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Rashomon: What did Kurosawa mean when he said it lacked 'contemporary meaning'?

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    In Tadao Sato’s essay in Richies ‘Rashomon’ (p.169), he quotes Kurosawa in relation to a discussion of whether the film should be seen as ‘humanistic’ or ‘non-humanistic’:

    Actually, to talk about whether Rashomon is humanistic or not is a bit beside the point. If Kurosawa had wanted to prove a humanistic thesis, he probably would not have chosen this material. If he had wanted to prove an antihumanistic thesis he would undoubtedly not have ended the picture as he did. One of the things we know about his intentions is that he was from the first interested in the most cinematic way to tell a story. That he did not think of his film as containing any philosophic or spiritual message is shown by his words upon receiving the Venice prize, when he said that he would have been more gratified if the prize had been given to a film with more contemporary meaning.

    When I first read (in other sources, I can’t quite recall where) that Kurosawa had said that on receiving the Golden Lion, I assumed he meant that he would have preferred to be recognized for making films that directly addressed contemporary Japan, such as with Drunken Angel. But I assume Sato is fully aware of the original Japanese statement by Kurosawa, and he seems to interpret it as meaning that Kurosawa did not consider Rashomon to have any contemporary philophical or political meaning – that it was in effect nothing more than an attempt to depict human lies and subjectivity in cinematic form. In this way it portrays Kurosawa in his film making as being a little like I’ve accused Mizoguchi in previous threads – someone who intended a lot less ‘meaning’ in his historical films than is often thought by his admirers.

    I must admit I find it very hard to accept Sato on this point – Rashomon is so rich in allusions and so deeply questions our assumptions on truth that I can’t believe that Kurosawa was not fully aware of this, at the very least in working on the script with Shinobo Hashimoto, who we know from his career was a very fine and intelligent writer. And certainly in Kurosawa’s autobiography in the chapter about the shooting of Rashomon, it seems he worked very hard at explaining to his crew what he intended with the film (although perhaps significantly he doesn’t tell us what he told them).

    In previous threads I know we’ve struggled a bit to reconcile our interpretations of Kurosawa’s films with what he himself is recorded as saying. I’m personally of the view that much of what he said has to be taken with a pinch of salt – partly because of his reluctance to verbalize what he clearly didn’t think should be verbalized, but also because he seems to have been reluctant to acknowledge the political undertone in his post war films. But I find that statement made to the Venice audience to be very curious and if anything makes the film even more puzzling.

    Anyone with ideas on what he really meant by implying that Rashomon had no ‘contemporary meaning’?



    The way I understand Kurosawa’s comment at Venice is similar to yours, but I think that he may also have meant it as a reference to his attempt to make use of silent film techniques in Rashomon, rather than making a technically contemporary film.

    This topic reminds me of the interview Kurosawa did with Bert Cardullo in 1992, where he said, among other things, the following (I have edited out large portions of his answers to concentrate on what I think is relevant to the topic you raise here, and to try and not make this any bigger a copyright infringement than it needs to be — the book this comes from is well worth getting).

    BC: You said earlier that all you are really capable of doing is creating films, not explaining them or how they are supposed to be made. And, of course, someone like me comes at films from the opposite perspective. Could you say a bit more on this subject?

    AK: Critics take my work and say things about it such as, “This scene in Kurosawa’s film means such-and-such.” But it’s not true! I was not thinking of that at all! Really, my films are created in a totally natural way; I just film them as I go along. They may turn out to affect people in a certain way, but I don’t create films by rationalizing my thoughts and then putting them on celluloid. My way of creating, my style if you want to call it that, is something that I was born with: it comes naturally. …

    In sum, I don’t think the “messages” of my films are very obvious. Rather, they are the end products of my reflection; my views are thus implicit in any finished work because I, the creator, am a living, thinking human being who lives now, in the present. I am not consciously trying to teach a lesson or convey a particular message, to express any philosophical or political views, since audiences don’t like that. They are sensitive to such things, to such “sermons,” and rightly shrink from them. People go to see films to enjoy themselves, and I think that I have made them aware of certain problems without their having had to learn about them so directly. …

    BC: One can divide your films schematically into two categories: gendai-geki (modern film stories) and jidai-geki (historical film-stories). Is this distinction connected to a precise intention on your part in the formulation of a scenario and in the filming of it?

    AK: I myself do not perceive any difference. …

    The only advantage of historical film stories, with the possible exception of Throne of Blood, comes from their greater potential for spectacle. … For myself, action-adventure is spectacle in the historical film story, whereas adventure in a modern film story is more often of a metaphysical, moral, and social kind.

    What really interests me is the interior or exterior drama of a person and how to represent that person through his particular drama. To describe a person effectively, for instance, a social or a political context is necessary. Moreover, I don’t think that one should depict events of the present day in a coarse manner; the public is shocked if it is plunged coarsely into contemporary reality. One can only make the public accept such a reality through indirect means: the story of a person living in this world. I would make a similar remark with regard to your classification: it is somewhat schematic. Gendai-geki and jidai-geki are different genres, but the subject always determines the form. And there are subjects that one can treat more readily in the form of jidai-geki.

    BC: Like Rashomon, which some have called a “modern” film that has an “historical” context.

    AK: Yes. To repeat: I, Kurosawa, live in modern society. Thus it is normal that my “historical” films contain “modern” dimensions.

    BC: For you, isn’t Rashomon an “historical” film in the cinematic sense, too?

    AK: Yes, I think it is, and the historical reference here is silent film. Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt at the time of Rashomon‘s conception, we had forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. …

    Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and desires growing out of my silent-film research.

    (From: Akira Kurosawa: Interviews, 174-176)

    Additionally, the 1993 interview with Fred Marshall includes the following comment:

    Q: How do you go about expressing the Truth in your films?

    A: I must find a way to put it across, but it’s difficult to raise money by speaking the truth to your contemporaries. It’s easier to depict Japanese history and express its cultural values. I have to emphasize, however, that it is not my intention to impose my specific philosophy on a film. If I had a message or thesis to express, I could do so in words, and it would be much cheaper and quicker to paint those words on a sign and carry it around for all to see.

    (From: Akira Kurosawa: Interviews, 184-185)

    Now, these interviews are from the early 1990s, four decades after Rashomon was made, so the comments do not come from the same man who made that film. Moreover, although his later films became more abstract in this sense, he certainly did a number of “issue based films” during his career, whatever he says here. Having said that, I would insist that his “issue based films” (Scandal, Record of a Living Being, The Bad Sleep Well, etc.) are always full of shades of grey, rather than simply black and white, and they are therefore not really preaching (I actually think that Kurosawa is less didactic than most suggest).

    In any case, what I pick from these interviews (and from elsewhere) is that in his works, Kurosawa has an intended meaning, but it is something that goes beyond a simple slogan or direct allegory. It is something that cannot be easily verbalised (painted on a sign), and can therefore be expressed only through more creative means, in his case the medium of a narrative film. This does not mean that we should not try to interpret his works or tease out the nuances, but it does warn us against lazy interpretations.

    To be honest, it is possible that I am misinterpreting his words because they seem to correspond with my own method of working. When I work on something creative, be it writing, drawing, painting, music or whatever, I usually have a “message” that I am dealing with, but it is something that I cannot quite put my finger on, and certainly cannot find a simple answer for. The creative process, therefore, becomes a meditative process through which to explore the subject at hand. When writing a story for instance, a section appears out of nowhere whose meaning you do not fully understand, but you simply know that it is right, and that it has to be there, and that it exists in a certain type of a relationship with other sections of the work. In the end, if you are successful, the final product gives you an understanding of and clarity about the subject that you have been contemplating about, but you nevertheless remain unable to put into actual non-ambiguous words what it is that you have uncovered. What originally drew me to Kurosawa was that I recognised in his works, and later in his writings and interviews, this artistic and intellectual process that felt so familiar to me.

    To go back to the quoted interviews, the other thing Kurosawa seems to be saying here is that by and large his period films don’t really differ from his contemporary films when it comes to their underlying subject matter. His films are modern, because he himself is modern. It is like when once asked why he won’t make a western, his reply was that he is a contemporary Japanese person, and is therefore only capable of making films about contemporary Japanese subjects (alas, I cannot find the reference). I would therefore question Sato’s interpretation of the comment from Venice.

    Kurosawa does make a genre-based distinction between modern and period films, suggesting that historical films lend themselves better for spectacle. Yet, we must remember that according to Richie, Kurosawa “did not consider Rashomon either a jidai-geki or entertaining”, and rather saw Seven Samurai as his first actual period film (97). Rashomon was something else, making it even more difficult for me to agree with Sato’s suggestion that Rashomon was not a modern film, and therefore couldn’t contain a “philosophic or spiritual message”, which now that I think about it, is a rather strange logical leap to make in the first place.



    I have to emphasize, however, that it is not my intention to impose my specific philosophy on a film. If I had a message or thesis to express, I could do so in words, and it would be much cheaper and quicker to paint those words on a sign and carry it around for all to see.

    I understand the sentiment. In art the medium is integral to the messag and the request to translate from one medium (film or painting or sculpture) to another (language) is one doomed to fail.

    So, my big loves: Beckmann, Kurosawa have both understood and stated their stands.

    I enjoy your musings on the creative process, Vili, but I would also add that even unsuccessful explorations can yield clarity-or, at least a direction. I am thinking Picasso : “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” .



    Translating from say film to language (i.e. the academic discussion of a film) is certainly doomed to fail if what you are after is a perfect explanation (which I don’t really think even exists). Yet, I strongly believe that by discussing these things, we can function as guides for one another, helping each other to get closer to some possible meanings and, more importantly, insights.

    The way I see it is a little like this: I cannot really describe what a sunset over a Hungarian vineyard looks like. But I can tell someone about a great spot to see one. Now, the person will still need to go there. At the correct time. The weather conditions need to be good. The person will need to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the view. And having a glass of local wine with you won’t hurt. In the end, if it all comes together, the person will see the sunset, and I’m fairly sure that he will enjoy it, and remember it. But had I not told him about the spot, and had he not put in the effort himself to get there, he might never have experienced it. That’s what art criticism to me is (among other things): it’s about giving suggestions where to look, and how, to arrive to those conclusions and insights which cannot really be verbalised so easily.

    Very much related to this, I fully agree with you Coco that even unsuccessful explorations can actually be successful. By mentioning Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in this context, I assume that you are referring to John Berger’s take on the painting, and the way it as something of a failure nevertheless influenced cubism? (Or maybe you don’t. As an admirer of El Greco I am also familiar with Picasso’s painting, but I don’t really know anything about that work, only what I just read on the Wikipedia page.)



    John Berger is amongst the critics (now close to the majority) who find Picasso’s seminal work to be the “beautiful loser” that launches discoveries, though itself is an undigested mashup. I am looking forward to reading The Success and Failure of Picasso, but now I must re-read Norman Mailer’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man and Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot as I’ve assigned these to students we are taking to Madrid in February then Barcelona in March.

    …art criticism to me is (among other things): it’s about giving suggestions where to look, and how, to arrive to those conclusions and insights which cannot really be verbalised so easily.

    that’s very well said and I concur. Jonas Mekas famously said “I am a raving maniac of the cinema”-and his critical work for the Village Voice was intended to send folks toward astonishing experiences.

    Artists (as a different crowd than critics) are famously reticent about their work and I cherish and understand that. However, most cannot resist the temptation to make statements. Beckmann! Even Kurosawa. But the reticence I get.

    For fun I went to a bunch of university web-sites and read the statements of professors of the fine arts faculty, and most were beyond cringe-worthy, they were horrifying, and soul and mind-deadening, though I have no doubt they worked very hard on these scant lines. It is expected, actually. But, there are very few folks able to make a statement as worthwhile as their work.

    I think once I have made a work I send it out into the world like a person in her own right-to make friends or enemies or give pleasure or pain, to confuse to illuminate-it’s out of my hands both literally and figuratively once a work enters its own public life. Does one look at one’s life and work and make judgements? Well yes, but I agree with Kurosawa-it’s like being that mutant toad in a box of mirrors…I too begin to sweat.



    Great post, Coco! It also made me curious — what were those university websites about which contained cringe-worthy statements by professors?



    I wondered if I even had to specify, Vili…and, yet, when I just did random searches to send you links to examples, I didn’t find any statements at all! On the one day I mentioned though, it was a hailstorm of purple, bruised prose waxing on about absolutely nothing.



    Ah, the oh so familiar case of “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, then? I know that one!

    (And should someone think I’m being arrogant here, let’s just say that I’m partly looking at a mirror here as I’m typing this…)

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