Pages Navigation Menu

Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Rashomon

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Country: Japan
Year: 1950

Background

I’ve already written about Kurosawa, in the Ikiru article, so this time I’ll focus more on the film itself – its origins, impact, and legacy.

WHAT IS A RASHOMON, EXACTLY?

A footnote in my illustrated screenplay explains: “The ‘Rashomon’ was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan… with the decline of Kyoto in the twelfth century, the gate fell into disrepair…”

SOURCES

Kurosawa’s screenplay is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and In a Grove. The short story Rashomon concerns an unemployed samurai’s servant who steals the clothing of an old woman, who is in turn stealing the hair from a corpse. The only thing Kurosawa took from this story is the setting; all of the action takes place at the Rashomon gate, during a rainstorm. The short story In a Grove is comprised of the conflicting testimony given during a murder trial. Most of the key elements of Kurosawa’s film can be found in this ten-page story.

MAKING THE FILM

Kurosawa had a script written in 1948, but his production company, Toyoko, bailed on the project. Too much of a risk, they said. Kurosawa then took the project to Toho, and was jilted again. Finally, he signed a short-term deal with Daiei. They agreed to the film, but pestered Kurosawa with endless questions, and were never convinced of its merits.

Throughout the production, Kurosawa lived with the cast and crew, continually honing the performances and the techniques used in the film in a communal atmosphere. “We were a very small group and it was as though I was directing Rashomon every minute of the day and night. At times like this, you can talk everything over and get very close indeed,” he said later.

After watching a nature documentary, Kurosawa asked Mifune to pattern his performance after the behavior of a lion; swatting at flies, pacing tensely, attacking with crazed ferocity. A “bestial whirlwind,” in the words of the Janus book, a “ferocious, demented Puck bellowing with maniacal laughter,” according to the Times of London.

You might notice a familiar musical theme in Rashomon, and mistake it for Ravel’s Bolero. In fact, it is not Bolero, not exactly, but it is certainly a reasonable facsimile thereof. Some might even call it a blatant gloss on the overused melody, close enough to fool the casual listener, but just different enough to avoid copyright infringement. In fact, Kurosawa asked Fumio Hayasaka to “write something like Bolero,” and the composer complied all too skillfully. At the time of Rashomon‘s release, this was the source of some criticism.

OTHER INTERESTING THINGS

Rashomon was shot in a matter of weeks, and is one of the only Kurosawa films that did not go over budget.

There are 407 separate shots in the body of the film.

The rain didn’t register clearly enough on the b/w film stock, so Kurosawa had his effects people tint the rainwater with calligrapher’s ink.

RELEASE AND RECEPTION

Rashomon (I’m talking about the film now) was released in Japan in 1950, to mixed reviews. Respected critic Tadashi Iijima deemed it a failure because of “its insufficient plan for visualizing the style of the original stories.” Many criticized Mifune’s overacting. As mentioned in the Ikiru article, Kurosawa has always been more appreciated and admired in the West than in his native country.

The passionate lobbying efforts of an Italian teacher (or possibly the head of Italiafilm; my sources do not agree [how very Rashomon-esque!]) resulted in the film being screened at the 1951 Venice film festival, despite the objections of the Japanese government. Rashomon won the Italian Critics Award and the Golden Lion, went on to win several more awards at other international festivals, and become one of the first widely-seen “foreign” films in the U.S.

When asked why he thought Rashomon had become so popular around the world, Kurosawa answered, “Well, you see… it’s about this rape…”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

What is the significance of the fact that the commoner is tearing down the Rashomon gate to build a fire? Why does Kurosawa make a point of showing us that the gate is in disrepair?

Is it significant that the murder victim is a samurai? In a broader sense, what is the significance of social class in the film?

What is the symbolic meaning of sunlight and shadow in the film? Is it the typical light=good, or not?

How do you think a Japanese audience in 1950 might experience Rashomon differently than an American audience in 1950? Or an American audience today?

In the original short story, Tajomaru was a normal-looking, blue-kimono-wearing guy whose appearance was not frightening. In the film, Kurosawa chose to make Tajomaru more akin to an oni (ogre) from Japanese folklore. Many scholars interpret the oni as a satirical representation of “the foreigner.” Discuss.

Synopsis

REAL TIME: CITY GATE IN THE RAIN

A wooden sign displays the title of the film. A torrential summer rain turns the dirt roads to muddy streams.

Two men, both lost in thought, wait out the storm beneath a half-ruined city gate.

“I don’t understand,” says one. “I just don’t understand…”

A third man, also seeking shelter, dashes up the steps to join them. He quickly deduces that the two men are disturbed, perplexed, mulling over something.

“I’ve never heard such a strange story…” says the older of the two men (played by Ikiru‘s Takashi Shimura).

The younger of the two men is a priest, but even he has never heard the likes of this story. It is a corker.

“Well, why don’t you tell me about it?” suggests New Guy. And so they do.

“A man was murdered…” the story begins, and, as New Guy rightly points out, this is not a promising opening, given the hype: “What, just one?” But no, no, the two men insist, trust us, that’s just the beginning. Later, it gets weird…

“I have seen so many men getting killed like insects,” says Young Priest, “but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this… This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul…”

Fair Warning: He talks like that for the entire film.

Old Guy begins: “It was three days ago. I went into the mountains to get wood…”

Cut to: bright sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. Old Guy marches along with his axe shouldered. He comes across a woman’s hat, a samurai’s cap, a bit of rope, a shiny amulet, and – wait for it – a corpse! Which, being a faithful citizen of feudal Japan, he dutifully reports to the local authorities. Three days later, he is called to testify at the trial. Young Priest, who happened to meet the murder victim and his wife in the woods prior to his death, is also called to testify.

FLASHBACK LEVEL I: THE TRIAL

“A human life is truly as frail and fleeting as the morning dew,” reflects Young Priest, concluding his testimony on kind of a bummer note.

Next is the testimony of the local do-gooder who captured Tajomaru, the “notorious bandit” and alleged murderer. The capture wasn’t as brave or as daring as you might think, since Tajomaru was found crawling in the sand, raving and prostrate, with several arrows lodged in his back. Arrows, I submit, which flew from the bow of the victim! I rest my case, your honor!

Actually, the do-gooder claims that Tajomaru was shot full of arrows; Tajomaru himself testifies that he was writhing on the ground with diarrheal cramps.

Tajomaru, as played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, seems disinterested and slightly bonkers; legs akimbo and preoccupied with some cloud formations. But when the current witness pronounces that his arrow-riddled near-death was certainly divine retribution for his evil acts, Tajomaru turns on him with ferocity and relates his own version of the events in question: “It was this Tajomaru who killed that man,” he admits freely, but – in a daring legal gambit – blames his actions on a previously-unmentioned “cool breeze.”

rashomon_TJtestify2

FLASHBACK LEVEL II: IN THE FOREST

We know we’re entering a deeper level of flashback now, because of the ghostly wind chimes on the soundtrack. Not to belabor the point, but this is Rashomon, folks: The following flashback is entirely subjective. There is no guarantee that what we’re seeing is the, you know, “truth.” That’s the whole point! It’s Rashomon, dawg!

So Tajomaru, who I will hereafter call TJ, is sleeping in the forest when Rich Guy and his Beautiful Wife pass by. “I thought I saw a goddess… My intention then was to take her without killing the man,” he testifies, though he allows that he was willing to kill her husband if he wasn’t amenable to a friendly transfer of ownership.

TJ concocts a tale about a buried stash of swords and mirrors, which he could let Rich Guy have at a reasonable price, but of course they’re in a secluded spot over the mountain… ah yes, the old “stash of buried swords and mirrors” routine.

Once there, TJ ambushes Rich Guy and heads back to claim Beautiful Wife. Angered by her childlike response, TJ takes her back to see Rich Guy, now tied to a tree and fuming impotently. “These thoughts that weren’t there before filled my head!” he announces to the shocked jurors (momentarily back in FLASHBACK LEVEL I).

On their run through the forest, Beautiful Wife drops her hat. A hat, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, which was later found by an old man looking for firewood! I rest my case!

There is some tusslin’, and suddenly Beautiful Wife produces a short sword or a long-ish knife. “I had never seen such ferociousness in a woman!” exclaims TJ.

As a side note, what is with the Japanese custom of women airbrushing on fake eyebrows halfway up their foreheads? It’s hard for me to believe that nobody ever said, “you know, this looks ridiculous.”

Anyway, the swordfight descends, as it often does, into passionate smooching.

The apparently-at-least-mostly-consensual (in this version, anyway) sex that follows is implied, but not shown. Sated, TJ stalks off into the jungle, but Beautiful (and adulterous) Wife is clingy like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Sean Young in real life.

“Having my shame known to two men is worse than death!” She therefore proposes that the two men fight to the death; survivor gets the wife! Second prize? Set of steak knives. Third prize? You’re fired.

This is semi-agreeable to both men, who square off in a clearing.

TJ is at a clear advantage, because he is played by Toshiro Mifune. Rich Guy meets his unceremonious end in a shrubbery, a sword in his sternum. “I had to kill him,” TJ explains (back in FLASHBACK LEVEL I), “but I wanted to do it honorably. We crossed swords 23 times!”

23? Anyone here read the Illuminati books? Listen to the Posies?

After he went through all that trouble of killing her husband, however, Beautiful Wife ran off in the woods. “I was attracted to her fierce spirit,” he laments, “but, after all, she was just like other women.” So true, sexist bandit, so true.

TJ concludes his testimony by kicking at the sand and laughing crazily, which rarely goes over well with jurors.

REAL TIME: CITY GATE IN THE RAIN

Back at the gate, New Guy opines that the story sounds plausible, since TJ is a known “womanizer,” which, in this context, apparently translates as “rapist/murderer.”

Young Priest notes that Beautiful Wife also testified at the trial, but her testimony did not jive with that given by the bandit.

“All lies!” pronounces Old Guy vehemently.

“It’s because men are weak that they lie, even to themselves,” responds Young Priest.

“I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining,” observes New Guy, because he is an irreverent commoner.

Now we hear Beautiful Wife’s version…

FLASHBACK LEVEL II: IN THE FOREST

Hmm. Well, according to Beautiful Wife, she never gave herself willingly to TJ; it was straight-up rape. After the rape, TJ does his trademark “crazy laugh” and disappears into the forest. Beautiful Wife rushes to her husband and begs for his forgiveness (how dare she get herself raped?), but he only looks at her with an ugly grimace of contempt.

“Beat me, kill me, but don’t look at me like that!” she pleads tearfully, her bizarrely misplaced eyebrows knitted in shame and terror. Still, the stink-eye continues.

In the kind of fatal hysteria that I have only seen in Japanese films, Beautiful Wife hands the dagger to her husband and begs him to kill her. He only stares at her with slightly more contempt than previously.

Driven half out of her gourd by Rich Guy’s silence, Beautiful Wife does what any woman would do under the circumstances: She rams the dagger into her husband’s heart, killing him instantly.

“What should a poor, helpless woman like me do?” she asks the court.

Apart from the unspoken, “try to refrain from stabbing your husband in the heart, for starters” no answer is forthcoming.

REAL TIME: CITY GATE IN THE RAIN

“The more I hear, the more confused I get,” admits New Guy. “But women use their tears to fool everyone. They even fool themselves. So you have to beware of the woman’s story.”

“When you hear the dead man’s story…” begins Young Priest.

Wha? Now the two men would have us believe that the murder victim testified at his own trial? Impossible, I tell you!

FLASHBACK LEVEL I: THE TRIAL

In a trance, Creepy Witch Lady channels the spirit of the dead man.

“I am suffering in the darkness,” he complains, in a traditionally spooky voice. I’m trying to listen to what she’s saying, but I am distracted once again by the anatomically incorrect eyebrow smudges. What is up with that? They don’t even look like eyebrows, come to think of it. If the entire forehead area was the underside of a nose, those eyebrow-smudges could be the nostrils. Who thought this was a good idea?

Oh, and guess what? Rich-Guy-via-Witch-Lady’s story contradicts the other two! According to him, TJ wasn’t such a bad guy, apart from the raping. He even comforted Beautiful Wife afterward, and chose to spare Rich Guy’s life… right up until Beautiful Wife begged TJ to kill him, that is.

TJ demurs, but instead offers to kill Beautiful Wife, who cannot be trusted. She flees, TJ frees Rich Guy, TJ leaves, Rich Guy commits suicide, consumed by grief, shame, and revulsion.

“I lay there in the stillness,” continues Rich-Guy-via-Witch-Lady. “Then someone quietly approached me. That someone gently withdrew the dagger from my heart.”

REAL TIME: CITY GATE IN THE RAIN

“There was no dagger; only a sword!” exclaims Old Guy, inadvertently revealing that he saw the whole thing! And stole the dagger!

FLASHBACK LEVEL II: IN THE FOREST

Old Guy saw TJ apologizing to Beautiful Wife for the whole “rape” unpleasantness, and begging her to marry him. “If you say no, I have no choice but to kill you!” he shouts, as an added incentive.

TJ challenges Rich Guy to a duel for the hand (ownership) of Beautiful Wife, but Rich Guy declines.

“I don’t want this shameless whore!” he proclaims angrily. “You can have her!”

Now that TJ has had a minute to think about it, he’s not so keen on the idea of a wife tagging along, so he heads off into the jungle alone. Beautiful Wife, at the end of her rope, denounces both men for their weakness.

The two men begin a half-hearted duel while Beautiful Wife cackles.

Assuming this is the “true” story… wow, neither of these guys can handle a sword for shit. Trembling, they charge, trip, retreat, pant, trip again, and generally flail in the dirt like nincompoops. This is, bar none, the worst cinematic sword fight I have ever seen. Now they are crawling through the leaves, grabbing at each other’s legs. Oh, this is just depressing. A little more Errol Flynn, little less Adam Sandler, please.

I suppose you could call it a fair fight, and Rich Guy ends up dead in a shrubbery, but Beautiful Wife is now suffering from a little post-widowhood/pre-nuptial cold feet, and she runs away.

REAL TIME: CITY GATE IN THE RAIN

New Guy scoffs, but Old Guy insists that he tells the truth.

“If men don’t trust each other,” laments Young Priest, “this earth might as well be hell!”

New Guy agrees: “This world is hell… In the end, you cannot understand the things that men do.”

There are some last-minute twists which I’ll let you discover for yourself. In the end, the rain stops, Young Priest manages to retain his faith in humanity, and Old Guy sums up What We’ve Learned:

“I don’t understand my own soul.”

What I Liked

The cinematography is beautiful: the dense, sun-dappled forest; the astoundingly fluid tracking shots; the direct shots of the sun through the branches; the rain cascading off the roof of the broken city gate; the austere and perfectly composed scenes of the trial. All technically astounding for 1951, and gorgeously immersive.

Apart from a few examples of the stylized scenery-devouring common to this period of Japanese cinema, the performances are uniformly excellent. The multiple depictions of each character seem like believable shadings of motivation and perspective, and never seem unbelievably contradictory (to me).

The bizarre scene where the dead man testifies at his own murder trial is genuinely creepy and unsettling.

The possibly un-trustworthy narrators, shifting perspectives, double-flashbacks, and the trio of strangers commenting on the action all combine to make a simple tale much richer and more compelling.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Machiko Kyo’s frequent hysteria grated on my nerves.

The final act twists, which I promised not to reveal in my synopsis above, seemed tacked-on. To end with Old Guy’s proclamation that “I don’t understand my own soul” would have been much more appropriate and satisfying, methinks. Apparently, when it was first released in the U.S., film critics from Time and the New Republic had the same complaint. Notably, the short story In a Grove did not contain the hopeful ending.

Also notable: Kurosawa had intended for a dark cloud to cover the sun in the final shot, indicating that, despite the momentary display of altruism… evil lurks in the hearts of men! Or something! Unfortunately, the hoped-for dark cloud did not materialize, and they had to finish the film, so he said the hell with it and shot the final scene with the sun shining brightly. Clearly, he also had misgivings about the abrupt last-act change of mood.

I have to admit, though, the moment when Old Guy offered to adopt the abandoned baby did make me tear up a bit.

Oops!

Should You See It?

There’s a great moment on The Simpsons where Homer claims not to like anything Japanese.

“But dad, you liked Rashomon,” replies Lisa.

“That’s not the way I remember it…”

See, if you never watch Rashomon, you’ll never really get that joke! So, right off the bat: Rashomon has become a reference point, a shorthand allusion to the post-modern view that all truth is subjective. For that reason alone, you should see it.

Lucky for you, it’s also got plenty of action, some implied sex, lots of angry shrieking, a spooky ghost, exciting courtroom drama, and some last-minute Perry Mason reveals. There’s even a light dusting of Three Men and a Baby near the end for added flavor.

Apart from being a landmark in world cinema and an important cultural touchstone, Rashomon is an exciting, entertaining movie.

Yes, you should definitely see it.

Next: Richard III

4 Comments

  1. I just watched this last night. I realize this is an old discussion, but I figgered I’d add my own 2 cents anyway.

    In regards to “What’s up with the baby?”: the baby is a sign of humanity’s ironic nature. All of the characters are wretched people whose stories try to shore up the not-so-obvious honor behind their actions. The woodcutter is no different from the rest of them. Even the baby will grow up to be the same. Yet the woodcutter is still capable of great compassion and mercy, just like the rest of us are.

  2. Rashomon

  3. I hesitate to write much about Rashomon. See, I appreciated Rashomon and understand why it is considered a classic. However, I really didn’t enjoy it, which is a different thing entirely.

    So, I will comment instead on Kurosawa’s lesser known remake of Brian’s Song.

    The transposition of cultures was still interesting, but Kurosawa focused on the generational gap issues as opposed to the racial divide of the source material.

    Using the ever amazing Takashi Shimura as an older player facing a life threatening illness was a bit of a reach, but Shimura pulls off the subtlety needed to keep this film grounded in the friendship between himself and the younger Toshiro Mifune. Both men were really past the appropriate age for their roles, but Kurosawa’s ability with a camera kept this from being quite as cringe worthy as moments in The Natural. Shimura’s “Brian” knew he was never the player Mifune’s “Gale” represented and yet shows more mentoring than jealousy as his time comes ever so close to an end.

    At least, that’s how I remember it.

  4. In High School we did a production of “Charley’s Aunt” and I was the star. Not only was I the star – I was the Big Man on Campus. I threw for 300 yards in one football game, had sex with 6 of the 8 cheerleaders, sang lead for the band “Fifi,” got straight A’s, was Prom King and saved the entire Freshman class from drowning in a freak McDonalds Orange Drink accident.

    Obviously 99% of what I wrote above is an outright lie. The only “truth” to the story is that I was in “Charley’s Aunt” and I had a mid-sized (although very important) part. Everything else? Bullshit to the highest order.

    Today’s film is “Rashomon” a film about telling lies. Or…telling different versions of the same story. This has since been used in other films and, of course, televisions shows. If you’ve got a slick little device like this and good actors at your disposal, why WOULDN’T you have them talk to the camera about whatever story you’ve created.

    Oh, the story here? Well, seems a Buddhist Priest has gone a wandering with an axe only to find a dead body in the forest. He found a number of clues at the scene of the crime and brought it to the authorities. In his interview he tells what happened.

    Well…soon there’s a man on trial for the killing and he tells what happened. Then the wife of the man killed tells what happened (this is all told to unseen judges and we never hear the questions). Then they even have the killed man speak about what happened (through a Medium) and all the stories criss-cross and have elements of truth (like my story above) but who is telling the TRUTH!?

    We only find out later in the film that our initial wood-chopping priest actually saw the murder happen and he tells what has gone on but…still…is it the truth???

    Finally the three main characters we’ve been following from the beginning (hanging out in a dilapidated temple (Rashomon of the title) discuss the issues at hand. A baby shows up (Was it the woman’s? If so, why didn’t she mention it?) and some humanity is once again brought to bear. Hope is given and the film ends.

    WHAT I LIKED!

    This film was very intriguing on a number of levels. The acting (especially by the “villain” Mifune) is quite over-the-top. The interweaving storylines kept me enraptured and there is a lot (and I mean A LOT) of camera movement. Almost hand-held in its style.

    The music was particularly good, too.

    WHAT I DISLIKED!

    If I have any quibbles – it’s the acting by some of the actors (see Mifune) and the lack of any real clarification on what ACTUALLY happened. I guess that’s probably Kurosawa’s point is that we never actually know what truthfully happened (even in our own lives)…but I was waiting for a bit more clarification.

    And what’s up with the baby?

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Fascinating film. I can see why it’s a classic and extremely influential.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.