Postwar Kurosawa: Rashomon

Rashomon (羅生門)

1950, Daiei

Prod. Jingo Minoura

Dir. Akira Kurosawa 

Writer Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Cinematography  Kazuo Miyagawa, Music Fumio Hayasaka

Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyoi, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura

My first encounter with the film “Rashomon” was almost thirty years ago, when I was still a teenager in the local city in the western part of Japan. The story was a familiar one: “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka (In the Grove)”, two Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short novels on which the film is based on, were required reading materials for high school students back then. Since I had known the story already, I was not at all surprised about the premise of the film. What I was surprised at was the familiarity of the scenery. 

Nightmares, a millennium ago

The story is set in the late Heian period, sometime in 11th century. Kyoto, the capital city of the nation at the time, was in a complete mess. A series of famines, natural disasters, epidemics and crimes destroyed the peaceful lives of ordinary people. People were obsessed with apocalyptic ideas and philosophy. Derived from Buddhism prophecy, these ideas created decadent waves of religious cults and cultures. Only a handful of aristocrats had privilege of having luxury and ample supplies of living needs.

Original Akutagawa’s “Rashomon” is based on a story collected in “Konjaku Monogatari-shu”, a 11th century literary anthology. It tells a story of a lower-class bureaucrat out of job. He was at loss, standing at the Gate of Rajo (Rashomon, or Rajomon), in the middle of night. The upper level of the gate was filled with dead bodies of nameless people. He  decided to spend the night among those dead souls, avoiding any interactions with living ones. There, he met an old woman, completely impoverished, who was ripping off the hairs out of these bodies with an intention to sell them off. He threatened the old lady, ripped the clothes off of her and ran away. “Yabu no Naka (In the Grove)” is also taken from the material in the same anthology. And this story becomes the basis for most of the film.   

When I had read these stories, though powerful in their language, I was not able to “connect” with them visually. In history textbooks in schools, the visual materials of this era usually consisted of picture scrolls of “Genji” or ”Ban-Dainagon”, which showed very stylish renderings of the life of the aristocrats. They have little in common with present day Japanese. For me, these decayed paintings were the only visual reference to start with. And they were not as fascinating.

Genji Monogatari Emaki, Azumaya (Wikipedia)
That was why I was startled to see the world I could connect to in this film. I realized people from 11th century had seen the same trees, sun, mud and air. Of course the film was shot in 1950s, but the forest had been there since the beginning of the time, with no intervention of human development. And they are still here.

Forest as an Ecosystem

Deep Forest in Hakone

We tend to forget, but Japan is one of the most densely forested among the industrial nations in the world. Two thirds of its land is forest, mostly left wild without human intervention. If you take a bullet train or any long-distance railways in Japan, you will be looking at continuous scenery of mountainous terrains covered with trees through the window. In almost any place in Japan, you can reach wild forest area in one hour drive. It’s our backyard. And once if you step into them, you are in the world of this film. When I was a teenager, I sometimes wandered through forests to ease off pressures of teenage problems. The place was strangely quiet with no human in sight. There were many paths I could walk on (just as in this film), surrounded by arrays of huge trunks, most of which were probably more than a hundred year old. During summer, the densely layered branches above my head shielded the direct sun, sustaining refreshing air circulation through the forest. In contrast, during winter, I felt warmth under the thick layers of evergreens, especially in nights. As the original short story title, “In the Grove”, suggests, human deeds were always shrouded in the thick layers of leaves and branches, where autonomous self-cleaning, self-sustaining systems would provide the circle of life.

Japanese seem to have almost hereditary affinity to forest running through the veins. Every neighborhood has a local shrine, most of which are covered with thick layers of trees. Some of these trees are considered “Divine Trees”, and often more than a few century old. Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s works center around this notion of divinity of trees and their long-term functions. You may recall “Sea of Decay” in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” was acting as an incubator for resurrection. Or the tunnel into the Totoro’s forest. Or whole idea of “Princess Mononoke”. It may not be far-fetched to assume popularity of his works in Japan is partly due to its Jungian appeal to Japanese collective subconscious.

It has been said, “Rashomon” was the first in venturing into the middle of dark thick forest. Using reflective mirrors and natural sunlight, the camera captures raw, heavy, dense air of the place. I still haven’t seen a film that recreates this quality of a living forest. Washed out openings between trees, blackened pools of shrubs, contrasty shades on human faces, and other seemingly technical deficiencies actually worked.  Though recent technical gloss or improved graphics may enhance the cataloging of botanical features, they do not enhance the experience of the ecosystem.

Shrine wrapped around with trees (Wikipedia)

Minimal Approach

When Kurosawa pitched the idea of this film to the executives of Daiei, he told them that the only substantial set would be that of the Gate, Rashomon. Others were minor, and would not cost a bit, he said. The executives loved it. It turned out, the Gate became a humongous money-eater and one of the executives said “we would love to have 100 sets instead of this one Gate”.
Still, it was only a gate and Kurosawa did not build the whole city of Kyoto. The other major set was the courtyard of the judicial court. Again, there was no building of any kind, just white sand and the wall far in the background to block the view.
This minimal design approach allowed the film to release its raw energy without losing coherence. Stripped down to the minimum, historical reference did not bog down the flow of the visuals and its intricate plot. While these designs are so impressive, the perspective of the camera to capture them is tightly controlled, acting as an anchor to the already scattering plot elements. In particular, the stationary point of view in the courtyard provides the cohesive reference point to the story.
Because of its white sands with vast space above, I always had an illusion that this courtyard was located at seashore (Heian-kyo was not located near the ocean). But this illusionary interpretation is more telling than precise understanding of the location. This vast, clear atmosphere was designed to expose what was done in shady secrecy. The courtyard being the place of justice (during this whole sequence, we are given the point of view of the ever-silent Judge), the clearness of the place signifies the concept of “objectiveness”. However, what we have to face is discontinuous nature of the “objectivity”.

Some critics conclude that the woodcutter’s story is in fact the “objective” truth, since he does not have any personal interest in the incident. But, is he really a reliable witness? Whole premise of this analysis hangs on the notion that ego distorts the “objective” truth to “subjective” one to justify the outcome. So, when the ego is not at work, the objective truth would be maintained. As we all know from experience, however, person’s ego is not the sole factor of distortion. It may not even be a distortion, simply a different degree of perception, a different degree of comprehension, or a different degree of commitment. This extremely complex interplay among human perception and interpretation is painted on the minimal pattern of the visuals and soundtrack. These stories are framed by the heavy, suffocating parts of the Rashomon Gate. Even here, the Gate is stripped to minimum, making itself as the only visual reference in these sections.
It is often said that Kurosawa’s film, such as “Rashomon”, is westernized, and not as purely “Japanese” as Ozu’s works, for example. I don’t know where this assessment came from, but as far as I can see, “Rashomon” reminds me of the fact that we are the tribe of forest. And it is pretty darn “Japanese”.  Without adding historical details more than necessary, it succeeds in bringing us back to the era of spirits and supernaturals. You don’t need silly gimmicks to bring audience back in time.

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Postwar Kurosawa: Scandal

Scandal (醜聞)

1950, Shochiku

Prod. Takashi Koide

Dir. Akira Kurosawa 

Writer Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Cinematography  Toshio Ikukata, Music Fumio Hayasaka

Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko Yamagushi, Takashi Shimura

Between Furrows

The man I met at Komagata-ya (local bar/izaka-ya) created the character of Hiruta. Not me.
Akira Kurosawa
In his autobiography, Kurosawa confessed he could not stop writing lines after lines for Hiruta’s character. As Kurosawa develops the details out of the promising synopsis on yellow journalism, the character of Hiruta becomes more vivid, more morally defunct, even more pathetic, and more real. After the release of the film “Scandal”, his memory suddenly flashed back to the scene he had forgotten, the night he had met this man. That was when Kurosawa was still a young assistant director, drinking alone in his favorite cheap izakaya one night. Then this old pathetic drunk sat next to him. He was in stupor, trying to strike up the conversation with him, which prompted the shop owner to intervene. “Hey, you shouldn’t  bother a kid.” But Kurosawa let the old man speak. The old drunk kept praising his sick daughter, using tacky phrases like “like a star” or “like an angel”. Then, in turn, he deplored himself as a weak, pathetic, powerless, drunk. This swinging between praise and self-pity went on until the shop owner handed him a pack of food for his sickly daughter, and said “Go home”. The old man went silent, took the food and staggered out the door. This old man made such an impression on Kurosawa. But he completely forgot about him even when he was writing the script for “Scandal”. According to him, this old man had been hiding between furrows in his brain all those years, until the time of “Scandal”, when he jumped out to become the character of Hiruta.
Though this may well be a dramatic way of describing his creative process, Kurosawa emphasized that a character as real as this would override any characters manufactured in one’s head. He is so powerful. He drives the narrative. His presence makes the film riveting. Many would agree that Hiruta is one of the earliest fully round character in the Kurosawa’s works. He is sharply contrasted by other characters in the film, most of which are shallow, sometimes bewilderingly non-decrepit, or plain cliched.

Inequality of information

The idea for this film occurred when Kurosawa saw the advertisement for a magazine in the streetcar. It was a shameless display of sensationalism, making fun of an actual lady, a public figure, in a very suggestive context. He was upset, calling it “violence of free press”. Before and during the war, the press and journalism had been heavily interfered and censored by the government. American occupation had liberated the press, guaranteeing the freedom of expression. But the liberation also let the voyeurism loose and some publishers did whatever they could to pursue profit. The wave of yellow journalism became prevalent. Kurosawa wanted to make a statement about this trend.
To express his concern effectively, Kurosawa staged the story in judicial court. In this genre, the idea can be expressed in direct manner without being preachy. Strangely,, in this film, it created cracks in the narrative. The character of Hiruta sneaked into this crack, creating a havoc.
The legal process described in this film is almost disintegrating. Hiruta is a corrupt lawyer with no intent of winning. Only thing he studies at all is horse races. The publisher in question pays him a handsome amount of money to cover his gambling, while demanding him to throw the defence out of the window. But this is known only to audience. The characters in the film do not know the setup and believe that Hiruta is either an incompetent consultant, a simple idiot or a person who needs a redemption.
In any storytelling, the availability of the truth/information to audience and/or characters in the story is critical in driving the narrative. Sometimes, the characters in the story know the whole picture while the audience don’t. The audience starve for more information or mechanics behind the story, making it more compelling. When the audience are given more information than the characters in the story, all they can do is to wait and see. In “Scandal”, we know what Hiruta is up to all along, but we look at the mess helplessly.
In 1950, the year of this film’s release, the experiences with Tokyo Tribunals were still fresh among Japanese people’s minds. There were ranges of sentiments against this trial among Japanese public, from humiliation to uneasiness and, to some, anger. The final delivery by the Judge William F. Webb for the A-class war criminals was openly broadcast. The sentence heard over the radio, “the death by hanging”, sent a shock wave through those who listened to the broadcast. To this day, the justice process in the Tokyo Tribunal and subsequent rebound into anti-communism political atmosphere gather a lot of opinions in Japan. Some believes that the trial was incomplete since it let many war criminals go unquestioned. Some believes the whole process was a circus, as it smells the revenges by the victors.This mistrust stems from the speculation that there must have been some unhealthy motivation to proceed the Tribunal as it did, but it is not entirely clear to us what that motivation was. Many believes critical facts were hidden from the view. The information was not shared with public, only the results were. At one end, the press was given the freedom of expression, abusing its power. At the other end, whole nation was blindfolded from what they should know. Japanese at the time must have felt like Aoe and Saijo in the film.

Lost Fatherhood
Interestingly, many Japanese films during the postwar years deal with the loss of fatherhood (father figure) . Examples include, “Yabure-Diako”, “Anjo-ke no Budoukai”, “Ozone-ke no Asa” and others. During the prewar and war years, it was a requirement to show the highest respect to the head of a family. Confucius principle of family structure is the basis for drama of the era, while the idea extended into the society itself. When the nation was at war, the political and military leaders were considered ‘fatherly’ figures, and this tendency was more prevalent in wartime Japan. Tokyo Tribunal was the trial of these figures, who were not fathers of the nation after all. Strange it may seem, the loss of spiritual fathers prompted many Japanese to look for a substitute in Allied Forces/SCAP, especially (believe it or not) in Douglas MacArthur. But, of course, SCAP was not interested in playing that role but they were rather in suppressing social movement (as a part of Cold War politics) and forcing stringent national budget. Japan has lost its spiritual father.
Here, we have an incompetent drunk as a father of an innocent girl. Though I am hesitant to draw a casual parallel between this film and the society at the time in this context, it is true the nation was not ready to accept Confucius idea of family again. Of course, an ordinary family at the time was still under its strong influence, but the seed of the rebellion was already sowed.  At least it needed reconciliation before the concept of a family is reinstated. As we witness the present status of Japan, the process has been taking so long, and not successfully,
At the beginning of the trial, Hiruta was laughed at by on-lookers at court when he appeared in anachronistic attire used in prewar Imperial Japanese Court. I wonder what he had been doing during the prewar and war years. Was he a compatriot? Did he push younger generations to war field? What was he like? What made him so bitter and so indifferent?  That’s what ‘real’ characters do to the audience. They force us to wonder what they do outside of the screen. That’s what the ‘reality’ is like. We think we know, but we don’t have all the information. There’s more than we have seen. 
Or is it possible, we fool ourselves to believe we know anything about anything without distorting it?

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).