Rashomon (Rashômon) analysis
The present text, published in a bilingual version, contextualizes Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, emphasizing the historical events that marked its realization and the impact it had on viewers inside and outside the Japanese country. Also, it studies the figure of its director through its references and its methods of expression, as well as the filmic forms that make up Rashomon; It is these that convey a message as ambiguous as it is transcendent, which talks about the truth and questions it.
Rashomon, the biggest entrance door of the Japanese city of Kyoto. 12th century. A Buddhist priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takhasi Shimura) look thoughtful the great downpour. They are shocked. Recently, a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and a damsel (Masako Kanazawa) were walking by the Woods when suddenly a fugitive (Toshiro Mifune) seizes them. Because of this meeting, the samurai dies, and the woman is rapped. By the morning, the woodcutter and the priest assist to the trial as witnesses (both of them saw the people involved before and after the events), and besides they observe the testimonies of the three implicated (including the samurai one thanks to a medium). None of these helps to clear up the episode because they were full of contradictions. From this premise, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) develops a time-fragmented picture that uses the whodunit genre typical question to express a suggestive message about truth and the divergences of the perception before an objective reality. Sublimely, story and mise-en-scène complement each other to create a film that has not lose any relevance.
1. About its context
In 1950, Akira Kurosawa already had a portfolio full of great films, as Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshiro, 1945), Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi, 1948) or Stray Dog (Nora Inu, 1949). Nevertheless, Rashomon (Rashômon, 1950) achieved something extraordinary in Japanese film industry. The movie was the key that opened the gates to the Japanese cinematography, in general, and to Kurosawa, in particular, of the worldwide theatres. The period film (jidai-geki) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and the Oscar award for Best International Feature Film at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. Thanks to these merits, the Japanese films began to be well seen outside Japan by both audience and critics. Rashomon cleared the path, and during the 1950s other movies of Kurosawa, as Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai, 1954), and of other respected Nippon director as Kenji Mizoguchi —with The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1953), Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954)— increased the global reputation of Japanese movies (tho, 2018: 3). After Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa filmed astonishing pictures that turned into classics because of its originality and technical skill. In 2012, Sight & Sound magazine included in its ranking of best movies of all time three of his works: Rashomon, To Live (Ikiru, 1952) and Seven Samurais. That important was the influence of Kurosawa that some of his films were used to create alternate versions. For example, The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964) is an American copy of Rashomon; A Fistfull of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, Sergio Leone, 1964) had legal problems due to its similarities with Yojimbo (Yôjinbô, 1961); Seven Samurais was turned into an American picture named The Magnificient Seven (John Sturges, 1960). According to Martin Scorsese, «Kurosawa was my master and so many others».
On the authority of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (2019: 220-222), after the Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the Japanese film industry came back as one the most important around the world. Despite the vertical integration of the main studios —Shochiki, Nikkatsu, and Toho (in 1934)— the producers gave progressively more freedom to the directors. They thought that a specialization and a stylistic differentiation would provide the movies a bigger added value than a thematic and formal obligation. Therefore, in the next decades authors like Ozu, Mizoguchi and eventually Kurosawa had the chance to create a personal aesthetic, recognisable nowadays with great admiration. In the case of Rashomon, the mentioned differentiation is clear. As to the theme, the film is considered a jidai-geki. This genre mainly represents stories based on «swordfights, chases, and heroic deaths» (Bordwell & Thompson, 2019: 220). Despite it is true that during 1930s and 1940s this genre passed by a sophistication process —looking for more psychological plots— thanks to the energy of the new filmmakers, none film achieved the formal and thematic complexity of Rashomon. It tried with temporal fragmentation and flashback as few had done before. This break of the chronology provoked that the movie were described as confusing and ambiguous. In Japan, some people referred to the picture as a B-movie because of being «bombastic, incomprehensible, and unrealistic» (Centeno, 2018: 4). David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (2019) blamed the exaggerated traditions that these jidai-geki show for the lack of interest of the Nippon audience. This exaggeration complicates the Japanese to feel identified with that movies. Nevertheless, in USA and others occidental countries that exoticism was received with devotion. To Centeno Martín (2018: 4), that situation was caused by the policy of the Japanese studio system, focused on surprising the foreign audiences with exotic images of a remote country. Daiei studios, in authority for Rashomon, was obligated to assume this behaviour because it was not vertically integrated, unlike the other great studios. This issue complicated so much the promotion and distribution inside the Nippon territory. According to Masaichi Nagata, then president of Daiei, «the ideal solution to Japanese Cinema is conquering the American market» (Centeno, 2018: 4).
2. An interdisciplinary regard
Art is a configurated regard. To Carl Einstein, it is the filmmaker’s eye that shows the personal interpretation of his worries. «The reason of the art are not the objects, but the configurated regard» (Einstein, 2008: 30). That configuration, as stated by Kurosawa, comes from the memory. «You can’t create unless you have something inside yourself». The memory of the Japanese is influenced by the knowledge he has acquired from painting artists, as Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Maurice de Vlamninck, Grosz and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Prince, 1991: 18). Beside painting influences, Kurosawa has also adapted from the literature. Some of his films are adaptations of works from Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Rashomon), Fiódor Dostoievski (The Idiot) or Vladimir Arséniev (Dersú Úzala). What is more, his productions show a vast concern of the cinematographic technique and the different ways of representation applied by each film industry. He studied the American model —watching John Ford movies, mainly—, but also other ways of filmmaking as the developed in Russian Cinema or German Expressionism. However, according to Aarón Rodríguez (2018: 154-155), «his writing was more based on an intelligent understanding of the so-called Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR) than an exhibitionist aesthetic. Without dropping the beauty in his films, Kurosawa creates the framing and the bodies always for the good of the narration». That understanding does not mean reproduction. Usually, the director of Rashomon introduces in his works enunciative marks to break the common “transparency” of the IMR. For example, the slowing down of the execution scenes in Seven Samurais with the aim of praising the moment [see Fig.1]. In Rashomon, the construction of the space by using analytic cut responds to the desire of Kurosawa to express the ambiguity and oneirism that characterise the events of the movie [see Fig.2]. That technique looks more like the unorthodox montage of The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1925) than Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916), epitome of IMR.
Fig.1. Two frames of Seven Samurais in which the time is slowed down (left: 23:33′; right: 49:33′). Fig.2. The woodcutter of Rashomon walking by the woods (both: min. 8:10′).
3. The style of Rashomon
Occidental devotion in Rashomon was not a mere coincidence. The movie is full of innovative approaches and contains a message that project the work to the category of “classic of seventh art”.
One of the most transcendental aspects of the film is the multiple focus of its narration. The picture is constructed from subjective testimonies about objective facts: a murder and a rape [see Fig.3]. The statements of the people involved — the outlaw, the samurai and the damsel— agree on the facts but differ on the hints. That makes impossible that the judge could rule a clear sentence from as diverse declarations. To cases like this, the American anthropologist Karl G. Heider coined the term “Rashomon effect” , which is «the fact of how subjectivity leaves a mark in what the perception and observer’s memory are» (García Lozano, 2014). This subjectivity is accented even more if it’s taken into account that the objective facts are “doubly altered”, because the woodcutter and the priest tell the statements in the trial to the peasant. That is, the perception of both characters may be also adjusted.
Fig. 3. Outlaw (left), damsel (center) and médium of the samurai (right) stating before the judge.
The audience, as the judge affected by the Rashomon effect, is unable to clearly know the absolute truth of the incident. Because of that, the movie is raised as a work with an opened resolution to the main conflict —who is guilty? —, that feeds the reflection about the story and its projection along the film history. Aarón Rodríguez (2018) expose a counterpoint comparing the formal approach of Rashomon with the one in The Man Who Shot Liberty Balance (John Ford, 1962), and makes clear that Kurosawa was more a suggestive director than an explanatory one:
Meanwhile the great narrator/Ford “closes” the story showing the heroic act of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the great narrator/Kurosawa leaves opened the question about the crime, adopting a more complex position. In the first case, Ford’s decision provides a “meaning” and “basis” to the social act […] In the second one, the doubt and the silence live on (Rodríguez, 2018: 154-155).
Akira Kurosawa uses the mise-en-scène elements to visually distinguish the three timelines that take part on the movies (Bordwell & Thompson, 2019: 379-380). In the fragments developed at the door of Rashomon, the camera usually films the characters by profile shots. By doing this, Kurosawa hide part of the face of the actors and accents the state of mind of the woodcutter and the priest: they are devastated because of the lies listened during the trial. Besides, the disposition of the cast is done in depth, with the purpose of emphasise the size of the location. That place is also a differing element, given that the gate covered by the storm emerge as a monumental location. Furthermore, the lighting is composed in a low-key way to express the void of the characters [see Fig. 4].
Fig.4. Three frames of the events at the gates of Rashomon.
During the trial, place and shot —a POV shot of the judge— are always similar. As an exception, closed shots are used to emphasise the emotions, that come out because of the effort of remembering the tragic events [see Fig.5 right]. Again, Kurosawa uses deep focus and lighting in an audacious way. In the foreground, there is always a character exposing his version about the facts. In the background, the priest and the woodcutter listen carefully. What’s more, the director does a light separation between the foreground (in the shadow) and the background (in the light) [see Fig.5].
Fig. 5. Three frames of the trial.
The flashbacks in the woods use hard light to create shadows over the stage. This contrasted stage reflects the essence of Rashomon: the uncountable secrets that each character hides. Furthermore, this timeline presents more varied shots than the previous ones. Kurosawa mostly chooses closed shots and deep focus shots. The first type is used to acclaim the vital strain present in every moment. The second one puts the characters in relation with the space, which means that the contrasted lighting and the secrecy of the characters get linked. Besides, the deep focus shots allow the cast to move freely along the stage. For example, on several occasions an object is in the foreground and a character is in the background. Instead of cutting the take, Akira Kurosawa records the walk of the actor until he catches the object. This resource was already used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941) [see Fig.6].
Fig.6. Cfr. Rashomon (left) and Citizen Kane (right).
With respect to the internal rhythm, Álvarez Gómez (2018: 140) associates the formal part of Rashomon with a key of baroque painting: the intensification of the narrative time. Authors like Caravaggio were capable of accenting the narrative time by painting moments that involve «a form of extreme physical movement frozen in a brutal instant» (Goodwin, 2011: 28). The Denial of Saint Peter (1610) is a clear example of this technique [see Fig.7]. Applied to Kurosawa’s movies, this characteristic is significant in the detente and contraction of the scene time through the alternation of meditative and violent moments (Álvarez Gómez, 2018). This alternation is directly related with the purpose of the director of generating in the audience a feeling of anxiety and doubt. (Grandío. 2010: 90). In Rashomon, this resource is recognisable in the scenes in which the outlaw (Toshiro Mifune) appears. His ferocity and instability usually define the internal rhythm. For example, during the flashback told by Mifune contemplation and madness sublimely complement each other. The samurai and the bandit go running to the place in which the damsel is supposed to be [see Fig. 8 left]. In a given moment they slow down and look carefully the place [see Fig. 8 center]. The samurai overtakes the outlaw and when the first one lowers his guard the bandit suddenly jumps on him [see Fig. 8 right]. Speed, slowness y speed again. This pattern is repeated along the rest of the sequence and most of the flashbacks and shows how Kurosawa dominated the stage direction in his works.
Fig.8. Frames of the sequence in which the bandit jumps on the samurai.
An art that expresses spiritual needs and human hope plays an important role for the moral education (Andrei Tarkovski. 2013: 208).
Because of the multiple informative channels due to the expansion of Internet, it has become evident that having access to absolute truth is something imposible. The world of today —more than ever— a constant bombing of divergent speeches. Seventy years ago, Akira Kurosawa already talked about this situation in a period film, in which it was more common to tell a superficial story than exigent issues. Japan was not capable of rating the movie as it deserved. Nevertheless, the rest of the audiences did not the same. A lot of people esteemed the film for its original “formal trick”. However, that experiment was only a resource applied to effectively express a story full of subtextual hints. It is not just a movie about the trial because of a murder; it is an essay about human existence. The last sequence displays the inability of knowing the truth. «If you can not believe in people, world is hell», says the priest. His hope is trampled. Then, the characters listen the sobbing of a baby. Rapidly, they go to help him and two ways of thinking come into conflict: the one of the peasant, that wants to steal the dresses of the baby, and the one of the woodcutter, that wants to take care of the child. At the end of this dispute, the honesty impose its values because the woodcutter decides to take care of the baby together with the rest of his children [see Fig.9]. Akira Kurosawa believed in humanism. After clearing up that absolute truth is imposible to achieve, Kurosawa does not give up; after dignity, he leaves the future in charge of the good actions of mankind. The big mistery is beyond redemption, but the world can be saved yet.
[*] This article is one of the results of the Collaborative learning of film analysis in transnational and interuniversity environments project, developed in the academic year 2019/20 among the students of the subject Teoría e historia de los medios audiovisuales of the Degree in Media Communication (Grado en Comunicación Audiovisual, Facultad de Comunicación y Documentación, Universidad de Murcia) and the Japanese Studies Program of the BA Film and Media of the School of Arts of the Birkbeck Collage (University of London).
 Along 12th Century, the place suffered a big deterioration. It converted into a horrible location, concurred by thieves and fugitives.
 «Whodunit (Who’s done it?). It is a drama, a comedy or a thriller movie. Who is the killer? » (Truffaut, 2019: 378).
 See Akira Kurosawa: My Life in Cinema (Nagisa Oshima, 1993).
 Cited in Álvarez Gómez (2018).
 See The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree (Heider, 1988).
 Cited in Álvarez Gómez (2018).
- Referencias bibliográficas
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