Akria Kurosawa: Rashomon (1950) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10Aug/120

Akria Kurosawa: Rashomon (1950)

This is the Toshiro Mifune I know — a sweaty, bearded maniac kicking his feet in the air and laughing like he's choking to death. In a way, that sums up my entire reaction to rewatching Rashomon — it's the Akira Kurosawa I know and recognize from before we started this project. Simpler, more interesting on a classic cinematic level, and less directly political than some of the post-war films we've seen lately, this is like a pallet cleanser going into the next chain of movies. Rashomon is pure storytelling, with the visuals doing most of the heavy lifting and a basic plot that makes use of clearly defined archetypes and classic conflicts.

Even though it's the Kurosawa I'm more familiar with, the contrast between Rashomon and the last few movies makes this one come across as a blast of fresh air. Especially when contrasted with the more classic Hollywood style of storytelling in Scandal, the subtle but revolutionary techniques on display here seem all the more profound. How he utilizes natural light, shooting through leaves and foliage which obscure the actors, adjusting the length of shots to correspond with the mood and action — these things have been talked about to death and now seem obvious and commonplace, but taken as the next step following the glimpses of visual playfulness we've seen in films like No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, and Stray Dog, it's easy to see why Rashomon made such a lasting impression on international cinema.

One of the reasons the movie works as well as it does is that it's so direct. The setup is as simple as it can possibly be, and nearly all of the movie could be played without dialogue without losing much in the way of effect. In fact, the only portions that require dialogue to really succeed are those involving the two storytellers — a woodcutter and a monk — and the commoner listening to their tale under the gate from which the movie takes its name. It's fitting then that the various versions of these tales play more as expressionistic sketches than literal reenactments of the events being related.More fitting still is how this directly functions to pull the viewer into the movie's struggle with absolute truth vs. one's personal interpretation of events. We don't know going in that all the key players involved are going to have radically differing accounts of the events in question, so by the time we're hearing the third and fourth versions, we're forced into the same quandary as the monk and the woodcutter, trying to reconcile everything we think we know in order to “figure it out,” when in fact there is no possible logical resolution — only an emotional one. In a way, Rashomon pre-figures David Lynch at his best, minus the nightmarish quality and the Twin Peaks midget that shows up everywhere.

More interesting — and something I think many other movies, TV shows, and stories that have tried to emulate Rashomon have missed — is that the only real thing we can be sure of across all the versions of the story is that everyone is guilty. This tendency to implicate oneself in a retelling of events is in line with the post-war tension and criticism running through the past several films of Kurosawa's, but here he roots it in human nature itself as opposed to specific events in contemporary culture.

In this way Rashomon is more timeless and universal than some of the films that have preceded it, but it also makes it seem curiously simple in the context of our project. That's not a bad thing, certainly, but it had a weird effect on me trying to respond to it. Maybe it's just that people have been talking about this movie for 60 years and it's hard to say anything new; maybe it’s that this being the first time Kurosawa's seemed in full command of his visual storytelling — though I think he's in full command during No Regrets for Our Youth, he's just doing things differently at that stage — but I almost feel like there's less to analyze here on a formal level. Getting into the psychological issues at play, that's a different story entirely. Maybe you can offer up a more coherent response than I.I’ll be able to offer coherency but not that much excitement.

This is the third time I’ve watched Rashomon in as many years and with each viewing I find that I like the film a little less but admire the technique a little more.  The first time I watched it I was going through Kurosawa’s filmography in reverse, just to try something different, and found it to be an entertaining film treading philosophical territory I had become well versed in.

The second time I watched it the idiosyncrasies of the various performances stuck with me a lot more.  Toshiro Mifune’s is the obvious choice for analysis because he has so much to do and a wide tapestry to draw from in the screenplay.  I love that he plays a variant on the monkey trickster in his own version of what happened, and grows strangely nobler in the other two tales.

This time, with the previous films freshly in my mind, it seems less that this is the film Kurosawa was building up to and more the film made with what resources and experience he had.  The movie that was most present in my mind was The Men Who Tread on Tiger’s Tail.  That film also featured a haunting spiritual component, minimal sets, and a questioning of the role of narrative in our lives.  Rashomon just makes the question of, “What does the story of our lives mean?” at the forefront instead of concealing it in a metaphor.

All this makes the directness of Rashomon simultaneously refreshing and a bit boring.  When I initially watched the film I just saw another example of his lean filmmaking in action.  There’s not a single shot or line of dialogue uttered in Rashomon that serves any purpose other than to drive what the purpose of any narrative, and by extension life, is.  The statement at the beginning of the film, “I don’t understand,” leads directly into a seemingly senseless murder that none of the participants can force understanding onto.  All the while Kurosawa allows the weather to play with our perception of their stories.Instead of manufacturing weather conditions on a set he, as you said, primarily filmed with natural light and waited for nature to help him cast as much doubt on the story as possible.  We see shadow so much in the bandit’s story because he still sees himself as the filthy outsider.  The sun is overpowering in the samurai’s tale because his reflection is still that of a noble paragon.  The weather is as misleading as any of the other characters, and the sudden ending of the storm that surrounds the woodcutter is another sign that we may not be able to believe anything (keep in mind, we’re getting everyone else’s perspective from his.)

What I find boring about the film is that I was well versed in the literary tenants of modernism and this time, with TMWToTT so fresh in my mind, it feels as though his stance of “Make it new” was to make it unlike other Japanese films.  We know, what with the hindsight of history and all, that he’ll eventually go back to a more languid film style down the road.  But Rashomon, framing it against other Japanese directors, is a blast of “New” while still keeping in line the modernist tradition of questioning the value of any narrative.

Part of this lied in the necessity of its production on a slashed budget and with less resources, again a callback to the conditions under TMWToTT.  So looking at Rashomon now it fits in with a film cycle he had already established (several budgeted feature films ending in a flop, following with a low key drama) and ideas I have seen elsewhere but put openly on display here.  The arrival of a film like Rashomon is not a surprise, well-crafted though the film is, given Kurosawa’s filmmaking pattern and well versed aversion to any overarching narrative.

There are things I absolutely love about it, especially the medium scene with the murky, echoing voice of the samurai, and I understand why the film as a whole is so well loved.  I just can’t help but feel that love is felt by people who exist in a bubble primarily fueled by film and little else about art history.

If you sense I'm being too harsh here feel free to reign me back a bit.I don't think you're being too harsh. It's a movie that's most interesting when considered in a context, either considering its position in film history and subsequent influence or in sequence with the other films we've discussed. That doesn't mean it doesn't work on its own, but it works as a solid, direct, smaller movie than its reputation would make it out to be.

What's most interesting to me is to see a perfect — if simple — combination of technical form and storytelling from Kurosawa, knowing that later films like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo will employ this same mastery to much more entertaining, effective, lasting result. The irony of Rashomon is that it's so straightforward in tackling such an incomprehensibly huge idea that it fails to manage any truly profound results. It could have handled a bit more complexity on an emotional level as opposed to just confusion in terms of the plot.

The level of craft in some scenes here, however, I can't dismiss. The medium scene you mentioned is intense and terrifying on a level I can't think of many other films matching. The lengthiest fight between Mifune and the samurai is captivating and exhausting to watch, every bit as effective as similar scenes of action in today's CGI-ridden, ADD-edited movies. The solid, if none-too-adventurous, nature of the filmmaking on display is enough to make this recent viewing worthwhile for me.  But I also wonder what it would be like to have watched this without the overwhelming reputation — I'm curious how we'd have reacted if it was just another entry in his filmography. Maybe that's irrelevant. I suppose I probably would have felt about the same.The funny part about the ADD-editing of the present is that Kurosawa had twice as many shots in this film as in his previous.  This was enough for his Japanese contemporaries to label the film as too Western influenced for some of their tastes.  I love that fact considering an action scene in a film by a modern contemporary will have an average shot length of less than two seconds, and that’s being generous.  The beauty of Rashomon is that it still maintains this thoughtfulness through the prism of multiple viewpoints, a lesson that I wish was applied more today.

Still, and I’m glad that you share this feeling to an extent, looking at Kurosawa’s career as a whole it’s easy to see how Rashomon was such a big hit but also how it is easy to be let down by it.  This is an incredibly lean and entertaining film that, aside from some of the photographic techniques used by Kurosawa, isn’t breaking in stride from what he has done before.  It’s funny that this is the film that broke out to Western audiences considering the obvious influence of TMWToTT and No Regrets For Our Youth.

It’s a testament to Kurosawa’s skill that he did exactly what was called for the characters, not to serve an existing style or to pander to a new crowd.  Rashomon is the perfect cinematic storm of creative constraints and long building skill.  I just can’t love it the same way many of my contemporaries do.

Next week: Kurosawa fuses with Russian literature.

Posted by Andrew

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