Akira Kurosawa (黒沢 明 1910 – 1998) was a master of film craft, and one of the greatest directors of all time. He grew up in Tokyo watching silent films from around the world and going to see traditional and modern Japanese theatre. He became a painter, and in his 20s got into script writing, editing and then assisting with film direction. He was influenced by the democratic and humanist ideals emerging in the post-war period in Japan. He made over 30 films, some of which remain among the greatest known Japanese films in world cinema. Kurosawa was nicknamed ‘The Emperor’ in the Japanese film industry. It is part-compliment, part-criticism. He tended to ‘command’ all of the most essential elements in his films: from conditions upon actors to editing, scripts and cinematography. It is clear that his views on how a film should look and feel was key to its success. He surrounded himself with consummate actors, script writers, cinematographers, score writers and other technicians, many of whom worked with him on multiple films and generally spoke highly of him. But ‘lesser’ actors often felt harassed or that the conditions they worked in were harsh. But none of them seriously dispute his genius.
Kurosawa is perhaps the most accessible and most successful Japanese film makers in the history of cinema. His themes are often humanist in nature, shaped by a developing post-war consciousness, and utilising both traditional Japanese storytelling techniques and film devices and cinematographic symbolism common in Western films. In the post-war period, the expertise with which he incorporated these elements struck a chord with many. And though he made several samurai films – what might loosely be called action films – he constantly introduced the struggle of ideas in shaping individuals. As an audience, we move from a mass to the individual (a touch like an inverse of German expressionism in silent film). His earlier films were subject to both Japanese and US censorship, and different versions were often released in the US or Europe from what was shown in Japan. Despite these impositions, Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest directors of the 20th Century. Several of his films have been adapted into Western productions.
This is an ongoing multiple-part series of posts examining a number of his films and themes. Part 1 is by Robin Stevens, and it takes a look at one of Kurosawa’s earlier and most iconic films, Rashomon from 1950. Future posts will look at, among others, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Dersu Uzala and Ran.
Origins of Rashomon
Rashomon (羅生門 Rashōmon) is one of the greatest films of all time. But that’s just my opinion. Released in Japan in 1950, and in Europe and the US by the end of 1951, it received great acclaim and numerous honours. Kurosawa had been directing films for about 8 years by then, and had assisted direction for some years before that. He had become a master craftsman in film technique. Every detail was at its best: lighting, editing, musical score, top-rate scripts, actors portraying gritty realism, sweat and breathless speech included, the generous use of natural elements of rain, wind and dirt, and narratives laced with moral ambiguity, deception and truth. I fucking love him. He drew heavily on film technique from silent films, especially from the West, and from Japanese theatre.
Originally, Rashōmon was a traditional Noh play, written by Kanze Nobumitsu in the 15th century, and refers to a real Rajōmon (outer castle gate) located between Kyoto and Nara. However, Kanze changed the name slightly, replacing jō (castle) for shō (life). In the play, the traditional (Noh) waki character climbs the Rasho gate (Rashōmon) to determine the truth of a story about a demon. This traditional play is still performed in Noh theatres throughout Japan today (see below).
Akira Kurosawa took the name of the film from a collection of short stories Rashōmon (1922) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which continues the general theme of determining truth, but the basic narrative and characters are taken from Akutagawa’s In a Grove. In this story, three different accounts are given of the murder of a samurai. The complex and varied narratives compel the viewer to question their ability to reliably know objective truth through the accounts of others. This is a theme that Kurosawa pressed in the post-war period as a critique of pre-war Japanese nationalist ideals and of the post-war US occupation of Japan.
Rashomon was filmed over five and a half weeks and released in August 1950, just one week after shooting was completed. Kurosawa spent hours almost every night editing the scenes he had shot earlier each day. He was meticulous and somewhat obsessive, but typically was able to release films with limited time spent in post-production. Which is just as well, because his film budgets increased substantially after Rashomon – mainly from detailed set designs, and miles and miles of camera footage. The forest scenes, for example, are made up of dozens of small cuts from multiple cameras.
By 1954, Rashomon had won film awards in Japan, Europe (the Venice Film Festival), India and the US. But perhaps the greater reward came from numerous directors around the world who cite it as a landmark film of extraordinary power and technical skill. It accrued interest not only in his later films (and some earlier films), but in Japanese film more generally. On a technical level, Kurosawa loved silent films and saw numerous European and American films. He learned that there was something beautiful and affecting in conveying drama through visual performance. And it is evident in the film that he makes good use of animated bodies, stillness, and natural elements to convey emotion.
Like so many Kurosawa films it opens with a dramatic, ominous score by Fumio Hayasaka; the screen is filled with close-ups of the rashōmon (outer gate), lashed with pouring rain, gullying off the timber roof and spilling onto the sodden ground below. Like a traditional Japanese play, three men taking refuge under the gate open the narrative. One of them – the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) – tells a tale of great wickedness, just three days hence. The camera closes in on his tormented face, and then cuts back three days to when he was walking through the forest, with filtered sunlight flickering through the branches. Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ beats its slow winding rhythm. The film then cuts back and forth in time as different parts of the story are told. It soon becomes clear that following an awful murder in the forest and the arrest of a bandit, a local magistrate is holding a court to listen to the witness statements of those concerned. There are four witnesses: the bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the bride (Machiko Kyō), the woodcutter (Shimura) and the murdered samurai himself (Masayuki Mori), speaking through a medium. The differing accounts make for some interesting cinema; from noble duel to stumbling cowardice, betrayal, overt sexual attraction, jealousy and shame. The dialogue is nuanced, and the narration is central. It’s almost Shakespearean.
There are three main settings (a common device in traditional Japanese theatre): the rashōmon with dark skies and pouring rain; the well-lit courtyard of the magistrate, where witness statements are given; and the flickering light of the forest where the crime was committed. And this is key. The flashes of light and shadow in the forest symbolise ambiguity or contrasting stories. Interestingly, the same year this was released in the US, the film A Place in the Sun also used contrasting light to symbolise moral ambiguity (discussed in detail here). There is another element, which I think is common to traditional Japanese theatre: the three-section play is moderated by defined movement. The three sets in this film (for a brief moment, there is a fourth, where the bandit is captured) are detailed further below.
- Set 1 (the rashōmon) has three people who are mostly motionless; two are listening, and the woodcutter is speaking in hushed tones. The camera is mostly fixed in one position, but slowly pans in to bring the audience into a more intimate listening to the tale being told. The background is dark and unvaried.
- Set 2 (the magistrate’s courtyard): again, there are usually three or four people on screen at any one time, two motionless, listening to the witness speak in dramatic tones directly to camera (this is the point-of-view of the magistrate), sometimes with animated gestures. The camera is dead-centre and does not move. The background is light, plain and unvaried.
- Set 3 (the forest) is full of action, horror and sensuality. The camera moves slowly, then rapidly. It halts, it angles, it pans in and it pans out. The background is varied, and is speckled in light and shadow.
The cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa is exceptional, and is highlighted by the use of light: plain and neutral in sets 1 & 2 or complex in set 3. Kurosawa used multiple cameras in the forest scenes and filmed more footage than is usual and spent most nights editing enormous amounts of footage into complex but seamless streams of heart-racing drama. The musical score in set 3 is also very dramatic.
There are three main characters in each set, but Kurosawa uses a clever trick: in sets 1 and 2, the audience is the direct witness; in set 3 the woodcutter is the witness. Kurosawa suggests ‘truth’ through the perspective of the camera. This is a slight inversion of the three-set traditional Kabuki plays (as far as I understand it), but the film does frequent time lapses from one set to another. Another point perhaps worth mentioning, is that in sets 1 and 2, the motionless camera is a witness that the actors speak directly to. But in set 3, there is a complex cross-cut of shots, angles and perspectives. We are witnesses, but events unfold from more than one perspective. It is a remarkably clever device, and Kurosawa was an expert at utilising it.
Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyō
The entire cast is superb, but I single out the two leads: the rogue bandit Tajōmaru played by Toshiro Mifune and the new bride Masako played by Machiko Kyō. Mifune appeared in several of Kurosawa’s films, and is rightly considered a brilliant actor. His performance in this film is especially riveting. He has a naturalistic, animal-like presence on screen, with sweat, dirt, and emanating lust and cunning. Kurosawa had taken Mifune to see a lion in a zoo prior to filming and asked him to observe its movements; from lazing in the shade to stalking its prey. There’s no doubt that Mifune absorbed what he learned that day. Mifune’s flawed, on-the-edge anti-hero crusader can be seen in countless Western films. Think, Mel Gibson’s Mad Max, Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver or even Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Tortured souls looking for redemption…or death. But equally brilliant to Mifune’s consummate performance, and too often over-shadowed, is Machiko Kyō. She has to play four radically different versions of the new bride; from innocent abused victim to seductress to sinister betrayer to psychologically traumatised and demon-like provocateur. It is her character more than the others that is subject to the most varied perspectives (see images below). She is the central figure in the narrative; but she is not one person, she is four. Her performance of one persona to another is exceptional, and upon which so many viewers hinge their interpretation of who is the real bride.
The performance of Mifune and Kyō when they are together is either full of anxious dread or oozes sensuality, and must have been confronting for some 1950s audiences. The bandit is bedraggled, sweaty and unruly, while the bride is immaculate and serene, but ultimately, no matter what version of events is related, the bride is reduced to a distraught, ‘soiled’, and psychologically damaged soul.
The ‘Rashomon Effect’
The film is, in Kurosawa’s own view, about how self-interest colours the ability of humans to tell objective truth, and this theme is explored through the brutality of a rape. Not a rape and a murder, for the murder is a consequence of the rape. Kurosawa is clear, he says it is a film about rape. Which brings us to the ‘Rashomon Effect’.
In cinema and television, the ‘Rashomon Effect’ relates to a cinematic device of revealing the ‘truth’. However, the term is more commonly employed in academic circles and social activism. It is a far-ranging discourse, but in general relates to sexual assault of girls and women, and the difficulty in dealing with ‘truth’ when there are varying accounts of an incident. And more than that, a default position of blaming the victim; or some instances the victim blaming themselves. So-called ‘honour’ rapes, beatings and killings, especially in the context of socially sanctioned violence against women feature greatly in these discussions. We should remember that Rashomon is set in 11th Century Japan, where cultural concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ disguise the brutality of rape. This is a somewhat dark and deep subject to discuss in a film review; but then a pivotal part of the film is precisely about this subject.
So what the hell is going on here? There are four accounts of a rape and a murder. It is likely that none are entirely true or, to put it another way, all of them are partially true but are unreliable because they are filtered through self-interest. None of the four witnesses deny a rape occurred. The bandit says it was more like ‘forceful seduction’. He admits he is not entirely innocent but considers the woman (temptress) the bigger culprit. The samurai husband is appalled by the rape but is even more appalled by ‘her shame’ or the shame it brings upon himself. In the bride’s account, she says she was the victim to a brutal rape, but then she is horrified at the open contempt her husband shows her. She is ‘shamed’ in front of two men. The woodcutter might appear to have a reliable testimony, but actually he too is murky in the details. He says very little to the magistrate, but afterwards under the Rashōmon he recounts more details, with a sense of shame (for he likely stole the dagger that killed the samurai after the murder, but conceals this detail from his testimony). In this later account, he seems to acknowledge the rape and then says that the bride demanded the men fight and she would go with the victor.
A Post-War Critique
But there is more going on in this movie than at first it seems. I believe there are two critiques by Kurosawa on the screen. One is the concept of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ in Japanese culture as a seriously flawed but nonetheless defining characteristic of Japan’s perceived ‘golden age’ ideals. To be clear, he is not against samurai-conceived honour – he celebrates it in later films, but he dislikes the crude nationalistic manner in which it had taken hold in the pre-war years. The second, which is related to the first, is a critique of Japan’s ruling and pro-militarist elite in the build up to World War II, and the ‘passive witnesses’ (i.e. the Japanese people) that allowed it to unleash events that resulted in unparalleled suffering. The moral of the tale, is not so much about what version of the rape is true or even the fluid nature of truth, but rather what was the witnesses (the Japanese public) part during events.
The bride can be seen as an allegory for the Japanese people during the war and perhaps the post-war US occupation. They suffered greatly, but not just from an outside aggressor (US occupation = the bandit) but from Japan’s military leaders (‘noble samurai’) who should not have led them down a path so fraught with danger. But even more impacting is a sense of self-guilt that they (the people = the bride) allowed it to happen because they so willingly put faith in antiquated notions of honour and military prestige. Self-accusation is implied: though she suffers greatly from two men, the bride partly implicates herself in the death of her husband because she fainted and when she awoke he was dead, but the dagger is missing. That is the ‘Rashomon Effect’. But if we look deeper, perhaps a more searing critique that Kurosawa is bestowing is on the samurai (Japanese military elite), who considers that the bandit (US Devastation) did great wrong by brutally ravaging his wife (Japan) but forgives him and rather condemns his wife. Then, in his own account, commits some ‘honourable’ suicide (so institutionalised in Japan’s WWII armed forces in kamikaze warfare and acts of harakiri). That is, through his own folly puts his wife at risk, and then claims for himself some out-dated sense of ‘honour’ in suicide, and thereby continues to avoid all responsibility.
Or maybe I’m wrong. I don’t think it is entirely about raising questions of ‘truth’ but rather all the areas of grey in which so many take their part. Rashomon is an outstanding movie in film craft, but it has also raised serious questions about the Japanese consciousness of the time, and it continues to be cited around the world in contemporary debates about sexual violence. This film still causes many of us to rethink it time and time again. When it was released in Japan, Japanese film critics in general (many nationalist in orientation) did not like the film. But it struck a chord with the public, and was a commercial success.
A Return to Humanism
After all this violence, deceit and self-interest, the film ends with a sense of hope. Under the rashōmon, where the tale is being told, the three men hear a baby cry, and find it in a basket in a protected place. The woodcutter says he already has six children and one more mouth to feed will not make much difference. The scene ends as the woodcutter walks away cradling the small baby. The sun is shining. Was his own self-interest in relating a selective account purely selfish?
Kurosawa drew heavily from Japanese theatre (Noh and Kabuki styles), and like many traditional Japanese plays, Rashomon is meticulous in style, movement and stillness. It has contrast in sound and light, and the three-piece set and narrative-style is delivered almost stage-like to the audience, who are witnesses to the events. Rashomon is not only a brilliant film, deserving of multiple viewings, it is also a wonderful homage to a long tradition in Japanese story telling.