Seven Samurai and The Samurai Trilogy catapulted the rest of the world into the newest craze in international cinema in 1954. But, before they were winning Academy Awards in the United States and filling up art house theaters in New York and London, a movie called Rashomon had lifted the veil off the eyes of the world and onto Japanese cinema. At no point in history had a film from Japan sent such waves worldwide, asking pertinent questions that bridged cultures and borders while simultaneously embracing elements of cinema that touched all who watched. If there ever was movie, other than Citizen Kane, that demanded study, it was Rashomon.
I don’t make that claim lightly. In order to understand the significance of Rashomon from an analytic perspective, it bears mentioning that I discussed it—along with other classics—in my two-part essay series on montage theory. (In particular, it was covered in the second part). What Rashomon did was that it utilized concepts of montage to juxtapose contradictory images and ask important questions of the distortions of time, memory, and justice…in much the same way that Citizen Kane did in 1941.
The story is simple. We hear one person tell a story that another person told about a horrific crime (a rape-murder) that has occurred. We then hear that person tell the same story as told from a different person about the same incident. And so on and so on. What results is a conglomerate of stories that are, at their very root, contradictory, exonerating some while criminalizing others. We begin to question who really did what, and whether or not a decision of guilt is actually proper. We are brought into this world where most of what we see is a lie; but we are incapable of knowing what the lies are.
This is perhaps one of the most powerful screenplays ever committed to screen, and we are forever indebted to Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto for writing it. Created from melding two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa called Rashomon and In a Grove, the resulting story is a powerful commentary on the relationship between justice and humanity. It’s an interesting dilemma, one with a decidedly Western feel as the duality of vengeance and justice takes center stage. Western culture has long been focused on the jurisprudential elements of cause and effect; since even before the Magna Carta it has been a decidedly Western theme to question precepts of crime and punishment in an attempt to find the best way to transcend human error in our justice system. Perhaps that is why “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” is one of the most famous of all Christian scriptures, because it best sums up the issue of humanity’s imperfect attempts to formulate a perfect justice system. The fact that God is justice, or Justice is God, is the root element of the Western political religion: its the non-human, perfect arbiter in some other-worldly sphere to which we can only strive, but never fully attain.
But, Western political philosophy has not monopolized this quest to reconcile the nature of humanity with the nature of true justice. Famous philosopher/artists worldwide have often wondered about the balance of these elements, from China’s Sun Tzu to Russia’s Leo Tolstoy (who included the verse, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” as the epitaph to his masterpiece, Anna Karenina). The role of human error in the law and its interpretation has long been a key thematic element of literature. In Japan, this was no different, particularly in 1950s Japan.
See, in 1950s Japan, there were three great forces at work. On one hand, you had the last remaining vestiges of an Eastern, or Oriental, culture, focused on community and absorbed in its traditional Shinto practices and kami worship. On the other hand, you had the now-defeated, but still ever-present, cultural mindset of a distinctly anti-Western movement. This movement was one of Japanese Imperialism, which had risen to great significance in the 20th Century, as an answer to the ever-increasing imperialist policies of Great Britain and Russia (and, even, the United States, whose encroachment on the Philippines was often unwelcome to the rest of the Asian continent).
And yet, on another metaphorical “hand,” there was the rising generation of Japan, who, having survived the bloody battles and brutal bombings of World War II, were coming to embrace the Westernization element of this new global world. The United States of America—under authority of General Douglas MacArthur, were in the third phase of their occupation and reconstruction efforts after the devastation that it and other nations caused during the war. While it was never going to compensate for the damages it caused Japan (and the rest of the world, itself included) with fire raids and the nuclear bomb, one can see that the American policy after the war was to aid the most the nations that it hurt the worst. Massive funds were funneled to the Japanese economy and American soldiers were assigned to police and even rebuild the devastated towns. Post-war Japan remains today the greatest “pet-project” that the United States has ever had. This same approach would be attempted again in Japan’s neighboring Korea, but to much less success.
What a ridiculous cataclysm, what a total mix of culture and history, what am historical tipping point to be alive in this transitory period in a nation’s history. These three cultural forces—one Eastern, one Anti-Western, one Western—threatened to pull the nation apart like a medieval bandit being drawn and quartered. Certainly, that happened in the Korean peninsula one decade later. But, in Japan, the nation ended up unified and strong. There was even talk in the late 1980s and early 1990s that “the Cold War was over…Japan won.” How was it able to survive this volatile transition so well? It’s because Japan was able to find an identity.
Rashomon, I believe, is a superb example of this new nation’s composite identity. On one hand, it is a period piece that embraces the long and complex national history and maintains its traditional, Eastern roots. In one scene, we see the spirit of the man who has died recite his version of the events as they unfolded through a haunting medium. The fact that this is treated as a reliable source in the story is evidence to Kurosawa’s embrace of the Shinto precepts. As for the acceptance of Western ideas and concepts, Rashomon takes the aforementioned mention of the dilemma of jurisprudence and turns it on its head, questioning the Western notions and wondering if this attempt at democratic justice is worthwhile.
The movie itself takes place during a rainstorm as three men who seek shelter from said storm meet below the Rashomon gate of Kyoto. Hence, the movie’s title. One of the men, a woodcutter, played by one of Kurosawa’s favorite actors, Takashi Shimura, is obviously troubled, because he has just heard the most terrible story. He tells the other two men about the story that he has heard—the rape/murder that I mentioned earlier—from the perspective of the three people involved in the incident: the woman, the thief (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and the husband who was killed and whose spirit bore testimony through a Shinto medium. The movie plays out in flashbacks, and we see the three men as they grapple with which story is true, and you find yourself joining them, trying to figure out continuities between the characters’ respective recitations of the events at hand. That Kurosawa is essentially filling up his cast list with unwitting members of a jury (and that you, the viewer, are now included on that jury), is a fantastic element of his embrace of Western thought while simultaneously demonstrating his skepticism of it.
This composite of embracing Westernism while rejecting it, all within the the context of an eleventh-century period piece, works to show the way that Kurosawa (one of the two greatest Japanese directors) was able to reconcile the cultural elements before him. It also shows how he was able to—practically on his own—propel Japanese cinema to the world stage by creating a new approach to cinema that was accessible to all cultures and creeds. But, perhaps more than everything, it showed the role of the Japanese chanbara film in the cultural mythology. For this new Japanese culture, the founding myth lie in the philosophical and artistic endeavors of contemporary artists and their interpretations of the old periods. Rashomon is one of the great inclusions in the Japanese cultural mythology because it, like Gone With the Wind or High Noon in the United States, so exemplifies the social identity of the nation of its origin. This is yet another reason why it is so accessible to viewers from other lands, because they all have a mythology of their own, and these movies are all so strikingly similar. (See my post on Westerns and their relationship to the samurai film)
And, simply put, it wasn’t easy to get there. It wasn’t a mere “shoot-cut-produce-distribute” formula for Kurosawa, who desperately wanted to get his movies out on the world stage. Other than American and British films (which had the benefit of Hollywood’s established reputation as the world capital of the movie industry), films from every other nation rarely were distributed outside of their country of origin. The only way that a non-American or non-British motion picture could make it into art-houses and movie theaters all across Europe and the United States, was to enter what was called “the festival circuit.” This isn’t much different today. The only movies that we Americans hear about that aren’t made in America (even Americans like me who try very hard to keep up-to-date with foreign films), are the ones that premier at Cannes, Venice, and other worldwide film festivals. The emergence of “Bollywood” has improved a foreign film’s ability to enter the world stage, but the festival circuit remains distribution goal number one.
In order to get into the festival circuit, though, a movie has to get funded, filmed, produced, and distributed domestically. Kurosawa’s attempt to get this funding wasn’t easy. He had been, previously, employed by Toho studios, and he would return to Toho in 1952. But, at the time of Rashomon’s creation, Kurosawa was in what Stephen Prince would call the “journeyman period of his career”, where he would dabble in projects for other studios like Shochiku, Shintoho, and Daiei. It was for the latter of these that he worked up the script to Rashomon, and they were initially reluctant. While I don’t know all the details to how Kurosawa was able to sway them otherwise, I do know that it is never easy to convince a studio boss to do something that they were at first reluctant to do.
The reluctance of Daiei to take on this project is understandable. I imagine RKO Pictures would have had a difficult time accepting the premise of Citizen Kane nine years earlier had they been presented with the script beforehand. Like Kane, Rashomon was to be told through two revolutionary media: first, through the use of flashbacks (even contradictory flashbacks), and second, through cutting-edge cinematography and movie imagery. Both of these could be hard, at times, for the public to accept. The flashbacks element was already difficult. It was rare for films to ignore the concept of time to tell a story devoid of chronological continuity. Kane had done it. D.W. Griffith had done it with Intolerance. But those were massive, expensive, and foolhardy endeavors that had been made by American production studios with a lot of money. It was not advisable to make a movie with that sort of concept—with that sort of potential to be utterly confusing.
The cinematographic element was equally discouraging. Kurosawa wanted to make a movie that told its story as much through imagery as it did through script. What is today considered one of the best photographed films in history was, in its conception, a huge photographic gamble. Take, for example, Kurosawa’s decision to film the mystic in the way that he did. This strange medium, sitting in the foreground, with a wind machine blowing her drape-like vestiges into the sky, writhing about two and fro while the thief and the woman he has likely raped (we never get the true story) are sitting on takami mats in the background, presents a very haunting, disturbing, and genuinely strange picture. Kurosawa’s decision to cut back and forth from flashback to real time though an appeal to nature was also unique. Two things that Kurosawa always did when it came to filming nature: he always filmed a heavy downpour of rain (thank you Stephen Prince for pointing this out to me) and he always took the same approach to filming forests.
Forests are one of the key motifs in Kurosawa’s films. From the hospital’s incorporation in the trees in Red Beard to the forest where the young girl and the samurai go in Seven Samurai, Kurosawa always depicts this duality of virtue and vice through his portrayal of the woods. Prince points out how sensual acts almost always play out in hedges and thickets, which makes sense, since they act as a fine metaphor for the entrapment of vice. Yet, Kurosawa also focuses long, tracking shots (which are very difficult to do in the woods) on the nature of life in a forest. He focuses on the undergrowth, and how it lives in the shadows of the much older trees, as if to accentuate the difference between youth and age, a natural symbol of birth, life, and death. And the way that Kurosawa’s camera seems to follow the ups and downs of the terrain, instead of following a mere straight line? That only works to give us the feel that this camera’s eye, like a human eye, follows the trajectory of its feet.
And, to add further brilliance to Kurosawa’s visionary auteurism, his incorporation of these natural elements: forestation and rain, do even more to help us, the viewer know where we stand. By pointing his camera into the light, letting the aperture do its job, Kurosawa creates a flushed out image in his forest scenes; the trees and the actors almost working as protrusions into the brightness of the frame. This works to give us that sort of “flashback” feel; but instead of the typical way cinematographers will blur out the the edges of the frame to give us this feel, Kurosawa used the natural lighting of the sun and the tree’s shadows to give us this phenomenon.
In the case of the rain, though, we are given something else. The steady downpour of the rain around Rashomon gate is decidedly vertical, giving us straight, dotted lines that permeate the entirety of the frame. These work in perfect parallel to the beams holding up the complex, and work to give us that distinct us of straight lines that a lot of great Japanese films use to frame the objects they are filming. Perhaps the greatest example of straight lines used to frame an image are in Yasujirô Ozu’s films. Another fine example though, is in Rashomon itself, with the scenes at the trial. In these sequences, we have a conglomeration of the two aforementioned types of photography. On one hand, the scenes are filmed directly into the sunlight, giving us that flushed out feel of flashbacks. On the other hand, the scenes feature the straight lines of the whitewashed wall in the background and the takami mats on the set floor. That the trial is an interlude flashback between the scenes in the forest and the rainy scenes at Rashomon gate is obvious in the way that Kurosawa marries elements of both in those sequences.
What results, ultimately, is a masterpiece of photography and imagery that has few peers in cinema, regardless of nation of origin or time of production. Even today, Rashomon‘s script and aesthetics make it a unique and compelling viewing experience. But, like I said, it was all quite revolutionary. And, when approached with these creative concepts, the studio guys at Daiei were not excited about the whole thing. But, somewhere along the way, they agreed to fund the film. And, the gamble paid off. Despite original projections that no one would go see, and that those who did go see it wouldn’t understand it, it turned out that Rashomon was a massive domestic success.
The domestic success empowered Kurosawa to take the movie into the festival circuit, and it first was played at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. Not only did it take home the Golden Lion that year (giving it that extra bump into worldwide distribution), the film took home an Honorary Academy Award in 1952. From then on, this movie has slid its tentacles into the worldwide culture. Every time we get one of those sitcom episodes (in shows like Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond), that feature contradictory flashbacks, they owe their origins to Kurosawa and Rashomon. Even 2008’s Vantage Point, starring Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker, is often considered a remake of Rashomon. And, in the legal parlance of today, we still use the term “Rashomon effect” when dealing with contradictory recountings of the same story.
It worked so well precisely because it was radical and revolutionary. It worked so well precisely because it invoked such creative, beautiful, and, at times, haunting images. And, above it all, it worked so well because it was a conglomerate story of multiple cultures reconciling to create a national identity. It worked as a foundational element to a new mythology, one that not only attracted the masses in its nation of origin, but one with which many other nations could connect because they have films that do the same things. While Rashomon isn’t a pure samurai film, neither is Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a pure cowboy film. It doesn’t matter. The point remains the same. These are two films that are part of the cinematic myth of the nations which gave them birth. And, in the case of these two films, they both question the same elemental principle of their respective nations: the notion of human error and the constant pursuit for true and accurate justice.
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