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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  1. Pingback: Literary Genealogy of Rashomon (Part 1) – Enic-cinE

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