The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Daiei Film Co. Ltd.
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto, based on the story by Ryunosuke Akutagaa
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Machiko Kyo, Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori
Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Well, this is it. The big one.
“Rashomon” changed everything. It opened the United States to world cinema in a way that had never been seen before. It won an honorary Oscar. It made Kurosawa’s career – if there was no “Rashomon,” there probably wouldn’t be any “Seven Samurai,” “Red Beard” and certainly no Western co-funded films like “Ran” and “Kagemusha.” I cannot underscore enough just how important “Rashomon” is to Kurosawa’s career and to the history of cinema.
So you can see why it took me awhile to make peace with the fact that I just don’t like it that much.
By all accounts, I should love “Rashomon.” Kurosawa is right up there with Chaplin, Almodovar and Hitchcock among my favorite filmmakers, and without this movie, I might not know him at all (see above). I usually adore a story told through multiple perspectives – one of my all-time favorite novels is Agatha Christie’s iconic “Five Little Pigs.” And it’s the master being experimental and trying things no other director at the time would have dared. And yet, each of the five times I’ve sat down with this film, I hope that the spell it has cast on countless others will capture me as well… only to be left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, “Rashomon” is certainly a masterpiece – a great movie that broke boundaries cinema didn’t even know could be broken, but even though it’s a great movie, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good one.
And in a film so concerned with the definition of truth, I figured it was important to start this essay relating mine, though I know for a fact that it is vastly different from the next guy’s…
We open during a downpour in a group of ruins where a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Priest (Minoru Chiaki) have taken shelter. Another Man (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them. The Woodcutter happened upon the stabbed body of a Samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods and, with the Priest, witnessed the court testimony of the three people involved with the murder. First we hear the story from a Bandit’s perspective (Toshiro Mifune), then from the slain Samurai’s Wife (Machiko Kyo), then from the Samurai himself through a Medium. Finally, the Woodcutter explains that he actually saw the murder and gives his side of the story. None of them agree, and in the end the Samurai, the Bandit and the Wife all end up taking credit for the murder. Oh, and at some point a baby becomes involved.
Now before I get to the many, many good things about “Rashomon,” let me first just throw out the main stumbling block that I cannot overcome – the acting. It’s out of control, with every actor going back and forth between non-acting (seriously, the entire opening of the film appears to be about people who have had too much ZZZquil) and way Way WAY over-the-top acting. There’s no in between – no moment where I thought to myself “Wow, he/she did a good job with that character moment.” It was only me shocked by one extreme or the other. In Robert Altman’s introduction to the film on the Criterion release, he waves off the acting, simply stating that it must have been the acting style of the time in Japan. As someone who has watched all of Kurosawa’s previous films, and quite a few pre-and-postwar Japanese movies, I can firmly state that it’s false. The character Shimura played in the previous Kurosawa film “Scandal” was a “big” character, and yet never came close to the cackling that Mifune or Kyo make on a regular basis. Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on “Rashomon,” which is otherwise awesome, waves off the acting as well because “Kurosawa was not looking for realism.” He also writes that the acting actually works because “many of the sequences are, essentially, silent.” Um, no.
Looking further, we must notice that the acting is “over the top” in the flashbacks and utterly subdued in the “present” scenes. My guess is that Kurosawa was perhaps trying to underline the difference between the “reality” of the characters’ minds and the reality of the rainstorm. Maybe? But, even if that is the case, it does not work. The acting continually takes me out of the movie to the point where it often ceases to be enjoyable, and since “Rashomon” is unquestionably a movie of great subtlety and nuance, the acting sticks out even more like a sore thumb. Worse yet, since each of the three main players are portraying four different characterizations of the same character, it’s a huge missed opportunity.
The introduction to the entire conceit is terribly flawed as well. The Woodcutter states early that he just doesn’t understand what has occurred, but when the Man doesn’t show much interest, the Woodcutter and the Priest launch into these speeches that amp up the story we are about to see in such a way that it will never be able to live up to expectations. Here is some of the Priest’s dialogue: “I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I’ve never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, it’s horrible! There’s never been anything, anything as terrible as this, never! It’s worse than fires, wars, epidemics, or bandits!” Really, Mr. Priest? I mean, really?
Once we launch into the court testimony, things do get very interesting – not just in that the characters disagree with one another but in the various ways that they do. When the Bandit tells his version of events, Kurosawa’s film breaks from the Bandit’s point-of-view only once: just before the Wife consents to sex with him. He could never have seen the Wife when she looks to the sun and is overcome with lust, but in his mind she must have done this because he could have never raped someone he “loves” so much. In the stories of the Wife, the Samurai and the Woodcutter, it’s obviously rape, but the most shattering moment of the assault comes from a line in the Samurai’s perspective. The husband looks at his Wife, shattered and still emotional from being sexually assaulted, and the husband states (through the medium) that she had never looked more beautiful. Even now, remembering that moment, I still shudder.
Also really ingenious is the way Kurosawa frames the first three testimonies, with the characters looking toward the camera when they are speaking. In other words, the audience is questioning these characters as “we” try to get to the bottom of what is going on.
It’s also fascinating to me how Kurosawa handles the Woodcutter’s perspective. We open on him stating that he does not understand and the only time we physically see him in flashback is watching him wander through the woods and coming upon the body. Then he states that he actually saw everything, which is contrary to what we saw in the flashbacks previously. Then again, how reliable are the flashbacks? Are they showcases what the characters actually believe happened, or simply a dramatization of what they are saying? Thanks to the nature of the film, we’ll never know, but depending on where you fall on that subject, the Woodcutter’s testimony becomes even more questionable. Note that, throughout his entire story, we never actually see him. We don’t see him happen upon the rape aftermath. We don’t see him follow them as they change positions for the battle. In fact, the point-of-view here is entirely omniscient, not personal, and the story appears more of a “greatest hits” of the earlier three stories more than an individual’s perspective of it. The Wife is comatose but also a femme fatale. The Bandit is cowardly but also a monster. You can see where I’m going with this – I don’t actually believe that the Woodcutter was there and made up the story himself as a way to make sense of everything that happened earlier in the day.
Of course there’s no way to prove it. My hypothesis has just as much merit as the next guy’s, completely right but at the same time completely wrong. Though I want to hold back too many “Citizen Kane” comparisons because I feel like they fit better with Kurosawa’s next film, they fit here too – the more you try to answer questions, the more questions you’ll find. I love “Citizen Kane” more than 99% of other films, but don’t have that same affection for “Rashomon.” Like the flashbacks themselves, on the surface it has everything I could want in this type of story, but the more you squint and the more you question, the less fulfilling it seems. Stephen King wrote a great novella called “The Colorado Kid” about a mystery with no possible answer, but the point for the main character was that you want to keep looking, hoping you’ll see something new and different. Despite my ambivalence to many aspects of “Rashomon,” I see myself continuing this strange dance with the film for years to come, hoping to find the point…not of the movie’s mystery but unlocking its appeal for myself. Maybe some day…
-This is the first of Kurosawa’s masterpieces on which Roger Ebert devoted one of his “Great Movies” articles, and though I point out a disagreement with his writing above, I want to underline here that they are all incredible reading that gives so much insight into Kurosawa’s work. Be on the lookout for his writings on “Seven Samurai,” “Ikiru,” “Red Beard,” “Ran,” and “Yojimbo.” They are essential.
-The woman at the center of the story and her rape is fascinating to look at from a feminist perspective, particularly how the three men see her after the event as opposed to her own interpretation of what had happened to her and how it ultimately caused her to take her husband’s life.
-There are a couple of incredible tracking shots of the Woodcutter walking through the woods at the opening of the film where nothing happens but the viewer is still totally invested because of the beauty.
-There’s a little-spoken-of American remake of “Rashomon,” (unseen by me) called “The Outrage.” Paul Newman takes the role of the Bandit, Claire Bloom as the Wife and Laurence Harvey as the husband. The director was Martin Ritt, who also directed “Hud” and “Norma Rae” and it was adapted by Michael Kanin, who wrote the Hepburn classic “Woman of the Year” and also wrote two television adaptations of “Rashomon” before this film. Maybe it’s good?