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Rashomon (Japan, 1950)

Akira Kurosawa was directing films since the early forties. However, it was with Rashomon made in 1950 that he clearly demonstrated his thematic preoccupations and stylistic penchant.

Rashomon has six sections. The story is at once simple and complex. A man's dead body is discovered in a forest with a dagger thrust in his chest. Who killed him? Why and how was he killed? The film tries to answer these questions but no clear answer emerges.

Rashomon opens with two men, a woodcutter and a priest, who sit beneath the ruins of the famous Rashomon Gate and tell their story to a third man, a stranger, the listener. A furious rainstorm is going on outside. The rainstorm is more than a violent natural event. Kurosawa uses it as a concrete external image of two things, firstly, of the internal agony of the searchers after truth and secondly, of the lawlessness, banditry, famine, war, in other words, the chaotic social instability of the era. Kurosawa's ability at using concrete natural imagery to evoke internal human moods and emotion is of an exceptionally high order. One finds ample evidence of it in Throne of Blood, among other films of his.

As Rashomon proceeds after the opening scene, we see the bandit, the woman, the husband, each giving his/her version of what actually happened. But there is no unanimity. What led the bandit to attack and rape the woman? How did the woman react to the assault? And what was the reaction of the husband of the raped woman? As each participant describes the incident we find that it differs in fundamental points, in human motivation, in the emotional tone, even in the sequence of events. Who speaks the truth? Or, doesn't any one, totally, fully? Does truth have one face, one voice? Rashomon is, indeed, a great cinematic achievement at demonstrating the subjectivity and relativity of truth. But Rashomon is great also for Kurosawa's stylistic control of his theme.

We have spoken of three versions of the incident, but there is a fourth one, too, the woodcutter's, besides the three direct participants. It was he who discovered the body in the wood. He claims that he was an eye witness of what actually took place. He tells us that all of them, the bandit, the wife and the husband who was killed, all were liars. This is the only true and objective version of the incident. His version presents the bandit, the wife and the husband as smaller, weaker and stupider than what they revealed about themselves in their own telling. But can one implicitly believe the woodcutter? Is he, too, lying? Or, is his perception correct? Clearly Kurosawa introduces here an element of ambiguity. However, towards the end of the film we find an attempt by him to present a more positive view of life, an attempt at synthesizing the conflicting versions of the narrators, through a positive human action, a humane action. The last scene of Rashomon is very satisfying. After all the violent scenes in the forest, the bandit's meeting, pursuit and conquest of the woman, the fierce sword-fight between the bandit and the woman's husband, the husband - wife's confrontation scene where the wife moves towards her brutally silent husband, as if in a trance, with a knife in her hand, after all these scenes of action, Kurosawa gives us a completely different picture. In this last scene we are again among the ruins of the Rashomon Gate. The woodcutter, the priest and the listener suddenly hear the cries of a little child. Apparently the baby has been abandoned by the parents to the storm and the rains. Words, highly ironic, pass among the three, at the end of which the woodcutter announces that he will adopt the child. Although he already has six children, a seventh one will not make much difference. We suddenly realize at this point that the rains have stopped. The woodcutter takes his new child in his arms and walks away from the Rashomon Gate. As he leaves the ruins of the Gate behind him Kurosawa's tracking camera walks with him. And we finally see the sun come out and shine.

Kurosawa was acclaimed as an original and great filmmaker during his lifetime, nationally and internationally. His films received a number of prestigious awards at home and abroad.

Kurosawa is no more with us but his vision and films are. His death has created a void in world cinema, especially in the Asian cinematic world. His absence will be felt long and deeply.

Kurosawa on Rashomon
One day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors Daiei had assigned me came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. “Please read it again more carefully,” I told them. “If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.” But they wouldn’t leave. “We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.” For their persistence I gave them this simple explanation:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind 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; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.
…..

Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I
sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I
had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, ruminating over the aesthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa “In a Grove” story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of 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 moved the setting to a large forest. I selected the virgin forest of the mountains surrounding Nara, and the forest belonging to the Komyoji temple outside Kyoto.

 

 
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Rashomon
(Japan, 1950)

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