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.
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
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.
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.
Rashomon (羅生門, 1950)
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
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