Newsreels of War (Part 1)

On July 8, 1937, the hostile confrontation at the Marco Polo Bridge ignited the full-scale war between China and Japan. It was the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945), which eventually developed into the World War II in the eastern hemisphere. Japanese Imperial Army and Navy fought fierce battles in Beijin, Shanghai, Nanking and other major areas in China, expanding the Empire’s territory. ‘Our Soldiers Attack Enemy’s Front !’, ‘Our Imperial Soldiers Fire Back At Hostile Enemies !’, “A White Flag on the Enemy’s Hill !”, these audacious headlines were splashed across the newspapers almost every morning. As in many industrialized nations in the first half of 20th century, Japanese newspapers played the decisive role in forming national opinion and sentiment during the war. Their day-to-day reports from the battlefront were rarely objective data and facts, but read like fanatic pamphlet written in boiled blood.

As I have discussed before, this Marco Polo Bridge Incident and subsequent battles in China helped to promote talkie movies, which more than doubled in numbers in 1937. This increase was due to surge in popularity of newsreels.
In fact, within a few months, dozens of newsreel movie theaters – specialized in newsreels and other short subjects – opened in major cities across Japan, trying to make quick cash.
There were five major newsreel production companies in January 1938:
Asahi (Asahi-Sekai News, 朝日世界ニュース)
Mainichi (Tou-Nichi Dai-Mai Kokusai News, 東日大毎国際ニュース)
Yomiuri (Yomiuri News, 讀賣ニュース)
Shinbun Renmei (Shinbun Renmei News, 新聞聯盟ニュース)
Doumei (Doumei News, 同盟ニュース)
However, in 1940, all newsreel companies were merged under government supervision, to become Nippon News. Their weekly newsreel is the notorious propaganda (just like Die Deutsche Wochenschau in Nazi Germany), which successfully obscured the realities of war and glorified sacrifice of fellow men.
I was interested in the impact of newsreels to general public in the early years of the war. So I browsed through old issues of Kinema Junpo from 1938, and found these numbers: there were seven to eight newsreel theaters in Tokyo, each of them collecting somewhere around from 400 to 800 yen with 0.1 or 0.2 yen admission on Sundays. This means 6,000 to 7,000 viewers per theater per Sunday in Tokyo. That is 42,000 to 56,000 viewers on Sunday in Tokyo. Most of the newsreels were weekly, so each newsreel saw somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 viewers in Tokyo, 400,000 at most. Population of Tokyo in 1940 was 6,780,000. So, rough estimate falls into the range of a few percent of population. Even if you wanted to talk about the wonderful heroic act of our soldiers you had seen the previous night, there would have been one or two, if any, who had seen the same newsreel among your neighbors or colleagues in office. It is not much, isn’t it?
But these are the number of viewers, who actively sought to see a newsreel, paying an admission. It seems there were hundreds of newsreel screening events in local schools and community centers, usually sponsored by newspaper syndicates, school board or community patriotic groups. And it seems it had lasting impact on its targeted viewers, – children.

Literary Genealogy of Rashomon (Part 2)

Robert Browning’s Signature on the front page of the original Old Yellow Book
from Cornell University/
Robert Browning composed The Ring and the Book, a long dramatic poem, based on a real-life murder trial in 17th century Rome. In 1698, Count Guido Franceschini was accused of a murder of his wife and of her parents and sentenced to death. He protested and even appealed his innocence to the Pope, who denied his plea eventually. The Ring and the Book is comprised of twelve separate books, the first and the last being the narration by a third person, presumably Browning himself. The remaining ten books are testimonies and discussions by witnesses, the accused, the lawyers and the Pope. This poem was inspired by yet another book Browning found in a stall in Florence (it is called Old Yellow Book). This book was from the 17th century, the time of Franceschini case and contained the actual letters and documents relating to the case.
Akutagawa’s another inspiration, The Moonlit Road, is a well-known supernatural story consisting of three sections, each told by a different narrator: Joel Hetmann, Jr., Casper Gratton, and Julia Hetmann through the Medium Bayrolles. Julia Hetman was brutally murdered in her bedroom during the night her husband was away. Each section weaves an eerie, ambiguous, incoherent story of this incident and its aftermath, leaving us in a dark pit of shapeless fear. The whole story seems to suggest that Julia’s husband (Joel’s father – and presumably, Casper Gratton) strangled her believing she was having an affair with someone. However, Gratton’s account was marred by his confused, unstable state of mind. Julia tells her side of story from the other side of the world, through the Medium. Because the accounts refer to the presence of something supernatural in one way or another, it is impossible to decipher the event in a logical sense. Bierce effectively employed the subjective narration to blur the ‘truth’. Akutagawa’s another short story, Shadow (1920)’, bears striking resemblance to The Moonlit Road, – a jealous husband’s doppelgänger murdering his wife.
These two stories may be the direct inspiration, but the novel In a Grove essentially belongs to a long tradition of a literary genre called epistolary novels. The epistolary novels are constructed from a set of multiple documents, diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings or e-mails even, and each ‘document’ has its own narrator. The genre’s origin can be traced back to the 15th century, many scholars citing Prison of Love (Cárcel de amor) (c.1485) by a Spanish novelist Diego de San Pedro being the first truly epistolary novel. Mystery and detective novels seems to have particular affinity to this style of narrative composition, Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone being a notable example. I myself love epistolary novels, because it is free from self-conscious spaghetti-like doodling often found in first-person narrative or omni-present ‘someone I don’t know who knows everything’ in third-person narrative. These narrators in epistolary novels are confined in their own world and have to tell their own version of the event in their own words. Combination of these stories become fragile pieces of papers, and a reader distances himself from the narrators and is more concerned with their ‘voices’, – style, vocabularies, color and tone. I probably like them because I feel like I am in a library, looking up some arcane subject, lost in search for what has been written and forgotten.
Kurosawa’s Rashomon, however, does not inherit the epistolary structure of the original In a Grove. Kurosawa reworked it, presenting the conversation among three protagonists – a woodcutter, a priest, a commoner – under the Rashomon as a main framework, into which the contradictory testimonies are incorporated as a series of flashbacks. And what’s more, the woodcutter (one of the witnesses in the court) tells yet another version of the event after these flashbacks of court hearings. Generally, this final woodcutter’s version (absent in the original novel) is considered to be most believable and closest to the truth, since he was not involved in the incident directly, hence no personal interest. However, the woodcutter obscures the detail of the whereabouts of the sword (which he stole and sold for money), which the commoner pointedly accuses as dishonest and ego-centric. Being called a thief and a hypocrite, the woodcutter protests that he did it to save his family from starving and no one really needed that sword anyway. This discourse, along with the episode of an abandoned baby, echoes the desperate condition of survival acutely told in Rashomon, the short story.
I believe Kurosawa felt it necessary to reconstruct the story in this way as a narrative commercial cinema. He said he and the screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto expanded the story from the original, which they thought too short for a feature film. Without these elaborations and modifications, the film might have been too experimental and too pedagogic as a commercial endeavor. Some say the episode of an abandoned baby created an additional dimension to the work, striking a positive note to the ending. I agree, but such a stagy, unnatural plot twist could have been banal and destroyed the whole picture. I have to say it was only a few inches from such a disaster, if the preceding one-hour-and-a-half failed to create sense of immersion. 
So, Kurosawa’s film was reworked from two short novels by Akutagawa. Akutagawa wrote these short stories based on two tales in the 12th-century Anthology. And these tales were probably from the 9th century. Also, Akutagawa was inspired by yet another two English literature sources, both of which were from the 19th century. Yet, one of them derives its theme from an Italian 17th-century document.
I am wondering if there is any cinematic genealogy leading up to Rashomon, the film. Citizen Kane (1941) does have an element of a set of unreliable narrators, but I strongly suspect Kurosawa had seen it before 1950 (it wasn’t shown in Japan until 1966). Any suggestions?
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Literary Genealogy of Rashomon (Part 1)

The Model of Rajoumon (Rashomon) (The Museum of Kyoto)

The word ‘Rashomon’ has now firmly acquired the place in English vocabulary. Even a person who has never seen the Kurosawa’s film uses the term. In Wikipedia, the word “Rashomon Effect” is defined as a term “to refer to contradictory interpretations of the same events by different persons, a problem that arises in the process of uncovering truth”. The word also found its entry in OED in the recent edition. In the film Rashomon, there is a crime and there are witnesses (suspects and victims). Each witness tells a story about the crime, – how it happened, who did what, – but each account is different from one another. We speculate why they contradict each other, – these may have been altered by their various emotions, cheated out by their vanity or obscured by their conscience.

Japanese use the different expression for that kind of a messy situation – ‘in a grove’. We say ‘the truth is in a grove’, meaning you will never know what really happened, since everyone involved is telling a different story. The expression comes from the title of a short story, In a Grove, published in 1921.

The film Rashomon is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927): In a Grove (藪の中, 1921) and Rashomon (羅生門, 1915). The major part of the film – the witnesses of a crime testifying in the court – is derived from In a Grove. Between these accounts of witnesses, we see three people taking refuge from heavy storm under the Rashomon, a giant gate of the ancient city of Kyoto. While waiting the weather to clear up, they discuss this court hearings. This part is not a faithful adaptation of the original Rashomon story, but shares the underlying theme. You can find the plot summary in Wikipedia and English translation of the story here and here.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa is a giant in Japanese literature. His craft of storytelling, – especially short stories -, has never been surpassed and never will be. He often drew his inspiration from old Japanese tales or Chinese literatures, but modified it and narrated it in a paradigm of modern anxiety. Both In a Grove and Rashomon have their origin in Anthology of Tales from the Past (今昔物語集, Konjaku Monogatari-shu), a collection of more than one thousand tales, compiled and edited in the 12th century Japan.

The original short story Rashomon is based on a tale called A Thief Climbing Up the Rashomon, Discovers Dead Bodies collected in Anthology. Many stories collected in this 12th-century Anthology are considered far older and this tale was probably from the 9th or 10th century, during the Heian Period. The Heian Period was the age of aristocrats and royal families, before the age of warlords. The original tale collected in Anthology is as follows: A thief, waiting for the darkness of a night, hid himself on the top floor of the Rashomon. There, he discovered a dead body of a young woman, and was stunned by an old woman pulling off hair from the dead body. The thief was frightened at the sight, but found out the old woman was trying to make a wig out of hair to make money. He robbed their clothes and hair pulled off from the dead and ran away.

The Pages of the Original Rashomon Story from Anthology, Suzuka-Edition, the Oldest Surviving Manuscript
(University of Kyoto Library)

Akutagawa kept the original plot element intact, but added the dynamics of modern drama. In his story, the man is not a thief at first. He becomes a thief in the story. It is one of the most devastating moment among his works, annihilating conscience, stabbing a sharp blade deep into dignity and hanging the last shred of compassion by its neck.

In a Grove is based on a tale called A man traveling to the country of Tanba with his wife, assaulted by a thief in the Oe Mountain also collected in Anthology. This tale is also considered from the 9th century. A man was traveling with his wife in deep mountains. He was on foot, carrying a bow and arrows, his wife on a horse. Another young man appeared on the road, and accompanied them. This young man carried a long sword, which he boasted as a legendary sword from the country of Mutsu. They exchanged their weapons, as the man thinking he was getting a great deal. Then this young man turned a table and threatened them with an arrow. He tied up the man with a rope, raped the woman and took their horse, the bow, the arrows and the sword. The narrator comments the stupidity of the man and praises the cleverness of the young man.

As you can see, there is no element of ‘Rashomon effect’ in the 9th century original. While keeping the historical context and background intact, Akutagawa completely renovated its narrative, structuring it in seven separate ‘testimonies’. Each testimony was written in first-person narrative, – using ‘I’ as its narrator -, in the manner of modern court proceedings or judicial records. During the Heian Period, the legal system in the city of Kyoto was overseen by a judge called ‘Kebi-ishi’, who presided over the ‘Shira-su’, – a courtyard of white sands. Kebi-ishi never speaks, – in the novel, and in the film as well. We never know the verdict. It’s not that who took the rap (probably Tajomaru did), but it is about the maze of ‘truth’.

Many scholars suggested that, for this ingenious storytelling, Akutagawa might have drawn inspiration from two literary predecessors, – The Ring and the Book (1868-69) by Robert Browning (1812 – 1889) and The Moonlit Road (1907) by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1913).

[to Part 2]

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).