Saturday, August 13, 2016

Classic Cinema: Rashōmon (1950)

It was only a matter of time before I got into an Akira Kurosawa movie for this classic film blog, and mark my words; this will certainly not be the last (as The Hidden Fortress, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and many others will likely reach this blog someday). There is no simple way to describe the impact that Akira Kurosawa's directing had on the world (let alone all of Japan). A large amount of the movies and TV shows you enjoy today actually exist due to said influence. Whether it's through plot direction or film technique, you can usually find Kurosawa's name at the end of the rainbow. As with my previous entry, I'll be using this post to describe both the chosen movie, and what makes it so historically relevant. The film I've chosen to discuss for this blog is Rashōmon, the first movie of Kurosawa's to reach international acclaim, including the United States after its release in 1950. It was based on a short story called "In The Grove."

Rashōmon tells the story of multiple characters involved in a murder scene. Each person involved (a samurai, his wife, a bandit named Tajōmaru, and a woodcutter) tells their version of the story to the court. But there lies a grave issue: each account of what happened is completely different from the last! Just as you believe you are finally getting to the bottom of the story, you hear another person tell a tale that completely contradicts the previous one.

The movie begins with a woodcutter and a priest, sitting under the Rashōmon city gate and waiting for a heavy rain to pass. Another man comes out of the rain to join them, and tries to determine why the two look so perplexed. They each begin to explain of horrible events to which they are still trying to make sense of. The woodcutter then begins to tell his story, oh how he was walking through a forest with an axe in hand. After many careful and interesting camera maneuvers to make us truly feel isolated in this forest with him, he spots a dead body and immediately runs away in fear, before telling the courts of what he saw. Or at least, that's what we're lead to believe...

The first account we hear of is that of Tajōmaru (the bandit), who saw a samurai man and his wife travelling by, and immediately fell for the woman after gazing at her. He advised he laid out a trap to lure the man away, in order to steal his wife and avoid having to kill the man. He tied up the samurai and led his wife to them, where she was allegedly "seduced" by the bandit. The wife then demanded that one of them must die, so that she would not have to live with the shame of two men knowing of her "dishonor." The bandit's plan obviously went sour by this point, resulting in the two of them having to sword fight, and the wife running away without a trace after also trying to fight back with a dagger. The bandit claimed responsibility for killing the samurai and raping his wife.

We then hear the story from the samurai's wife, and the movie officially gets more confusing from this point forward. Her story contradicts the bandit's in many ways, with the sole exception of the samurai being killed. She states that after the bandit raped her, he left temporarily. Her husband simply stared at her coldly, and when she freed him and begged him to kill her in order to no longer live with the shame, he simply continued to stare. She claimed to be so disturbed by this, that she fainted, only to wake up and find her husband dead. Her dagger was found in his chest, leading us to now believe that she killed the samurai.

To make things even more peculiar, we then hear the story of the deceased samurai. How? Well, a medium is performed, in order to allow the dead samurai to speak on his behalf. For those who don't know, a medium is a practice that is performed in order for people to communicate or mediate with the dead. This process is almost casually used in order for us to hear of the samurai's account. Once again, we hear a completely different story. After Tajōmaru raped the samurai's wife, he asked her to come with him. She agreed, but only on the premise that he killed her husband, so that she would not have to live with the shame of having been with two men. Tajōmaru was shocked by this request and hesitated for a bit, before grabbing the wife, and giving the samurai a choice: either he lets her go or kills her. The samurai responded with the now famous line "For these words alone, I was ready to pardon his crime." The wife ran away, and the bandit followed with chase. He eventually gave up and came back to the samurai, setting him free. The samurai then killed himself with the dagger mentioned in the bandit's account of the story. The dagger was also apparently removed from his chest by someone else afterward.

We now return to the Rashōmon gate, with the three men pondering over this peculiar situation. The woodcutter begins to lose patience and shouts that all three stories are incorrect. He then reveals that he did indeed see the whole thing, but didn't want to get involved.

In the woodcutter's account of the story, Tajōmaru had tied up the samurai and begged his wife to join and marry him. She instead proceeded to freeing her husband. In a strange twist, the samurai refused to fight Tajōmaru, saying that he had no desire to risk his life for her. The wife chastised them both, saying they were not real men, and heavily pressured both of them into fighting. Both men were completely scared, but eventually began fighting. The fight, according to the woodcutter, was far more imbalanced and messy. They were extremely nervous, making careless swings and rolling around constantly. The fight resulted in Tajōmaru winning by a stroke of luck, though it could have easily gone the other way. The samurai begged for his life before Tajōmaru finished him off, and the wife ran away in fear.

The discussion between the three men is interrupted by the sudden sound of a baby crying. They run to the other side of the gate and find it there, with a kimono and amulet. The visiting man takes the kimono and amulet, receiving criticism from the woodcutter for stealing from an abandoned baby. The commoner immediately hits back, revealing that he figured out the missing dagger was in fact stolen by the woodcutter, and that he was "a bandit calling another a bandit." He leaves the woodcutter and priest, saying that all men are motivated by self-interest, and nothing more.

In the final moments of the film, the priest loses just about all hope for humanity. The woodcutter reaches for the baby, before the priest pulls back out of suspicion. The woodcutter explains to the priest that he already has six children, and that one more wouldn't be a big deal to him. At this moment, the priest then realizes that the woodcutter stole the dagger in order to help provide for his family. He advises that his faith in humanity is restored again, and hands the baby to the woodcutter. The rain finally stops and the woodcutter walks home with his new child in hand.

Although it may not be clear in my description of the film above; this movie does not actually contain a large amount of dialogue. The filming was meant to carry the story along just as much, if not more than the dialogue that complimented it. Kurosawa was heavily influenced by silent films, and it shows here. Many would argue that taking the minimalist approach to filming actually increased the impact of this story, rather than hindering it. There were no expensive set pieces to be seen; just forest, the Rashōmon gate, and the courts (of which we never actually heard the judges speak at any point).

Filming technique has always been a strong part of Kurosawa's magic, and this is great movie to point it out with. Kurosawa was said to be one of (if not the) first directors to point the camera straight at the sun to craft a scene with. Every shot taken in the forest is made to give us the feeling that we're truly in a wide-open area, while still making us uneasy; as if we are being watched at the same time.

What of course makes this story interesting more than any other factor, is the conflicting perspectives of the people telling their accounts of the story. Even after hearing the woodcutter's version of the situation, we are never really told if any of these accounts were right or wrong. Some may have been completely right, completely wrong, or partially right, and we'll honestly never know. That is left for the viewer to surmise on their own, and to this day, there is no real answer. I watched an informative interview with Robert Altman (of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, MASH, Nashville, and numerous others), who described another important aspect this movie had on future films. He pointed out that up to that point, we simply told ourselves to believe everything we saw onscreen. This film simply threw that concept out the window, and left us completely vulnerable and confused.

Have you ever seen a movie or TV show, in which the characters involved are trying to resolve some type of mystery by describing conflicting accounts of a situation? Rashōmon is the reason this type of storytelling even exists in film, and yet, the movie still makes it feel like a fresh concept, even now. It is such an iconic film, that the term " Rashōmon effect" is actually used to describe this very concept today.

It's easy to recommend Akira Kurosawa's works to film-lovers or those aspiring to get into classic cinema, but naming which films are the most essential can sometimes be a bit more difficult for enthusiasts. I can say with full confidence that this is not one of those cases however, as it universally seen as one of the most important works to come out of one of the most important directors in film history. In future blogs, I will be happy to talk more about Kurosawa's continued inspiration on Western cinema.

Stay tuned for the next blog entry, where we'll be taking things back a bit and going into one of my other favorite directors of all time, Fritz Lang, and his classic silent film, Metropolis.

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