Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stubs - Rashōmon

Rashōmon (1950) Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyō, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.  Screenplay by  Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto Based on: "Rashōmon" and "In a Grove" by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa Produced by: Minoru Jingo. Run Time: 88 minutes. Japanese, Black and White, Drama

Recently, Trophy Unlocked reviewed its first Japanese film, Gojira (1954). The choice was driven by the release of Godzilla (2014), a remake that was supposed to be true to the intent of the original. While the most famous thing about Gojira was the monster, such is not the case with our next film, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon (1950). Kurosawa had been directing films since during World War II, his first film being Sanshiro Sugata (1943) But until the release of Rashōmon, his work was not widely known outside of Japan.

The 1950’s saw an influx of world cinema to the U.S., and while mainly relegated to art houses, these movies would nonetheless have an impact on Hollywood. Films by such diverse filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Jacques Tati revealed different ways of story-telling and pushed the envelope of acceptable subjects for moviegoers. This is also true of Rashōmon, the first Japanese film to receive a substantial release outside of that country.

Rashōmon is probably best known for its depiction of a story from four different points of view, something that was seen as revolutionary at the time. Based on two works by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Rashōmon and In the Grove, the film tells the story of the interaction between Tajōmaru, a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), a samurai, Takehiro Kanazawa (Masayuki Mori), and the samurai’s wife, Masako (Machiko Kyō). While travelling through the woods, the samurai and his wife pass by the bandit who is sleeping at the foot of a tree by the edge of the trail. It is a hot day and a cool breeze rustles Tajōmaru from his nap in time to catch sight of the samurai’s wife as she rides by on a horse. He instantly desires her and follows after the couple through the woods. His plan is to take the woman from the man without killing him. Let’s not mistake the bandit’s intentions, which are to have sex with the woman, consensual or not.

The bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) wakes from his nap to see the Samurai and his wife go by.

From there the stories of what happen diverge.

At Rashōmon, the city gates of Kyoto, a woodcutter Kikori (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) sit out an intense rainstorm. A third man, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda), joins them. While they hint about a disturbing story they have to tell, it is the commoner who gets them to open up.

An intense rainstorm at the city gates of Kyoto traps a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner.

The woodcutter tells him that three days before, while searching for wood in the forest, he comes across a woman’s hat and veil stuck on a branch. Later, he finds a samurai’s cap just before discovering the samurai’s dead body. The discovery sends him running from the woods in a panic to tell the authorities. He had just that day given such testimony in a court looking into the murder. The priest had seen the couple only minutes before the murder as they made their way past him in the woods. After giving their testimony, the woodcutter and the priest are seen sitting in the background, in the sun, while other witnesses testify. I don’t know if this is supposed to be a realistic depiction of courts of the 11th century, when our story takes place, or if this is shown for symbolic reasons, so as to let the audience know the two heard the other stories they’re recanting.

The woodcutter, Kikori (Takashi Shimura), discovers the Samurai's dead body while searching for wood.

Like the woodcutter, we see the priest answering questions that we never hear being asked, as if they’re speaking to us, the audience, directly. There are three other witnesses brought before the court, each telling their story in the same manner, speaking directly to us as if we are the judge of their tale.

First up is Tajōmaru, who has been captured by a policeman (Daisuke Katô). The policeman had found the bandit by a lake, with the samurai’s possessions, including his horse and his bow and arrows, having apparently been thrown by the horse.

A policeman (Daisuke Kato) captures Tajomaru by a lake,

Tajōmaru, who is a renowned bandit and perhaps crazy, readily confesses to the crime.

The bandit confesses in court and readily admits to the crime.

He claims that he had no desire to hurt the man, only to have sex with the woman. He lured the samurai off the trail with the promise of a cache of swords he had discovered and buried. The samurai might be cautious about the tale, but he leaves his wife and horse and follows after the bandit. When they reach the grove, the bandit overpowers the samurai and ties him up. He then goes back to the wife and tells him that her husband has taken ill and has her follow him back to opening. It seems a bit perverse to want to have sex with her in front of her husband, but that seems to be the bandit’s plan. But the woman is not an easy target. She pulls out a dagger and tries to attack the bandit, who is too fast and too strong for her.

The bandit lures the Samurai (Takehiro Kanazawa) away from
 his wife with the promise of a cache of swords.

In a clinch, the bandit kisses the woman, who drops her dagger. We’re led to believe she’s been seduced. 

The bandit kisses the Samurai's wife, Masako (Machiko Kyo) and she drops her dagger.

Afterwards, this is the 50’s everywhere and sex was never shown, the woman is filled with shame. Not wanting to live with two men knowing of her guilt, she asks the bandit to duel with her husband and she would go with the winner.

Tajōmaru unties the samurai and they fight honorably, crossing swords more than twenty times, before the bandit kills the samurai. But when the fight is over, the woman runs away and escapes.

The bandit and the Samurai cross swords in battle over the wife. 

After telling his story, he is asked about the wife’s dagger, which has has a pearl inlay, which is supposedly left at the scene. He admits it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.

The wife testifies while the Priest and the Woodcutter look on.

Next to testify is the wife, who tells the court that Tajōmaru raped her and then left. But when she begged for her husband’s forgiveness, he simply stared at her with a glare she read as contempt. She then freed him from his bindings and asked for him to kill her so she wouldn’t have to live with the shame, but he only continued to stare at her. So disturbed, the woman fainted, the dagger still in her hand. But when she awakes, she finds that the dagger is in her husband’s chest. Not knowing what had happened, she tries to kill herself, but fails.

The Samurai testifies through a medium (Noriko Honma).

In what is no doubt a Japanese touch, the samurai testifies through a medium (Noriko Honma). Speaking on his behalf, she tells the story that after raping his wife, the bandit asks her to travel with him, a request she accepts. But she insists that Tajōmaru kill him so that she wouldn’t feel like she belongs to two men. Surprised and shocked by the request, he gives the samurai the choice of letting the woman go or killing her.

According to the Saumurai's story, his wife encourages the bandit to kill him.

The woman then tries to run away, but Tajōmaru fails to recapture her and she gets away. Tajōmaru then lets the samurai go free and leaves. The samurai then kills himself, using his wife’s dagger.

The Samurai kills himself with his wife's dagger.

But back at the gates, the woodcutter tells the commoner that the samurai’s story is a lie and that he had witnessed both the rape and the murder. When asked why he didn’t tell his side of the story in court, he says he didn’t want to get involved.

The woodcutter admits to the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) and the priest
(Minoru Chiaki) that he didn't want to get involved.

According to the woodcutter’s testimony, after raping her, the bandit begged her to come away with him. Instead, the woman frees her husband, but he is unwilling to fight for a spoiled woman. But the woman then turns the table on both men, claiming that neither of them is a real man, since they refuse to fight for the woman’s love. After spurning the two men into a duel, she hides her face to avoid seeing the actual fight.

The climatic fight according to the woodcutter's point of view.

The fighting, according to the woodcutter, is not as honorable as Tajōmaru had depicted in his testimony. Not only is the swordplay sloppy, but neither man fights with any real gusto. But in the end the bandit wins by what some might say was a lucky turn of events and reluctantly kills the samurai, who begs for his life. The woman flees in horror. Unable to catch her, Tajōmaru takes the samurai’s sword and leaves the scene limping.

The films ends back at the Rashōmon gates, where further discussion about the woodcutter’s motives are interrupted by the sounds of a crying baby. The commoner swoops in and steals the kimono and an amulet that were left for the baby. The woodcutter tries to chastise him for his actions, but the commoner, thinking the woodcutter had taken the woman’s dagger from the murder scene, won’t have any of his consternation, saying in essence it takes a thief to know a thief. The commoner then leaves Rashōmon claiming all men are motivated by their own self-interest.

The priest’s faith in humanity is shaken by not only the trial, but also by the woodcutter’s refusal to bear witness at the trial. He is therefore reluctant to give the baby to the woodcutter, who reaches to take it from the priest’s arms. The woodcutter insists that one more child, he already has six, won’t be a problem for him. The priest, feeling that he has renewed reason to believe in humanity, lets the woodcutter take the baby. And as the woodcutter leaves, the rain has stopped and it is sunny for the first time.

The woodcutter leaves the gates taking the baby found there while the priest watches.

Weather always seems to play a part in Kurosawa’s films and when it rains, it pours. One of my more vivid memories of his Seven Samurai (1954) are the action scenes taking place in a drenching rainstorm. In this film, it is the rain that has drawn these three divergent men together and allows the woodcutter and priest to tell the commoner their stories. But symbolically, the rain hangs over all humanity, at least in the priest’s eyes. It is only when his faith has been restored do the clouds break.

A lot is also made of the cinematography not only of the scenes at the gates, but the scenes shot in the forest. Shot under the shade of tall trees gives the light, as Robert Altman put it in an introductory video on the Criterion Collection DVD, a “dappled” quality and thereby the story and the characters some “ambiguity”. Perhaps that explains how the various witnesses see the same story so differently.

An example of the "dappled" quality of the light.

What is not explained, however, is why the stories are so different. Why would the bandit confess to a murder that will no doubt lead to his execution? Was the wife trying to protect her new lover by leaving open the idea that she could have killed her husband? Was the dead samurai telling the court he committed suicide a way for him to save face even in the afterlife? We can’t even be certain the woodcutter, who doesn’t seem to have a dog in the fight, is telling the truth himself. While contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people is now referred to as the Rashōmon effect, it still makes for a unique and disturbing film with so many unanswered questions at the end.

It really comes down to motivation. Lust motivated Tajōmaru to desire the samurai’s wife and it seems honor motivates the samurai and his wife after the attacks. But does the samurai feel he’s been left with damaged goods, now that his wife has had sex with another man, regardless of consensuality, or is he ashamed that he was unable to prevent it? And did the woodcutter not speak up in court so as not to testify that he is the one who took the samurai wife’s dagger? The film leaves it up the viewer, who had been made the judge at the trial, to decide for themselves. As Altman also points out, some of the issues with a Western reading of the film is the unfamiliarity of the mythos. He points out that in the U.S. most of us grew up with the old-West mythos and therefore recognize characters and motivations for that genre right away. We are not familiar in the same immersed way with samurais, so some of what may seem familiar to a Japanese audience and understood right away is initially lost on us.

I am not the first person to notice this, but Rashōmon has a lot of the same qualities that late-era silent films do. The film depends on visuals to tell a good part of the story and dialogue, like title cards, are used only when there is no other way to communicate. A lover of silent films, Kurosawa tried to reconstruct that feel through a minimalist use of settings. Some of that may have had to do with its low budget.

Shooting on the film began on July 7, 1950 and wrapped on August 17th. The film premiered eight days later at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo, on the 25th, expanding nationwide the next day. But the film was met with lukewarm reviews.

Unbeknownst to Kurosawa, the film was entered into the Venice Film Festival at the behest of Giuliana Stramigioli, a Japan-based representative of an Italian film company, who had seen and admired the movie and convinced Daiei to submit it. On September 10, 1951, the film won the festival’s highest prize, the Golden Lion.

After Daiei showed a dubbed version of the film in Los Angeles, RKO bought the rights and released the film in the U.S. on December 26, 1951. While movie studios have classic divisions to handle such films, this was considered a real gamble for RKO at the time. Up until then the studio had only put one subtitled film on the market and the only other Japanese film to be released in the U.S. had been Mikio Naruse's comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose, in 1937: a critical and box-office flop.

But Rashōmon was a game changer. With good reviews, the film made $35,000 in its first three weeks at a single New York theater, an almost unheard-of sum at the time. Its success paved the way for Japanese films in the U.S., which became the rage, replacing Italian Neorealist cinema as the foreign darling. At the next Academy Awards the film would win an Honorary Award as "the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1951" (This was in the days before a special awards category for foreign language films.)

With the film's success, Kurosawa returned to Toho studios, at which he would make his next 11 films, including Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961) and Ran (1985).

Interestingly, Rashōmon, like Seven Samurai before it, would get the Hollywood treatment and be remade as a Western. [Seven Samurai would be made into The Magnificent Seven (1960)] The Outrage (1964) starring Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson and William Shatner, acknowledges the Rashōmon screenplay in the credits. Speaking of world cinema, an Indian film, Andha Naal (1954), directed by Sundaran Balachander, was supposedly inspired by Rashōmon as well, though in this case the film is considered the first film noir in Tamil cinema. (Tamil is a language spoken in the Indian state of Tamil.)

While I am not a big fan of samurai films, I did enjoy seeing Rashōmon again recently. It is curious to think that no one else thought about telling a story from different points of view before Kurosawa made this film. Other movies, such as Courage Under Fire (1996) and One Night at McCool’s (2001) use a similar technique to tell their story, as do countless episodes of TV sitcoms, but this one was the ground breaker.

For anyone who loves movies as an art form, Rashōmon is a must see. This film shows that a filmmaker doesn’t need a big budget to have a big influence. More than just story-telling technique, Rashōmon introduced the world to Akira Kurosawa and to the cinema of Japan.

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