Friday, August 10, 2012

Rashomon and its Take on Morality

Anyone who has little more than just a passing knowledge of movies will at least know who Akira Kurosawa is. With Shakespearean interpretations which have a strong connection to Japanese culture and tradition, he has left his indelible mark in the history of World Cinema. My introduction to his work like many others I am sure, happened with Seven Samurai(1954) - movie that has inspired more movies than any other. However, now after watching more than dozen of his movies, first movie that I associate with his name in my mind is not Seven Samurai but Rashomon(1950). After watching it for the first time couple of years ago, it has not only become my favorite Kurosawa movie but also one of my all-time favorites. While writing this post about Notorious(1946) last month, I realized that I have never written anything about most of my all-time favorite movies. I can only hope that this second post about some of my favorite movies in just one of many more to come. What I hope to do with Rashomon here is to discuss about all aspects of this movie that I can fathom, in as much detail as I can. Though I will try to provide spoiler alerts whenever possible, if you haven't seen this yet, please proceed with caution.

It is raining heavily outside. A priest and a woodcutter are sitting under the city gate of Rashomon. They both seem to be in utter disbelief over something they have just witnessed. After some time, a peasant joins them to save himself from heavy rain. When he overhears their conversations, he becomes interested in whatever these two are talking about. Woodcutter agrees to tell him the whole story, hoping he can make some sense out of it. They both have just come from courthouse where they appeared as witnesses in a murder case of Samurai woodcutter found few days ago. On same day, priest also passed by the same Samurai and his wife. At the same time, another person has apprehended very famous bandit Tajomaru who takes full responsibility of Samurai's murder and gives his own account of the complete incident. After some time, police find missing wife of dead Samurai hiding in some temple. When she is presented in front of court, even she gives her own but completely different story from Tajomaru. Because of the discrepancy in the two stories, court decides to take dead Samurai's opinion into account as well and is summoned through a medium. However, instead of making this case any easier, he tells a story nothing like first two we know of. To make the matters even more worse, after telling everything woodcutter agrees that he actually lied in the court so that he doesn't have to get involved more than he already is. He agrees that when he reached there, Samurai wasn't dead as he told in the court but when he reached they were all there and alive. Now, he tells another version of the same incident which takes even different route. After all this twists and turns, we finally come to the end which takes another small turn, almost insignificant with respect to all the stories we have had. But, in my opinion that is one of the best endings ever in Cinema because it gives us a hope that maybe at the end of the tunnel but at least there IS a ray of light, it finally makes the whole story worth enduring.

[You can consider pretty much whole paragraph Spoileriphic] According to Tajomaru, he was fascinated by the beauty of Samurai's wife and hatched up a plan to kidnap her. After he cunningly separates Samurai from her and binds him to a tree, he comes back to take her. However, at that instant, he can see real love and affection for him in her eyes which Tajomaru cannot stand and decides to belittle him in her eyes. He takes her to the Samurai and takes advantage of her in front of his eyes. However, most amazing thing is after initial resilience, even she seems to give-in to him. When Tajomaru turns to leave, since her honour has been shed away, she demands that only one of them can stay alive and hence, according to Tajomaru, he killed her husband in a duel after that in order to save her honour. When Wife is asked to tell her story, she says that Tajomaru ran away with wicked smile on his face after exploiting her. When she got up and ran to her husband, she did not see any remorse or anger in his eyes. He was staring right at her with completely blank eyes. She took them as he was blaming her for everything, she could not stand it at all and fainted after offering him her dagger to finish her off. When she woke up, her dagger was in his chest and there was nobody else anywhere in the vicinity. When summoned through a medium, Samurai tells that after Tajomaru violated her, he convinced her that running away with him is the only right thing to do now to which she even agreed but she asked him to kill the Samurai before leaving. This demand she made even surprised Tajomaru and he flipped on her but she managed to run away. After Tajomaru cut his ropes, he killed himself because he didn't see any meaning in life. When woodcutter tells the story he says that he saw Tajomaru on his knees begging to woman to marry her. She says her husband is the one who should decide it but her husband completely discards her on an account of being with two men. When she tells them both to man-up, they both feel ashamed of themselves and though eventually fight, they are so afraid of even toughing each other but somehow Tajomaru kills Samurai.

With Rashomon, Kurosawa doesn't expect viewers to get all Sherlock Holmes and figure out whose story is true. [SPOILER] After all, it is indicated that Woodcutter's story in the end is true, even though he doesn't tell the whole truth which leads to final scene [SPOILER END]. What he is really trying to tell us is how everyone tries to save their own pride, their ego. Tajomaru, Samurai and his wife, they all admit that they killed Samurai themselves but each one comes up with different reason for it to make them look respectable. Tajomaru tells that he killed Samurai but only to save lady's honour. Samurai says that he killed himself because his wife didn't leave him any other option whereas his wife agrees that she killed her own husband but because she could not stand a look of utter shame in her husband's eyes. Every single one of them feels guilty because of what has actually happened but, even when going into the ground, they want to go with their collar straight. [SPOILER]Even woodcutter who we assume finally reveals unbiased and honest truth, turns out is just telling the convenient part of the story and not the whole story[SPOILER END]. By giving us this multiple versions of reality, Kurosawa challenges our own perspective to look at everything through the glasses of our own ego. Through peasant's character he constantly questions the existence of anything purely good and by the end , even we start to believe him. It's like what peasant says just before woodcutter begins to tell his story 'Such horror stories are common now-a-days. I even hear that a demon here in Rashomon fled in fear of ferocity of men'. This contrast in the background is what makes its ending stand out even more because you have been questioning the very existence of humanity thus far, at every step of the way and in the end, we get some hope that there still might be some good left in the world.

Based on a short story 'In a Grove' by Ryunosuge Akutagawa, this movie is very 50's, very Japanese. Most of the acting is very loud, most actions can be almost incomprehensible to an outsider, even their sword fights are very unrehearsed, raw like a parody. But if you have any knowledge Japanese culture or Japanese cinema, you would know them to be occupational hazards. However, given that it was made in 1950, it can be considered revolutionary in many departments, especially technical. Use of lights and shadows, close-ups and long shots helps to build up the atmosphere brilliantly. Use of multiple camera angles to shoot the same location also helps. However, most important thing it does is it uses different perspective for each story it creates alternative reality for the same incident. All the three characters have distinctly different roles to play in different stories and bunch of actors who became Kurosawa regulars since this movie do great job in it. But by doing this, he makes it more difficult for viewers to decide which face is real and which is a mask ? All this is what makes Rashomon a true classic and must watch for anyone remotely serious about movies.

Rating(out of 5):

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  1. Brilliant analysis of one of the greatest motion-pictures of all time. The movie that made Kurosawa an international phenomenon was also the movie that demonstrated the subjectivity of truth for the first time on the celluloid. There are not many movies that can come close to the greatness of Rashomon,period. Arguably, it was the grand success of Rashomon and Bergman's The Seventh Seal that paved the way for the likes of Fellini, Godard, Truffaut and Antonioni. Rashomon has also contributed to a phenomenon called The Rashomon Effect i.e. effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection. As you already know that Ran and Dersu Uzala are my favorite Akira Kurosawa movies but Rashomon is not far behind. Also, I would like to recommend The Throne of Blood, High and Low, and the Hidden Fortress (the movie behind Star Wars) in case you haven't watched them yet.

    Here is the link for my review of Rashomon:

    1. Thanks !! I think I have seen all the major Kurosawa movies now - Rashomon, Saven Samurai, Ran, Throne of Blood, High and Low, Ran, Dersu, Kagemusha, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hidden Fortress, Ikiru. Now I want to see Rhapsody and Red Beard. Thanks for reminding me of it being the inspiration for all these foreign directors. And I think I commented on your Rashomon review as well. So check that too. :)

  2. Wow man, this an incredible review of yes, one of the very finest films ever made. It's the movie that singlehandedly made me fall in love with the methods of Kurosawa. It's just so evolving - so intricate and layered. Your fine review has pushed me to rewatch this movie tonight. Thanks for that! Well done here.

    1. Thank you Alex ! Coming from you, it means a lot.

      And you are right, even I fell in love of Kurosawa's technique because of this movie. Thanks again.

  3. Fantastic review SDG! This was my first Kurosawa film. It is quite a thought-provoking one, but I slightly prefer Seven Samurai, which is probably because it manages to thrill the viewer for three and a half hours. Though, I love the complexity of Rashomon. Either way, Kurosawa made two great films.

    1. Thanks Josh ! It's absolutely fine that you prefer Seven Samurai over this As both are great movies for sure. Now I don't know how many you have seen but I can guarantee you that there are many more great movies Kurosawa did. If you haven't seen them, you are in for something special Josh.

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