or at most only very little – dialogue. Of course the music fills in for the absence of words – except in the woodcutter’s story, during which, unlike all the other versions, there is no music at all. Why do you suppose that is?

I was also struck by how confident an actor Mifune is in this film. I haven’t seen A Quiet Duel, but his roles and performances in Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Scandal are much more restrained (well, maybe not Drunken Angel so much). In the courtyard scenes of Rashomon, however, he really lets loose. On watching the film years later, Mifune’s comment on his performance as “I was such a ham!”

More later.

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lawless

I stand behind my earlier comments about Rashomon.

They have perhaps even more weight now that society is realizing that those making claims of sexual assault and harassment deserve to be listened to and taken more seriously than they have been.

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njean

Lawless, thanks for reposting your critique. It has made me think. I agree with almost all of what you say, but I have a somewhat different take on it.

You object that “what is depicted here is a male fantasy that has no bearing on what rape really is and how it’s experienced outside of the realm of art; as I said earlier, every version other than the wife’s does not depict a rape because the wife’s reaction to it is diametrically opposed to how rape victims experience such things.”

I agree. BUT, I think that’s intentional; it’s the whole point of the story. Remember Kurosawa’s answer to the question of what is the film about: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about things without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings – the kinds who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave – even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth.”

You object that in three of the four stories the victim (the wife) behaves in completely implausible ways for a rape victim. But we don’t know what really happened or how the victim (the wife) reacted. All we know is what the characters say, and they say what makes them look good – either how they believe they would act in such a situation or how they would be expected to act, even if they didn’t. So in that sense, their testimonies are fantasies, as you suggest, but that doesn’t mean it’s implausible that they would make them. Tajomaru portrays himself as virile, attractive, bold, irresistible. That’s how he thinks of himself. Of course the wife would be willing to go off with such a guy, if he wins the swordfight, that is. The husband, meanwhile, has been doubly disgraced. Not only has he been ignominiously captured by the bandit, but he has had to watch while the bandit attacked his wife. How to make sense of this according to him? It’s the wife’s fault. She not only wants to go off with the bandit, but she insists that the bandit kill her noble husband. The only honorable way out of such shame is to kill himself, and that’s what he says he did. The woodcutter came upon the scene only after the attack had occurred. He says Tajomaru was trying to convince the wife to go away with him. She says, according to the woodcutter, “How could I, a woman, answer a question like that?” (This doesn’t strike me as totally unreasonable, given that she lives in a completely male-dominated culture. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that she had a say in choosing her husband.) What she does next, again according to the woodcutter, is to retrieve the dagger and release her husband. When both the husband and the bandit reject her, she can’t take anymore and erupts in a furious tirade. Can we believe this account? At first glance it seems more objective (why should the woodcutter lie?), but then again, he did lie to the police and probably stole the dagger……

What does the wife herself say? She says the bandit took advantage of her. He leaves. She weeps. She runs to her husband. “I saw not sorrow not even anger, it was a cold hatred of me.” She says, “Beat me, kill me if you must, but don’t look at me like that.” She cuts his ropes and offers him the dagger. At the end she faints and awakes to find the dagger in his chest. She says she tried to kill herself multiple times. Her account is what would be expected of the violated and disgraced wife, from running to her husband for consolation, to accidentally killing him in a hysterical fit, to trying to kill herself. Perhaps it’s more believable than one or all of the others, but perhaps not.

Donald Richie has pointed out somewhere (can’t remember where. commentary on the disc? in print?) that many of the aspects of Rashomon are (or were at the time) conventional in Japanese cinema, including a slightly buffoonish ‘bad guy,’ carefully choreographed long sword fights, and dueling for the lady. He says that the wife casts herself in the role of a conventional Japanese woman in a rape film. The husband’s reaction of blaming her is very well known in Japan (“shameless whore,” etc). It’s very conventional for the husband to be shocked by her wanting to leave with Tajomaru, and the plot of “I just raped you, be my wife,” is also well known. So, these fantasies are apparently far from unique to Rashomon.

So why perpetuate them? You suggest that Kurosawa could have chosen a less loaded crime, say, kidnapping and murder to make the same points about egoism and truth. But I think the rape and murder scenario is effective and cinematic precisely because it is so fraught with emotional issues: relations between men and women, power, shame, honor, marriage, sex. It’s a psychological bombshell!

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KanLi

Kurosawa told in an interview that young aspirant directors should write and start of by reading a lot, especially the classics. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote some of the classics. Dostoevsky wrote existentialist literature and was introduced to literature through fairy tales and legends. There is a story in greek mythology I suddenly remember.. it’s about Apollo, Cupid and a nymph:

Apollo, the Greek/Roman god of music, poetry, art, the sun and a great warrior, mocked the god of love, Eros (Cupid), for his use of bow and arrow, as Apollo is also patron of archery. “What are you doing with powerful weapons, naughty boy?” he said. “That equipment of yours are fitting my shoulders, which are able to give certain wounds to the wild animals, and to the enemies, which recently killed the swollen Python with countless arrows, the Python who was pressing down so many acres with his disease-bearing stomach! You will be content to provoke some loves by your fire, not to claim my honors.” This is the story.

The insulted Eros then prepared two arrows: one of gold and one of lead. He shot Apollo with the gold arrow, instilling in the god a passionate love for the river nymph Daphne. He shot Daphne with the lead arrow, instilling in her a hatred for Apollo. Having taken after Apollo’s sister, Artemis (Diana), Daphne had spurned her many potential lovers, preferring instead woodland sports and exploring the forest. Due to her identity as an “aemula Phoebes” (female rival or emulator of Artemis), she had dedicated herself to perpetual virginity. Her father, the river god Ladon, demanded that she get married and give him grandchildren. She, however, begged her father to let her remain unmarried; he eventually complied.

Apollo continually followed her, begging her to stay, but the nymph continued to reject him. They were evenly matched in the race until Eros intervened, helping Apollo catch up to Daphne. Seeing that Apollo was bound to reach her, she called upon her father, “Help me, Ladon! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger! Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!” Ladon answered her plea and “a heavy numbness [seized] her limbs; her soft breasts [were] surrounded by a thin bark, her hair [changed] into the foliage, her forearms [changed] into branches; her foot, just now swift, now [clinged] because of sluggish roots.” She was turned into a laurel tree.

Maybe you’re getting a clue where i’m heading to. Various fairy tales and legends display human psychology in a way. Love, anger, jealousy, this and that. Well.. who that knows Dostoevsky knows his literary works explores the human psychology. He was a master and influenced people like Chekhov and Nietzsche…. and Akira Kurosawa.

During shooting, the cast approached Kurosawa en masse with the script and asked him, “What does it mean?” The answer Akira Kurosawa gave at that time and also in his biography is that Rashômon (1950) is a reflection of life, and life does not always have clear meanings.

Akira Kurosawa asked Toshirô Mifune to model his character’s movements after wildlife, particularly the lion. Kurosawa’s vision of how a lion was supposed to move was heavily influenced by the wildlife documentary work of husband-and-wife team Martin E. Johnson and Osa Johnson.

The scene at the court is a scene from only our perspective. We judge. We listen. Different thoughts, just like our own struggles with our thoughts about things in life.
I see the Samurai (ego) Bride (anima) Bandit (shadow/lion) as one. Relations in the conscious and subconscious. Macro and micro. At the court the samurai (ego) is absent and is in hell because maybe you can judge what he might have thought when he was alive. So you only see the samsara (illusions) , your subconscious (anima) and your lion side with the woodcutter (slow pace in live) and the monk (love of goodness)
The other three, the monk as the one with fate but slowly loosing it, the woodcutter as the one doubting himself in good and bad, the guest the one who do not doubt himself.
The guest is the one with vanity, who can not listen. The woodcutter is with doubts, but realizes you cant know if you have done good or bad if you dont reflect. The monk almost lost fate, but his fate was restored by the innocence of the woodcutter.

So to round it up, the guest is the one who lives from external to internal. The woodcutter lives by the heart to the external. This al is at the Rashomon (citadelgate) A gate is an old japanese symbol of purity just like the old Egyptian goddes Hathor at a gate. So a gate is a way of describing focus, being alert at all time. The wide gate, the easy way, is the way of samsara.

Well that’s my view 🙂 yes i’m asian and yes, asians loves old legends and fairy tales. And old legends say: feel with the brain, think with the hart.

Love and light xxx

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Ugetsu

Like njean, I’m finding it hard to find something new to say about Rashomon! This isn’t to say I’m tired of it – there are few films I look forward to re-watching more, there is always something new. In particular, I’d recommend anyone to see it on the big screen if its at all impossible – its an incredibly beautiful film, I’d say one of the most beautiful ever shot. Has there ever been a better blend of lighting cinematography, blocking, camera movement and editing? I can’t think of one.

Incidentally, out of curiosity, I did a few Google ngrams on Rashomon, and its clear that its significantly the most used of Kurosawa’s film titles. I assume the difference is the use of the term as a descriptive term, rather than just mentions of the films in various books. Interestingly, after a dip in the 1980’s, its frequency has been slowly growing.

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chomei

Do the dead lie? Dying declarations are exceptions to the hearsay rule. Even though the dead cannot be cross examined, their dying statements are allowed into evidence, subject to the defense showing they are not true.

The woodcutter lies, he lacks credibility, the thief is a thief, does he have any credibility, and the wife is a woman and by the bizarre standards of her time, and much of Japanese history, she has no credibility.

There is good reason to believe the samurai. He says he is in hell, in darkness, what is his incentive to lie? His story does not do him proud, it humiliates him, why tell it if it isn’t true?

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Ugetsu

There is good reason to believe the samurai. He says he is in hell, in darkness, what is his incentive to lie? His story does not do him proud, it humiliates him, why tell it if it isn’t true?

I think it was Martinez who pointed out that all the stories to some extent self incriminating, none try to exonerate themselves completely.

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Vili Maunula

njean: I was also struck by how confident an actor Mifune is in this film. I haven’t seen A Quiet Duel, but his roles and performances in Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Scandal are much more restrained (well, maybe not Drunken Angel so much).

I would say A Quiet Duel is probably Mifune’s most restrained role, at least among the early works that I have seen. His performance there consists mainly of looking pained and repeatedly deciding not to do something. Not his fault, of course. It’s the role.

For some reason this made me think of Mifune’s first role in Snow Trail. If I recall correctly, his entrance onto the stage of cinema history is not exactly restrained — I think the very first shot that we see of him features mainly his bare buttocks as he walks in and out of a spa. I wonder if Kurosawa wrote that into the script or if it was director Senkichi Taniguchi’s brilliance.

ngrams

That’s really interesting about the ngrams, Ugetsu. I’m actually surprised Rashomon is so clearly above Seven Samurai as well, even considering the use of the “Rashomon effect” term.

legends

Kind of picking up on what KanLi wrote above, there is this interpretation of Rashomon that I can’t get out of my head, but I can’t really, well, get it out of my head either in terms of properly writing down a coherent exploration of it. I’ve mentioned it here a few times before in passing, this idea that the film is on some level playing with the Garden of Eden story from Abrahamic mythology.

There are a handful of reasons why the Eden myth lingers in my mind when I think of Rashomon. Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto’s original title for the film was something like “Female and Male” (Shiyu / 雌雄) and the crime or sin at the core of the film is first sexual, then mortal, echoing what takes place in the Eden story. The events also happen in a forest setting inhabited only by a man, a woman and a corrupting entity.

As I understand it, the author of the underlying story, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, played around with Christian motifs in his later stories and even made the point of having a Bible next to him when he committed suicide. Rashomon also includes some visual hints of Christian imagery, such as Tajomaru’s cross-like sword or the large burning cross that looms over the lady when she is sitting by the stream.

If one takes this approach, Mifune’s character becomes not just a lion but a snake. The silent, invisible judge that the characters in the court are talking to is either a priest or God itself. This is also why they are all so puzzlingly confessing their own guilt: it is a confessional ritual. One could perhaps also make a point about the film’s title, which is spelled 羅生門, as opposed to the gate’s official spelling 羅城門. The difference is the “life” character (生) in the place of the “castle” (城) sign. It is not unique to Kurosawa by all means, as the alternate spelling was popularized by Kanze Nobumitsu’s 15th century noh play and was also used by Akutagawa in his story.

If we are to interpret what happens outside of the gate scenes as some sort of reflections on Christian or Western morality, the endless puzzlement expressed by the Buddhist priest is perhaps understandable. In contrast, the moral argument made at the end, combined with the sudden change in tone where the film suddenly switches to Japanese formalism and music underlines this contrast.

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lawless

Just because something is traditional, or psychologically interesting, doesn’t make using it responsible.

Actually this wasn’t my initial problem with Rashomon. My initial problem was thinking we would be able to tease out what really happened, which was clearly the opposite of Kurosawa’s intent. And upon first viewing the testimony of the husband through the medium is hard for a skeptical Westerner to accept. And the fact that the testimony comes through an interpreter is a basis for questioning its accuracy; even within a system that thinks it’s possible to communicate thusly with the dead, that doesn’t necessarily mean the communication is accurate. It’s still possible for it to be garbled or entirely self-interested or made up.

I also dislike the ending. For one thing, I don’t trust the woodcutter; one of the few facts we can establish is that he is a thief and thus a liar as well; for another, it seems to undercut the rest of the movie by offering a pat, almost sentim

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lawless

Sorry, continuation of above as it’s not allowing me to edit it. For another, the ending seems to undercut the rest of the movie by offering a pat, almost sentimental hopefulness.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see all the elements that make this a cinematic masterpiece. The cinematography in particular is especially outstanding. But it’s also one of the most emotionally “cold” movies Kurosawa made. It isn’t humanistic or humanizing the way Seven Samurai, Drunken Angel or Ikiru are.

The issue of rape and female sexuality is such a vexed one that despite its psychological power, its use in art is often counterproductive. Kurosawa isn’t any worse or different than anyone else of the time, but the storylines here are conventional, not groundbreaking (what’s groundbreaking is the use of multiple storylines and the refusal to reconcile them), and that makes this movie another impediment to trust between men and women.

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