Provost's Film Series

February 18, 2004



Akira Kurosawa and Postwar Japan

Born in 1910, Akira Kurosawa began making films just prior to the defeat of Japan in World War II.  As the nation struggled with its own devastation, Kurosawa plunged into his work with moral fervor, eager to make films that sparked Japan's social recovery.  Several of his films—such as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog—told tales of quiet heroism and courage in the face of overriding confusion and despair.  

Then, in 1951, came Rashomon, one of the most ironic milestones of film history.  Although resisted by Kurosawa's own studio, Rashomon almost singlehandedly reawakened Western interest in Japanese film, and the movie stunned even Kurosawa by winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.  But the film is also a more ambiguous vision than his previous work.  It forces the viewer to reconcile competing accounts of a murder, expresses the difficulty of discerning the truth, and catches viewers in a tangle of subjectivity. As Kurosawa observes, this is a story which "leads the world through the light and shadow of the forest where the human heart loses its way."


The Elusiveness of Truth

While full of contemporary intimations, Rashomon is set in the eleventh-century, during the Heian period of Japanese history.  It was a time of social crisis—plagues, fires and civil war. The title Rashomon refers to an historic blue-tiled gate, destroyed long ago and originally known as the "Rajomon"  (which means the "outer gate" of a castle).  The script is based on two short stories, "Rashomon" and "In a Grove," both written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a young "mannered symbolist" who gained modest popularity in the west but has all but been forgotten in Japan. Kurosawa was drawn to the story by reading an adaptation of the two stories by Shinobu Hashimoto.  Over the next several years Kurosawa and Hashimoto would collaborate on some of the most famous Japanese films, including The Seven Samurai. 

The film begins with three characters—a priest, woodcutter and common citizen—scrambling for shelter from the rain beneath the ruined gate.  As they endeavor to wait out the rain, they discuss a recent crime.  Kurosawa and Hashimoto added the commoner to Akutagawa's  original tale.  When the priest and woodcutter open the film by admitting that they "do not understand" what they have seen, Japanese audiences recognized a mood of moral confusion characteristic of their own time. The commoner serves, in many respects, as a representative of the audience seeking after answers.   

The three characters strive to reconstruct the story of an infamous bandit who captured a merchant and wife.  Kurosawa clearly perceives his story as a fable about truth and sin.  "Egoism is the sin that a human being carries with him from birth," Kurosawa writes.  "It is the most difficult to redeem.  This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.  You say that you can't understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart is impossible to understand."


Cinematography and Shadow

Shot mostly in the Nara forest near Kyoto, the film won widespread acclaim from Western critics for the cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa.  Japanese film historian Donald Richie claims that Kurosawa and Miyagawa seek to portray "not relative truth" but "relative realities."  The camera does not suggest vague, impressionistic memories of the past.  It presents precise, highly sensory  recollections of the murder.  And yet these recollections are incompatible.

Perhaps the most famous scene is the march of the woodcutter into the forest at an early moment in the film.  For its time, it was remarkable for several visual innovations.  At times, the camera shoots directly into the sun, an effect that had been done rarely before but was immediately imitated by other directors.  Also, the woodcutter's march is shot through the leaves, mixing bright sun and the dappled light of shadows.  Rather than slicing together several clips to show the march, Kurosawa and Miyagawa have the camera follow the march, changing angles, changing lighting, but never losing sight of the walker.  Filming in the woods proved to be demanding for the crew, as the actors had to cover themselves with salt to withstand insects and the cinematographer often used mirrors to reflect sunlight onto his characters, otherwise lost in the shadows.  The march into the woods, Kurosawa maintained, was a metaphor for venturing into the mystery.  


Structure and Sources

As the three wanderers strive to put together the story of the crime, the film relies on multiple and contradictory flashbacks.  The nonlinear approach to the story was groundbreaking for its time, and the term "Rashomon" entered popular culture as an expression for the unreliability of testimony and memory.  American director Robert Altman argues that  Rashomon "becomes a poem," most remarkable for using images more extensively than words. In making Rashomon, Kurosawa deliberately sought to invoke the traditions of the silent movie, particularly some avant-garde French films from the 1920s.  Kurosawa would often comment on the "aesthetic loss" that occurred with the arrival of the "talkies," and he includes many wordless passages in Rashomon, where subtle sounds, camera angles, and lighting create the ethical mood and provide the energy.  As Altman notes, Rashomon "changed perceptions about what was possible in films and what was desirable."   

Rashomon came early in the director's career, and Kurosawa would go on to direct scores of films blending western and Japanese aesthetics. Much of his greatest work drew on western classics—such as Ikiru (based on Faust), Throne of Blood (Macbeth), and Ran (King Lear).    His work draws upon the traditions of Noh theatre, a Japanese genre that emphasized mime, slow, deliberate and highly structured movements, and restrained verbal expression.  But Kurosawa's work also draws upon American genre pictures, especially the westerns of director John Ford, with their stress on the visual poetry of the landscape.  Often criticized within Japan for his cultural fusion, his work had a profound influence on many directors throughout the world.