“Thanks to you I can keep my faith in men.”
“Rashomon” (1950) is indispensable cinema. What other movie do you know whose very title has become part of our lexicon? It’s now used to describe when an event is given multiple contradictory explanations by those who experienced it – the unreliability of eyewitnesses. For the past months I feel we’ve all been under a Rashomon effect – hearing from opposing sources about the pandemic, the protests, the elections. When you turn on the news these days it is not just about telling you the facts – but several voices giving you their opinion and their understanding. Where’s the truth?
Rashomon is the name of the gate at the southern end of the monumental Suzaku Avenue – which leads to the Japanese Imperial Palace. Directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Akira Kurosawa, “Rashomon” became the first film from Japan to earn international acclaim. The plot involves a woodcutter and a priest seated at the gate sharing with a stranger that they are confounded by a story they’ve just witnessed at a trial. “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand,” says the woodcutter.
The stranger beckons them to tell him the story which involves the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. “I was the one who first saw the body,” says the woodcutter. “I met the murdered man before his death,” adds the priest. Both of them get summoned to testify in front of the court – where we hear testimonies from the bandit Tajomaru. It’s important to keep in mind that what we see as an audience is not Tajomaru’s point of view – but the priest and the woodcutter’s retelling of Tajomaru’s account. “If it hadn’t been for that wind I wouldn’t have killed him” says Tajomaru.
The wife is also a witness, and we see her version of the story – followed by the dead man’s account. Yes, at trial there’s a medium that channels the soul of the samurai. Lastly, the woodcutter is confronted by the stranger about the accuracy of all of the accounts – and a new version of the events is given. It’s all like one big Russian doll.
The narrative is groundbreaking, but the way it is told cinematically is also as influential. Kurasawa – working with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa – created a visual language that not only creates a strong sense of place but also expresses the shifting sense of truth. Several times they point the camera directly into the sky with the rays of light symbolically glaring into the camera. As the actors tell their sides of the story – reflections of light will strike their faces. Kurosawa will linger the camera on the performers’ faces and expressions. The film is action-packed and a lot is told in movement – as if we were watching a silent film. There’s a torrential rain pouring down on the gate where the stranger, the woodcutter and the priest are sheltered. The woods where the murder takes place are framed by the dense branches and foliage. On the surface it is all very simple and swift – 90 minutes – but it’s all so rich and its effect is long-lasting.
Stranger: “It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be truthful to ourselves.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon and iTunes.
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura and Minoru Chiaki
Bringing “Rashomon” to the Screen
Akira Kurosawa had the idea and the budget for what would become “Rashomon” as early as 1948, but for at least two years he couldn’t get a studio to commit to the film. The Toyoko Company, who originally planned to fund the film, backed out in 1948 after determining the film to be too much of a risk. Toho, the studio where Kurosawa made many of his films, said no. Then the Daiei studio signed a one-year contract with Kurosawa and agreed to fund the film after Kurosawa expanded the script to add a more definitive beginning and ending. Even as Daiei backed the film, though, the head of the studio—Masaichi Nagata—wasn’t impressed, walking out of his first screening. Of course, when the film became a darling of international cinema, he was more than happy to take credit…The script that would become “Rashomon” began as a slightly short screenplay by Kurosawa’s friend, Shinobu Hashimoto, adapted from the short story “In A Grove” by the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The story, like the film, features varying accounts of an incident told by different people. Kurosawa liked the idea, but felt the script needed expansion, so he used Akutagawa’s story “Rashomon,” in which characters huddle in the rain under the Rashomon gate, as inspiration. The two merged, and the film was born. While thinking about how “Rashomon” should look, Kurosawa remembered the days before films had sound, when visuals were the star, and hunted down French avant-garde films of the silent era for research. He saw the film as a “play of light and shadow,” and as a result many of its most famous sequences are built upon the camera, not the dialogue. “I like silent pictures and I always have,” Kurosawa said. “They are often so much more beautiful than sound pictures are. Perhaps they had to be.” (mentalfloss.com)
Kurosawa on “Rashomon”
In his…memoir, “Something Like an Autobiography,” Kurosawa recounts how he explained the script to several assistants who complained that they didn’t understand it: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. The script portrays such human beings – the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel better than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave – even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.” (tcm.com)
The Making of “Rashomon”
In researching “Rashomon,” Kurosawa paid particular attention to how the titular “Rashomon Gate” should look, and did research on other similar gates of the period. In the end, he determined that the gate should be much larger than originally intended. It was so big, in fact, that if they’d built it intact, it would have collapsed on itself. “It was so immense that a complete roof would have buckled the support pillars,” Kurosawa said. “Using the artistic device of dilapidation as an excuse, we constructed only half a roof and were able to get away with our measurements.”…Rashomon’s small cast became a tight, energetic group during production, enduring grueling shooting days and then going out drinking together at night. According to Kurosawa, they eventually created a meal together, which they called “Mountain Bandit Broil.” “It consisted of beef strips sautéed in oil and then dipped in a sauce made of curry powder in melted butter,” according to Kurosawa. “But while they held their chopsticks in one hand, in the other they’d hold a raw onion. From time to time they’d put a strip of meat on the onion and take a bite out of it. Thoroughly barbaric.”…While shooting, though, the production had trouble getting the rain (created by fire hoses) to show up on camera when silhouetted against the sky. So, to make it more visible, black ink was added to the water to create contrast…To further emphasize his “light and shadow” metaphors, Kurosawa wanted his camera to sometimes point directly at the sun, creating a lens flare effect. At the time, this technique was so frowned upon that some believed it would literally burn the film, rendering it useless. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa was willing to take the risk, though, and the result is iconic. (mentalfloss.com)
About Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa
Miyagawa, born in Kyoto in 1908, found the roots of his interest in image making through an early study of sumi-e ink painting, which informed his appreciation of the subtle tonal variations within black and white. He once stated, “It was my training in ink painting that really taught me how to see.” This eventually led him to take up monochrome still photography as a teenager, shooting photos for a neighborhood clothing store. After high school, Miyagawa landed a job at Nikkatsu’s Kyoto studio in 1926. He worked in the film lab, performing technical tasks such as developing and tinting prints until he joined the cinematography department in 1928, where he cut his teeth as a focus puller and second-unit cameraman. Miyagawa continued to develop his technical expertise and ingenuity, receiving his first credit as cinematographer in 1935. Often working on comedies during this time, he earned the nickname “the comic cameraman.” It was in 1943 that he had a major artistic breakthrough with “The Rickshaw Man,” directed by his early mentor Hiroshi Inagaki, with whom he learned to effectively use tracking shots, cranes and other cinematographic devices. “The Rickshaw Man” was produced by Daiei — who took over Nikkatsu’s Kyoto studio that same year, and for whom Miyagawa continued to work almost exclusively until 1969. Miyagawa has called this film his “origin.” After contributing to the immense success of Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” in 1950, Miyagawa worked with Kenji Mizoguchi on several of his most well-known films–including “Ugetsu,” “Sansho the Bailiff,” “A Story from Chikamatsu” and his first color film, “New Tales of the Taira Clan” — helping perfect the signature visual style the director developed over the course of his career until his untimely death in 1956.
He continued to make his mark throughout the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema at Daiei with other major directors like Kozaburo Yoshimura and Kon Ichikawa, working on up to five films a year. Never hesitating to experiment with cinematic technique, Miyagawa tested the limits of new technologies such as anamorphic formats and color film stocks to find new ways to visually articulate the director’s intended vision. Perhaps most notably, he is credited with innovating a bleach bypass film developing technique for Ichikawa’s “Her Brother,” resulting in a uniquely washed out color. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Miyagawa also worked with several of Japan’s most inventive genre directors such as Kazuo Mori and Kenji Misumi, tackling yakuza, chanbara and exploitation films, including several entries in the popular Zatoichi series. In the later part of his career, he found a creative partner in Japanese New Wave auteur Masahiro Shinoda, with whom he continued to make visually superlative films that garnered international attention such as “Silence and Ballad of Orin,” the latter of which earned him a Japanese Academy Prize for Best Cinematography. In 1978, Miyagawa received the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon from the Japanese government for his contributions to Japanese art. In 1981, he was honored by members of the American Society of Cinematographers at a tribute hosted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. A consummate professional and humble man, Miyagawa wrote in his autobiography, “I am a cinematographer. I’ve never had any ambition to become a director. A film is not one individual’s method of personal expression but a matter of teamwork, a cooperative venture.” The cinematographer remained professionally active into his eighties, spending the last part of his life teaching film technique at Osaka University of the Arts, and passed away in Kyoto in 1999 at the age of 91. (japansociety.org)
About Director and Co-Writer Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa was born on March 23, 1910 in Tokyo, Japan…Kurosawa’s father, who had once been an army officer, was a teacher who contributed to the development of athletics instruction in Japan. After leaving secondary school, Kurosawa attended an art school and began painting in the Western style. Although he was awarded important art prizes, he gave up his ambition to become a painter and in 1936 became an assistant director in the PCL cinema studio. Until 1943 he worked there mainly as an assistant to Yamamoto Kajirō, one of Japan’s major directors of World War II films. During this period Kurosawa became known as an excellent scenarist. Some of his best scenarios were never filmed but only published in journals; yet they were noticed by specialists for their freshness of representation and were awarded prizes.
In 1943 Kurosawa was promoted to director and made his first feature film, “Sanshiro Sugata,” from his own scenario; this story of Japanese judo masters of the 1880s scored a great popular success. In 1944 he made his second film, “Ichiban utsukushiku” (“The Most Beautiful”), a story about girls at work in an arsenal. Immediately thereafter, he married the actress who had played the leading part in the picture, “Yaguchi Yoko;” they had two children, a son and a daughter. In August 1945, when Japan offered to surrender in World War II, he was shooting his picture “Tora no o fumu otokotachi” (“They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail”), a parody of a well-known Kabuki drama. The Allied occupation forces, however, prohibited the release of most films dealing with Japan’s feudal past, and this outstanding comedy was not distributed until 1952. Kurosawa’s “Waga seishun ni kuinashi” (1946; “No Regrets for Our Youth”) portrays the history of Japanese militarism from 1933 through the end of the war in terms of a person executed on suspicion of espionage during the war. Of the many postwar films criticizing Japanese militarism, this was the most successful, both artistically and commercially. It was “Yoidore tenshi” (1948; “Drunken Angel”), however, that made Kurosawa’s name famous. This story of a consumptive gangster and a drunken doctor living in the postwar desolation of downtown Tokyo is a melodrama intermingling desperation and hope, violence, and melancholy. The gangster was portrayed by a new actor, Mifune Toshirō, who became a star through this film and who subsequently appeared in most of Kurosawa’s films.
Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and was awarded the Grand Prix. It also won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. This was the first time a Japanese film had won such high international acclaim, and Japanese films now attracted serious attention all over the world. An adaptation of two short stories written by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the film deals with a samurai, his wife, a bandit, and a woodcutter in the 10th century; a rape and a murder are recollected by the four persons in distinctly different ways. This presentation of the same event as seen by different persons caught the imagination of the audience and advanced the idea of cinema as a means of probing a metaphysical problem. Ikiru (“To Live”) is regarded by many critics as one of the finest works in the history of the cinema. It concerns a petty governmental official who learns he has only half a year until he will die from cancer. He searches for solace in the affection of his family but is betrayed, then seeks enjoyment but becomes disillusioned, and, in the end, is redeemed by using his position to work for the poor. In this film, which abounds in strong moral messages, Kurosawa depicts in an extremely realistic manner the collapse of the family system, as well as the hypocritical aspects of officials in postwar Japanese society. The picture was an outstanding document of the life and the spiritual situation of Japanese people, who were then beginning to recover from the desperation caused by defeat in the war. The epic “Shichinin no samurai” (“Seven Samurai”) is considered the most entertaining of Kurosawa’s films and also his greatest commercial success. It depicts a village of peasants and a few leaderless samurai who fight for the village against a gang of marauding bandits. Although it was inspired by his admiration of Hollywood westerns, it was executed in an entirely Japanese style. Somewhat ironically, Kurosawa’s film later served as the inspiration for one of the greatest American westerns, John Sturges’s “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). “Ikimono no kiroku” (1955; “I Live in Fear,” or “Record of a Living Being”) is a deeply honest film portraying a Japanese foundry owner’s terror of the atomic tests conducted by the United States and the Soviet Union. Its pessimistic conclusion, however, made it a commercial failure. Kurosawa was also noted for his adaptations of European literary classics into films with Japanese settings. “Hakuchi” (1951; “The Idiot”) is based upon Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same title, “Kumonosu-jo” (“Throne of Blood”) was adapted from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and “Donzoko” (1957; “The Lower Depths”)…”Throne of Blood,” which reflects the style of the sets and acting of the Japanese Noh play and uses not a word of the original text, has been called the best film of all the countless cinematized Shakespearean dramas. Kurosawa’s pictures contributed a strong sense of style to the artistic Japanese film, which had been pursuing a naturalistic trend. The violent action of his more commercial works also exerted a powerful influence.
In 1960 Kurosawa set up Kurosawa Productions, of which he became president, and began to produce his own works…Throughout the 1960s, Kurosawa made a number of entertainment films, mainly with samurai as leading characters; Yojimbo (1961; “The Bodyguard”) is a representative work. Akahige (1965; “Red Beard”) combines elements of entertainment with a sentimental humanism. In the 1960s, however, Japanese cinema fell into an economic depression, and Kurosawa’s plans, in most cases, were found by film companies to be too expensive. As a result, Kurosawa attempted to work with Hollywood producers, but each of the projects ended in failure. At the Kyōto studio in 1968, for 20th Century Fox, he started shooting “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” a war film dealing with the air attack on Pearl Harbor. The work progressed slowly, however, and the producer, fearing an excess in estimated cost, dismissed Kurosawa and replaced him with another director. After a six-year interval, Kurosawa at last managed to present another of his films, “Dodesukaden” (1970; “Dodeskaden”). His first work in colour, a comedy of poor people living in slums, it recaptured much of the poignancy of his best works but failed financially. The period of personal despondency and artistic silence that followed ended in the mid-1970s when Kurosawa filmed “Dersu Uzala” (1975) in Siberia at the invitation of the Soviet government. This story of a Siberian hermit won wide acclaim. “Kagemusha” (“The Shadow Warrior”), released in 1980, was the director’s first samurai film in 14 years. It concerns a petty thief who is chosen to impersonate a powerful feudal lord killed in battle. This film was notable for its powerful battle scenes. Kurosawa’s next film, “Ran” (1985; “Chaos”), was an even more successful samurai epic. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set in 16th-century Japan, the film uses sons instead of daughters as the aging monarch’s ungrateful children. “Ran” was acclaimed as one of Kurosawa’s greatest films in the grandeur of its imagery, the intellectual depth of its screen adaptation, and the intensity of its dramatic performances. His last three films—”Dreams” (1990), “Rhapsody in August” (1990), and “Madadayo” (1993)—were not as well received…Kurosawa was a recipient of numerous film and career honours, including a Golden Lion for Career Achievement at the 1982 Venice Film Festival, an Academy Award for lifetime achievement (1989), the Directors Guild of America’s lifetime achievement award (1992), and the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for theatre/film (1992). (britannica.com)