Rashomon (1950)

. . .Rashomon remains a grimly cynical view of human beings' indulgent evaluation of their own despicable behavior. The four different eyewitness-participant accounts of the same incident, showing the subjectivity of truth, constituted a revolutionary format and message for the film medium. Its refusal to select one truth from the many presented as the final, conclusive truth took Europe by surprise and ranked Rashomon as an overnight classic of world cinema. . .

Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, p. 170.

Rashomon was the most profoundly pictorial and cinematic work anyone had seen in years. Its visual flamboyance was quite unexpected and all the more startling. Not since the silent cinema of Eisenstein and Murnau, it seemed, had narrative been conceived as such a flow of pure imagery. . ."Everyone seeing the picture will immediately be struck by the beauty and grace of the photography, by the deft use of forest light and shade to achieve a variety of powerful and delicate pictorial effects" [says a critic]. Other critics called it "a symphony if sight, sound, light, and shadow" and praised its "boldly simple, essentially visual technique."(127)

[T]he film seemed to reflect upon important philosophical questions: the loss of faith in human beings, the world as a hell, the human propensity to lie. (128)

Perhaps the most striking is the sequence showing the woodcutter walking through the forest just before he finds evidence of the crime. . .These are among the most sensuous moving camera shots in cinema history and the entire sequence has a hypnotic power. Much of the effect is due to its "silence," to the absence of dialogue and ambient sound. Fumio Hayasaka's percussive, rhythmic score [Revel's Bolero] is the only aural accompaniment to the images. (132)

As [the characters] cackle wildly, shriek, or cry, in an excessive style that Joseph Anderson termed "reverse anthropomorphism," their language is made strange by its very excess. The familar is defamiliarized in the way the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky meant. Through these strategies....Kurosawa creates a displacement between visual and verbal modes... This displacement is, indeed, what the film is all about....The physical world of events and objects is reconstructed verbally, but language is an unreliable mediator. The stories do not match. Gaps and contradictions prevail between word and event. The "inner relationship" between word and reality is denied....The failure of language to to grasp the world of events is a story about the human fall from grace into a world deformed by heterodoxy and multiplicity. (134)

. . .Rashomon conducts its inquiry into the constructedness of reality at the level of the signified. The film deals with fragmentation and relativity in terms of the content of the narratives, not their structure. (135)

Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera

What makes Rashomon such a special film is first and foremost its formal experiment, particularly its audiovisual form and narration. The focus of the film is how the story is presented as much as what it is about. To give the film a sense of formal unity and coherence, Kurosawa extensively relies on the power of geometric abstraction. and juxtaposition of extreme opposites, which create symphonic rythymn and architechtonic beauty.

. . .By not constructing any complex logical scheme underlying the testimonies of the defendants and witnesses, Kurosawa foregrounds the fundamental affirmativeness of narration in film image. If Rashomon has an optimistic outlook, it is not necessarily because of its affirmation of human compassion and goodness but because of its jubilant celebration of film as a medium of storytelling.

This does not mean that Rashomon is devoid of any connection to the immediate sociopolitical context of its production. It was, after all, made in Occupied Japan, only five years after the Japanese defeat in World War II. The tumultuous conditions of wartime and postwar Japan can easily be compared to the chaotic situation depicted in the film set in the late Heian period. . .In the existing version of the film, the fact of the Occupation is most clearly registered in the absence of the magistrate in the courtyard scenes. Even though the principal characters seem to be answering the magistrate's questions, we neither see him nor hear his voice. Consistent with the overall design of the film, the censoring eyes of the Occupation are formally inscribed on the film's textual surface as structural absence.

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa, pp. 182-189


Two men--a Woodcutter and a Priest--are seeking shelter underneath the crumbling Rashomon gate to the city of Kyoto. The city has apparently recently been ravaged by wars and natural disasters. The Woodcutter is talking to himself. "I don't understand! I just cannot understand it!" A third man, a Commoner, joins them to get out of torrential rains. What cannot the woodcutter understand? The Priest comments that he, too, has never seen the likes of what he has seen today.

Priest: A man has been murdered.

Commoner: What, just one? There are always five or six bodies around this gate. No one worries about them.

Priest: I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I've never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, horrible. It is worse than fires, wars, epidemics or bandits.

Commoner: Priest, let's not have a sermon. I just wanted to hear this story t keep out of the rain. I would just as soon listen to the rain than your sermon.

And so begins the telling of a story that is Rashomon, a story that will unfold in four different versions. Some parts of the story are told before a tribunal of some sort though we never see who the inquisitors are. And the versions of the story differ so we never know who is telling the truth. The Woodcutter comments:

Woodcutter: It's a lie. They are all lies.

Commoner: Well, men are only men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth, even to themselves.


Priest: That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.


Commoner: Not another sermon! I don't mind a lie if it's interesting.

 

One story has to be related through a shaman because the teller of the tale is dead. The Priest does not think his story could be a lie because, after all....

Priest: Dead men tell no lies. I can't believe that men would be so sinful.

Commoner: I don't mind that. After all, who is to be trusted nowaday. (Laughter) Look, we all want to forget something so we create stories. It is easier that way.

 

So, here it is. Where does truth lie? What separates the truth from lies? What are human beings capable of? Why do they create and tell stories? To search for truth or to help forget the pain and suffering that surrounds us? Who tells the story and why? What do they have at stake in their narrative? However we may answer that question, we know that people will tell stories, perhaps on a rainy day under the eaves of a dilapidated gate. Here is a brief film review of Rashomon below.

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"Rashomon" is director Akira Kurosawa's intellectual masterpiece. It is the tale of a rape and murder told from the point-of-view of four individuals involved with the crime. "Rashomon" is incorrectly referred to as a artful perception piece that does not provide any truth, but rather points out the varying perceptions that individuals will have of the same event. While true to an extent, "Rashomon" does unfortunately reveal the truth behind these crimes and is a stunning perception of man's diverse altering of perceptions.


A bandit (played with typical expertise by Toshiro Mifune) rapes a young woman in a forest, while her husband/protector is forced to watch. The aftermath involves the murder of the husband/protector relayed at an inquiry with three varying degrees of bravery, treachery, guilt and betrayal. The fourth, and truthful, telling of the murder is told by a woodcutter (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) who witnessed the unfortunate event. His tale is relayed after the inquiry to a priest at a temple, while a raging storm bellows (symbolizing the torrental effects of this incident on these men.)


The bandit's version of this crime insists that the woman gave herself willingly. Afterwards, he gallantly slayed the husband/protector in a duel to retain some honor. The woman's version asserts her disgrace over the incident (of which she did not partake willingly) and killed her husband because of his hatred for her. His hatred stemmed from having to watch another man take his wife in front of him. Disgraced and shattered, the woman insists on killing her husband out of grief. The husband/protector's version, received through the use of a medium, insists on the wife's betrayal and encouragement for the bandit to slay her husband. Thus, the wife's disgrace could be concealed and hints that the wife did indeed give herself willingly to the bandit.

After the bandit's version of these events, this incident seems open-and-shut. However, after the wife's contradicting testimony and the husband's after-death indictments, "Rashomon" is obscured in confusion and versions of this tragedy that favors the individual telling it.


The woodcutter's "truthful" perception dresses the woman as a manipulator and the bandit and protector as cowards. Thus, the three participants of this tragedy are stripped of their conceitful individual versions and exposed as manipulators and cowards. Any anger and prideful advantages relayed in each tale is negated to reveal the deceitful qualities of each individual. The rendering insistence that dead men do lie, following the husband's testimony, reinforces this wicked perception of self-deception that Kurosawa masterfully lays out.


To negate the misconceptions that "Rashomon" is not about getting to the truth and does not provide any, one need only look to the influence that Hollywood had on this Japanese director. Hollywood films are notorious for turning any tragedy and bleak drama into a happy ending, and the conclusions of "Rashomon" are not an exception as Takashi Shimura walks from the temple with hope in his eyes at the conclusion. It is only natural to assume that his version was the truth. Also considering that his version was the only not emotionally or personally involved, it is silly to believe otherwise. "Rashomon" is one of those rare moments in cinema where visuals, intellect, direction, symbolism and acting reach a near-perfect level of grandeur.


However, the "Hollywood"-induced ending belittles some of this experience. "Rashomon" would have been best to foresake the truth in favor of studying the perceptions and manipulations of individuals. Still, cinema has rarely been better than in this masterpiece.

http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/Forum/6370/rashomon.html

(Review is no longer located at this site)

 

 


The coda in Rashomon, which is built around the foundling baby, is something that I have often heard being criticised. George Barbarow (1952, reprinted in the Rashomon book) for instance likened the ending of the film to "a cliché so wild that Broadway audiences were able to recognize it as a joke in Boy Meets Girl..." (145), and this is in fact a sentiment that I have heard from quite a number of people that I have watched the film with.

The ending is often also criticised for not seeming to be entirely true to the characters (especially the woodcutter's action here seems contradictory to what we assume about his earlier actions), as well as being something of a "deux ex machina" invention with which Kurosawa could force his sentimentalism and "simplistic humanism" (don't remember whose term exactly) into the story....

I tend to think of the three characters at Rashomon in terms of their functions regarding the narration of the testimonies. While these roles are not entirely clear-cut, I think that it is fair to say that the woodcutter is (largely) the storyteller, the priest the moral interpreter, and the commoner the one who the story is being told to. In other words, what we have are the source, the moral reflector and the observer. Which, if I may stretch this line of thinking even a bit further, could correspond to the woodcutter metaphorically standing for the story (the movie Rashomon itself), the priest standing for the interpreter (the director, or Kurosawa) and the commoner standing for the audience (us).

Richie, for example, notes that the final scene is what actually crucially differentiates Kurosawa's Rashomon from Akutagawa's 'In the Grove'. In his words, whereas Akutagawa "is content to question all moral values, all truth," Kurosawa "insists upon hope, upon the possibility of gratuitous action." (71)

Goodwin, meanwhile, also points out that the scene appears to indirectly confirm that the woodcutter had stolen the dagger, (138 ) leaving us to question even the woodcutter's second account.

In this way, Rashomon becomes very much a narrative of itself, or a narrative of the act of narration, something that is clearly not a novel idea, but perhaps the above is at least in some ways a novel way of arriving to this conclusion.

What the baby therefore allows is for the meta-narrative to unfold and to be fully displayed. Also, keeping in mind the metaphorical identities I have argued for here, the fact that the commoner turns out to be a thief would also seem like some kind of a statement about the audience -- that when it all boils down we are no better or more honest than the characters portrayed in the film. Our realities are no more objective than anyone else's. (Vili Manula from the Akira Kurosawa Forums http://akirakurosawa.info/forums/topic/rashomon-the-babys-function-and-the-identities-of-the-three-men)

We might also do well to recall Yoshimoto's take on this when he writes (as quoted above as an epigraph to this page): "If Rashomon has an optimistic outlook, it is not necessarily because of its affirmation of of human compassion and goodness but because of its jubilant celebration of film as a medium of storytelling." (189)



See IMDB for some Memorable quotes: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042876/quotes

See Stanley Solomon's very detailed review. Also available here: http://filmsociety.wellington.net.nz/FilmIdea.html