Rashomon as a response to postwar Japan
22 August 2015
23 August 2015
This is quite outstanding, Vili, I think I’ll need to think a little about this before responding! I think your explanation of the ending is by far the best I’ve ever read.
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Critical approaches to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon are typically framed around the questions that the film asks about the nature of truth, storytelling and human nature. This is understandable, for the problematization and observation of truth within the context of human experience is clearly a core theme for the film.
Kurosawa, who rarely felt the urge to explain his works, had this to say about the film when recounting a time when his assistant directors asked him about its meaning:
For Kurosawa, the emphasis therefore — at least based on this early 1980s recollection of the events — was with the frailty of the ego, even more so than with any abstract concepts of the permanence or universality of truth. And it might be enough to leave it at that, as many observers have, for there is definitely plenty to chew on that topic alone, especially when compared and contrasted with the film’s technical methods and achievements. Yet, in deciding not to go further in one’s investigation of the film’s meaning(s) would fail to take into account two fairly important aspects that come up when the film is compared to the rest of Kurosawa’s postwar output.
For one thing, if Rashomon is a film that is solely about the subjectivity of the human experience, in terms of its topic it is not a very unique Kurosawa film. The notion of the subjectivity of truth is something that Kurosawa had, although not quite as overtly as in Rashomon, already dealt with in Scandal, the film that preceded Rashomon. It is also a theme that is at the core of films such as The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog, the two works that preceded Scandal and which are built on a juxtaposition between an ethical and an unethical agent. In both of those films, the unethical agent (gangster Yusa in Stray Dog and lowlife Nakada in The Quiet Duel) has chosen to interpret his personal situation in a way that justifies him behaviour that, while beneficial to him in short term, makes the world around him worse and has no clear long term benefit. In contrast, the ethical agent (played by Toshirō Mifune in both films) who comes from an identical background has chosen to act through personal sacrifice in a way which is beneficial not only to himself but also to the wider society. He has, to some extent, conquered the sin of egoism by deciding not to take the easy way out. After Rashomon, the theme of subjective truth is prevalent also in Kurosawa’s later films such as Ikiru, Seven Samurai, The Lower Depths and Record of a Living Being.
At the same time, treating Rashomon as something that only illustrates a general and universal human condition — however complex that idea — makes it also an outlier, a film notably different from anything else that Kurosawa directed around the time of its release. There is no other postwar Kurosawa film which operates similarly removed from its contemporary reality, as every other film by him between the end of the war and up until at least 1957’s The Lower Depths has strong contemporary relevance and offers direct and often harsh commentary of the situation found in postwar Japan. To entirely remove Rashomon from that discourse would make it a curious exception and arguably reduce it to relative one-dimensionality when compared to his twelve other films of the era, all of which offer insights into the universal human condition but also concretely and rather crucially apply them to the society in and for which the films were created.
Postwar approaches to Rashomon
While the great majority of writing on Rashomon has concentrated on the film’s treatment of truth, there have been at least four original attempts in western literature to connect Rashomon to the sociopolitical environment of postwar Japan. The earliest of these was by James F. Davidson, who in his 1954 essay “Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashomon” (reprinted in Rashomon, try also Google Books) argues that while the film does not present a consistent theme in this sense and it would therefore be “foolish to argue that the film is a complete or consistent allegory”, numerous aspects point towards the film being a reflection of the military defeat and subsequent American occupation of Japan. Largely paraphrasing Davidson, his core observations are:
In the end, while he points towards a strongly postwar approach to Rashomon, Davidson offers no actual key that would concretise his observations into a coherent interpretation. The same is largely true of Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, who in the Rashomon chapter of his Kurosawa book from 2000 largely discusses other aspects of the film, but finishes off with the following conclusion, quoted here in full:
Yoshimoto also notes that in contrast to Akutagawa’s original short story “Rashomon”, the social calamities specified in Kurosawa’s film are man made. Whereas Akutagawa talks about natural disasters, the “film underlines the man-made nature of the social chaos.” (183)
In a section of his 2009 book on Japanese postwar film censorship, Lars-Martin Sorensen builds on Davidson’s observations about Rashomon‘s relationship with the war and the Occupation, as well as on Yoshimoto’s suggestion that the censorship practices of the American Occupation administration were on Kurosawa’s mind while working on Rashomon. Sorensen starts by discussing the realities of the American Occupation in early 1950, before and during the production of Rashomon, concluding that the Americans were facing serious challenges about their public perception, not least due to the often wild and unlawful conduct of the American forces stationed in Japan, some of which manifested as incidents of the rape of Japanese women. Although public sentiment would become more positive after the outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950, the public acceptance of the American presence was perhaps at its lowest at the time of the making of Rashomon.
Sorensen also notes how, in addition to the ways in which Davidson has argued Tajōmaru to be standing for the role of the foreigner, the western image of the Christian cross appears to be visually associated with the character in at least two ways. One of these is through Tajōmaru’s sword that is not the typical Japanese curved katana, but in fact a more western style weapon which resembles the shape of the cross, partly because of its guard. Secondly, in the scene where Tajōmaru is looking down at the wife, a large cross shaped spot of sunlight looms towering over the woman. To illustrate both of these instances of cross imagery, below are two images which come from the gallery section of the Rashomon page.
Sorensen then argues that the idea of equating Tajōmaru with the Occupation forces is in fact not as far fetched as one might at first think, especially as the title of the film so closely resembles the derogatory Japanese term rashamen (羅紗緬) that translates as “foreigner’s mistress” (here is the relevant Japanese Wikipedia entry). According to Sorensen, the transformation of the wife in Rashomon “from being the prudent wife, to becoming the woman who succumbs to Tajomaru’s advances, and later the exponent of hysterical self-assertion in the final flashback, follows the same pattern as the most disliked women of the era — those who fraternized with the enemy, either professionally as pan-pans, or voluntarily as mistresses.” (300) Sorensen, quoting Japanese film critic Tadao Satō, further notes that the postwar years saw a prevalence of rashamen girls not only in society, but also on the big screen under the “rashamen genre”, a group of films which Satō writes “made the Japanese viewers uneasy, bringing home the parallel that Japan’s relationship with America had probably been that of geisha and patron.” (300)
With the above in mind, Sorensen looks at the scene of the kiss between Tajōmaru and the wife. On the one hand, Sorensen notes, the concept of a “kissing scene” was by now a familiar feature of Japanese films, a type of content that had been introduced to Japanese cinema by the American Censors to encourage openness in society, and something that almost anyone in the audience would know was American in its origin. At the same time, the scene of the kiss in Rashomon ends with the film’s only point-of-view shot of the blazing sun. Sorensen associates this with the Sun Goddess, a symbol of Japan and the Emperor, looking down on what is happening in this at its heart very American scene that depicts a rape by, as Davidson has argued, a foreign entity.
Considering the above, it is not surprising that Sorensen’s conclusion is that while it may “not have been the meaning inferred by the majority of movie goers”, “at an allegorical level the film deals with fraternization or rape of Japanese women by the occupiers”, adding that the blame in the film is not put solely on the occupiers, but also on those who allow this to happen. (304) While he discusses the film’s final scene on terms similar to Davidson’s, Sorensen does not agree with the notion that it embraces a “new Japan”, and instead argues that the final scene should be interpreted as a return to past values and a rejection of the social influences of the American Occupation.
The fourth author to place Rashomon firmly within the postwar context is Dolores P. Martinez, who in her book Remaking Kurosawa points out a feature of the film which few other commentators have mentioned: the fact that each of the defendants plead guilty for the death of the samurai and that even the woodcutter may have caused his death. Why, asks Martinez, do the main characters all lie in a way that makes them guilty?
Martinez answers her own question by going back to Yoshimoto’s suggestion that the film’s silent judge stands for the “eyes of the Occupation” to whom the characters confess their guilt in the courtyard scenes. According to Martinez, “Kurosawa appears to be making a plea: ‘Yes we are all guilty, but do not judge us too harshly, forgive us.'” (36) She points out that the film came out at a time when the Japanese war crime trials were still being held “and most ordinary Japanese were claiming innocence — the war and its atrocities were seen as the fault of the country’s leaders, while the ordeals of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen to have made the Japanese into victims … . In contrast to the zeitgeist of the era, the irony of Rashomon is that everyone claims to be guilty.” (36)
Martinez thus equates the silence of the Japanese public with guilt, writing:
According to Martinez, the reason for Rashomon‘s plea of guilt is the potential for redemption. She discusses the Japanese concept of communal judgement and posits that within the cultural context of Rashomon it is only through the forgiveness of others that redemption can be attained. In her view, the woodcutter’s actions at the end constitute an example of redemption from past trespasses through positive future acts. By accepting their guilt and concentrating on these positive future acts, Kurosawa seems to be showing a way forward for the Japanese society.
With Martinez and Sorensen, we have two rather conflicting interpretations of Rashomon which both place it within a postwar context. On the one hand, we have Martinez’s reading of the film as an admission of Japanese wartime guilt, while Sorensen sees the film as an attack at a specific social problem that had been introduced to Japan by the Occupation forces. Which one is more valid? In the spirit of Rashomon, I will propose the answer to be: both and neither.
If there is a film out there that can by design sustain multiple conflicting interpretations, Rashomon must certainly be it. However, neither Martinez nor Sorensen convince entirely, and in both cases a further step is needed on the path that each author has cleared for us.
Sorensen’s postwar interpretation of Rashomon is convincing, yet his argument stops strangely just before it would seem to reach its natural and logical conclusion. While the idea of Rashomon as a rashamen film seems reasonable and well argued, the way Sorensen appears to be content to discuss it only within the terms of a specific social phenomenon — the “fraternization or rape of Japanese women by the occupiers” — seems unlike Kurosawa when one considers the wider context of the director’s postwar output. Although Kurosawa certainly worked on issue films — Scandal which preceded Rashomon is a good example — they were never confined to a single social problem, but always approached the subject more holistically.
Therefore, just like Scandal is not solely about the freedom of the tabloid presses but the notion of freedom of speech as a whole, or Drunken Angel for that matter is not about tuberculosis but a wider social disease, it would seem that Sorensen’s reading of Rashomon would also benefit from a further step which interprets the rape of the Japanese woman carried out by the foreign Tajōmaru more metaphorically. What we are really looking at is the destruction of a social and cultural heritage by a foreign invader. However, as also Sorensen notes, the criticism is not directed solely at the foreigners, but also at those who mindlessly participate in that act.
In his autobiography, Kurosawa discusses this phenomenon in postwar Japan:
This brings us neatly to Martinez, whose argument about the meaning of Rashomon hinges on the idea of the Occupation being the film’s silent judge. This, while impossible to really argue for based on anything present in the film itself, is nevertheless a convincing premise, considering the period in which the film was made. Her point about each of the characters taking the blame for the death of the samurai is an important one, although one should also add to it Davidson’s observation that by making themselves the killers, each character also works to maintain their self-respect: Tajōmaru killed the samurai because he is a great swordsman, the samurai killed himself because of honour, and the wife killed him accidentally as the samurai’s refusal to kill her or to have anything to do with her so shocked her.
As was the case with Sorensen’s conclusion, Martinez’s suggestion that Kurosawa is either delivering an admission of guilt on behalf of the Japanese society or showing the hellishness of a world that lacks such a plea, does not sound familiar within the context of Kurosawa’s other postwar films. No Regrets for Our Youth, made just four years earlier, in particular appears to argue for very much the opposite. Like Stray Dog and The Quiet Duel, it features a pair of characters who could at least on the surface be referred to as an ethical and an unethical agent, in as much as the former actively works against Japan’s fascist wartime government while the latter chooses to cooperate with it. Yet, the film problematizes this assumption, showing that the wartime circumstances were such where cooperation was in fact a matter of survival. As Kurosawa posits half a century later in Rhapsody in August, war is ultimately between governments, not people.
In his chapter on No Regrets for Our Youth, Yoshimoto discusses in length the debate that Japan’s postwar intellectuals, artists and filmmakers were engaged in regarding the notion subjectivity (a rough English translation generally offered for the Japanese term shutaisei), especially in connection with Japan’s role in the war. This postwar discussion of subjectivity and its origins in the rejection of Japan’s feudal past is also explored in J. Victor Koschmann’s essay “The Debate on Subjectivity in Postwar Japan: Foundations of Modernism as a Political Critique” (published in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter, 1981-1982), try here) and is a context that western film critics have paid practically no attention to even when discussing Rashomon purely within the context of its treatment of subjectivity. Yoshimoto writes:
Although written in connection with No Regrets for Our Youth, the above is extremely relevant also for Rashomon and its exploration of subjectivity. By preventing any open discourse of the war, the Occupation created an environment that confined the discussion of the subject to trivial bipolar notions of “victims” and “culprits”. Without the shades of grey between these two extremes, any exploration of the subject that went even slightly beyond the surface would have to describe the Japanese as both victims and culprits. In Rashomon this results in the situation described by Martinez, whereby in front of the watchful eyes of the Occupation each character confesses their guilt, but always in a manner which maintains their victimhood. As they cannot be objectively honest, partly because of their human nature but also largely due to the restrictions placed on them by the silent judge, the resulting testimonies are logically incoherent and therefore, from a judicial as well as historiographical point of view, largely worthless.
The result is a society unable to cope with its past or present, and which is therefore also incapable of moving forward healthily. It can be argued that Kurosawa returns to this notion immediately after Rashomon in The Idiot, where the main character Kameda has been convicted as a war criminal and has faced certain death in front of a firing squad, only to be saved at the last minute, therefore mirroring the feeling of near escape that the Japanese people experienced at the end of the war where they were or at least were told to be facing a similar possibility of annihilation either by the American invasion or the “Honourable Death of the Hundred Million”, an imperial degree of mass suicide. Yet, although Kameda’s life has been saved, the shock of the experience has made him a medically certified idiot, the certification of which we are told fittingly came from an American military hospital where he was being treated after the war.
The hell depicted in Rashomon is not one created by a society’s unwillingness to confess its guilt as suggested by Martinez, but its inability to properly explore the subject under the Occupation restrictions. Postwar Japan, like the good natured Kameda in The Idiot, is unable to function normally, sick in its head and confined by its illness. And again, the problem is not solely of foreign origin, but also the result of those who helped to build the system, who as quoted above from Kurosawa’s autobiography, “swallowed the concepts of freedom and democracy whole, waving slogans around without really knowing what they meant”. Kurosawa is not anti-Occupation or anti-American, but simply keeping his eyes open, asking questions and pointing out issues which are problematic.
In what way can the above two interpretations of Rashomon coexist? Although both views have been shown as ultimately critical of the situation and direction of postwar Japan, the metaphorical structures which they necessitate do not converge. For one, Sorensen’s argument calls for the character of Tajōmaru to allegorically stand for the Americans, yet Tajōmaru just like the two other characters admits his guilt in front of Martinez’s Occupation judge. The metaphorical time frame is perhaps also not entirely realistic, as Tajōmaru’s rape of the Japanese nation takes places before the court has convened to judge the nation of its wartime crimes. And what role does the woodcutter — a character clearly central to the story but largely ignored by the two postwar interpretations — have to play in all this?
Rashomon operates on three primary layers: the forest, the court, the gate. While in terms of the story, these three locations are chronologically laid out — something happens in the forest, the court investigates it, and this is finally discussed at the gate — in terms of the narrative they all exist simultaneously, as well as independently, in a multitude of versions. Strict causality does not therefore exist within the narrative framework of Rashomon, and neither, it could be argued, does metaphorical causality. Rashomon is by design ungraspable as a whole, a slippery kaleidoscope whose meaning depends on the angle of your gaze.
It could perhaps even be suggested that, by and large, the two postwar interpretations exist on separate layers of the Rashomon stack. The rape happens in the forest and is described only once, whereas the repeated confessions of guilt belong to the domain of the courtyard, a layer with its own metaphorical structure. And what about the third layer, that of the Rashomon gate?
The third layer is reserved for the film’s own message about a way forward. Whereas the forest and the courtyard have illustrated problems, the gate is there to offer a solution. And while most writers have concentrated almost solely on the woodcutter’s part in the much discussed ending, in reality he is only one half of a very familiar Kurosawan dualism: that of the ethical and the unethical agent.
Although the woodcutter has almost certainly stolen the dagger from the body of the dead samurai, his response to the commoner pocketing the amulet and the kimono from the abandoned baby’s basket is that of shock and condemnation. Looking at it one way, the woodcutter should have no claim for these feelings. Yet, the two actions — the woodcutter’s and the commoner’s — are in fact not comparable because the circumstances in which they are carried out are very different. The parallel is that of an individual’s wartime and postwar actions. An act which should be condemned in a democratic society may have been the only way to survive under the circumstances of wartime Japan, as Kurosawa had already explored through the dualism in No Regrets for Our Youth. Yet, going forward, in postwar Japan the situation is more like that presented in The Quiet Duel or Stray Dog, therefore giving the woodcutter the right to condemn the commoner despite his own personal past. In this sense, the ending is a response to the courtyard layer’s exploration of wartime guilt. And it is not a coincidence that Rashomon‘s ethical and unethical agent are the two commoners, members of general population.
The ending must also be discussed in terms of its Japaneseness, represented by the formality of the woodcutter’s departure from the priest, as well as the use of traditional music in the final scene. As Davidson has argued by drawing attention to them, the film appears to suggest that the way forward for a new and brighter Japan has to come from core Japanese values and customs, not from a mindless acceptance of foreign influences. In other words, in this way the ending works as a response to the forest layer’s criticism of the Occupation’s handling of Japanese affairs.
When looked at from this angle, Rashomon‘s ending is not the kind of work of simplistic humanism to which it has so often been reduced when the film is discussed purely in terms of its exploration of subjectivity. Instead, it is a calculated and meaningful coda and response for a film which is a complex argument about postwar guilt, its place in society, and the way a new Japan is being built.