Sunday, December 25, 2011


A human life is strictly as frail and fleeting as the morning dew

NOTE: Ranked No. 94 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

"There was not a lot of dialogue. The titles were just to keep you up. It's the visual stimulation that hits the audience. That's the reason for film. Otherwise, we might as well turn the light out and call it radio." — Robert Altman

By Edward Copeland
Akira Kurosawa was 40 years old when he made the film that truly made moviegoers outside his native Japan take notice. Rashomon began filming July 7, 1950, and, in amazing turnaround time, debuted in Japan on Aug. 25 of that same year. However, the rest of the world didn't get to see Rashomon until 1951, starting with the Venice Film Festival in September where it won both the Golden Lion and the Italian Film Critics Award for best film. It unspooled next in the U.S., where it premiered 60 years ago today.

The Altman quote that I began this piece with comes from an introduction he taped for the Criterion Collection DVD release of Rashomon in 2002. While Altman certainly had it right about the visual wonders that Kurosawa summons in Rashomon, with the invaluable help of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, with whom Kurosawa was working with for the first time, ironically (given the movie's subject), I believe the other much-missed filmmaker's memory may have been faulty when it came to the amount of dialogue. Granted, Rashomon isn't overly chatty, but the film says nearly as much verbally as visually, not that I fault Altman — those images beckon you to lose yourself in them, even if subtitles get missed as a consequence. After all, Kurosawa himself admitted in his autobiography Something Like an Autobiography that he tried in Rashomon to recapture the spirit of silent movies that film had lost when sound came along. Criterion printed an excerpt of his memoir in the booklet that accompanied the DVD. "Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past," Kurosawa wrote. "In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, ruminating over the aesthetics that had made them special. Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research."

Know what tickles me about writing a tribute to this film? Rashomon liberates me to go into excruciating detail (if I desire) about scenes — for instance, I can describe the scene where The Woman (Machiko Kyô) turns on both her husband, the samurai (Masayuki Mori), and the infamous bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune), accusing them both of being weak and egging them on to fight to the death over who gets to keep her — because that's merely one version of what happened that led to the samurai's death. No character in the movie nor any viewer in the audience can declare with 100% certainty which version, if any, depicts the truth. Rashomon makes the need for giving readers spoiler warnings moot, praise be not only to Kurosawa but to his co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto and especially Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, who wrote the two short stories, "In a Grove" and "Rashomon," which inspired Kurosawa to make the film in the first place. Once Kurosawa had all his elements in place — cast, crew, shooting locations, set being constructed — even his assistant directors came to the director and admitted that the screenplay "baffled" them and asked Kurosawa to explain its meaning. In his autobiography, Kurosawa wrote, “'Please read it again more carefully,' I told them. 'If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.' But they wouldn’t leave. 'We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.' For their persistence, I gave them this simple explanation:

"Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave — even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.

"After I finished, two of the three assistant directors nodded and said they would try reading the script again. They got up to leave, but the third, who was the chief, remained unconvinced. He left with an angry look on his face. (As it turned out, this chief assistant director and I never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation. But, aside from this, the work went well.)" It saddens me the number of books I'll never find time to read. I wish I'd read Kurosawa's autobiography at a younger age — I have so many unfinished and unstarted books lying around the house as it is. I digress. Rashomon may have puzzled Kurosawa's assistant directors, but I grasped it from the first time I saw it as a teen. Then again, perhaps geographical differences explain the comprehension gap. Sure — they shared a common country of origin with Kurosawa, but the director had immersed himself so deeply into Western culture through movies and literature, he might as well have hailed from the U.S. as Altman and I did, despite the large differences in our three ages. In fact, in my sophomore year of high school, not long after seeing Rashomon for the first time, my English teacher gave us an assignment to write something about our own time period based on the form of Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, which we'd just studied in clsss. The teacher made no requirement that our piece be true or realistic so I titled mine Rashomon, American Style and fabricated an attack on a classmate and wrote five letters by different people, each giving different accounts of what took place, though my piece didn't dwell remotely in philosophical realms — it aimed solely at the satirical side of life. I'm proud to say I received an A on the assignment. With that little anecdote, I've finally remembered to give a broad outline of the plot of Rashomon, which I've neglected to do so far. As much as I do love Rashomon, it might not make the top five if I ranked my favorite Kurosawa films. I know it doesn't make the top four. For Altman, it and Throne of Blood were his two favorites. In that introduction, Altman said:

"Rashomon is the most interesting, for me, of Kurosawa's films.…The main thing here is that when one sees a film you see the characters on screen.…You see very specific things — you see a tree, you see a sword — so one takes that as truth, but in this film, you take it as truth and then you find out it's not necessarily true and you see these various versions of the episode that has taken place that these people are talking about. You're never told which is true and which isn't true which leads you to the proper conclusion that it's all true and none of it's true. It becomes a poem and it cracks this visual thing that we have in our minds that if we see it, it must be a fact. In reading, in radio — where you don't have these specific visuals — your mind is making them up. What my mind makes up and what your mind makes up…is never the same."

Since I've avoided, not on purpose mind you, giving even a cursory synopsis or Rashomon's plot, I suppose now offers as good a place as any other to pen a brief summary for anyone unfamiliar with the film (in the unlikely event that their eyes remain fixed on this Web page this deep into the post). The title refers, according to Kurosawa's autobiography, the main gate to the outer precincts of Japan's 11th century capital city. As the movie opens, a Commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) seeks refuge from a heavy downpour of rain beneath the gate where a Buddhist Priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) sit visibly shaken, repeating variations of how they just don't understand and never have encountered a story as strange as this one. This intrigues The Commoner, who pumps both men for information about their rambling. "War, earthquakes, winds, fire, famine, the plague — years where it's been nothing but disasters. And bandits…every night. I've seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this," The Priest tells him. "This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul." When The Priest says that, The Commoner starts to lose interest. He just wanted to get out of the rain, not listen to a sermon, he responds, then The Woodcutter shares his involvement in the story and we get our first flashback, filmed as a long tracking shot through mountainous woods behind from behind the Woodcutter before it circles around him and continues as he walks toward it — stopping when he discovers a woman's white hat and veil hanging off a bush. He continues on and finds another item on the path until he finally stumbles upon the corpse of The Man and runs back to report it to the police. The Commoner learns that The Priest and The Woodcutter had come to the gate after being at the courthouse where they listened to the testimony of the famous bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune), who was apprehended by a Policeman (Daisuke Katô); The Woman (Machiko Kyô), who was discovered at a temple; and even The Man (Masayuki Mori), who may have been murdered, but tells his version of events through a Medium (Noriko Honma). No one's version of the events matches the others' completely and The Woodcutter believes everyone, even the dead man, lied. "Dead men tell no lies," The Priest insists. "It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves," The Commoner replies, repeating nearly verbatim what Kurosawa told his confused assistant directors. Most character lists you'll find for Rashomon agree to call Chiaki and Shimura's characters The Priest and The Woodcutter, but you'll find many names Ueda's role such as The Commoner, The Peasant, The Beggar, etc. Within the movie itself, only Mifune's bandit receives a name, Tajômaru. Somehow though IMDb gives full names to The Man and The Woman who could be called The Husband and The Wife or The Samurai and The Wife, but never get proper names.

While I didn't intend for this anniversary tribute to end up reading as if it were a paid advertisement for the Criterion DVD of Rashomon, the disc also contains excerpts from the documentary The World of Kazuo Miyagawa where the late director of photography explains how he pulled off the complicated dolly shot of the Woodcutter's trek through the woods as well as other tricks on Rashomon. The movie marked his first teaming with Kurosawa. The Woodcutter's walk was one of the very first shots scheduled, so Miyagawa set out to impress the director. He had the track built so the camera could do a 180-degree turn and then at the proper time had Takashi Shimura cross over the track to allow the camera to view the actor from the front. Some other Rashomon secrets that Miyagawa (and Kurosawa) share in the excerpt involve what tricks they employed to get desired effects in the woods of the Nara, Japan, region where they filmed because the trees stood unusually tall. As a result, it interfered with Kurosawa's wish for shadows and light reflecting on the actors' faces at various times. Miyagawa used the same tool to help with both problems — mirrors. To deflect the distant rays of the suns on to the performers, Miyagawa stole the full-length mirror from the costume department and set it up so it would catch the sunlight and direct it exactly where Kurosawa sought to aim it. The director also sought to darken portions of the actors' faces with tree branches — which would have been fine if the cast all had been about 8 feet tall. Since they weren't, they jerry-rigged some mesh out of sight of the camera and attached branches to it. After that, they again made use of the mirror to reflect the shadows of the standalone branches where they wanted on the actors. One other detail the documentary excerpt includes came only from Kurosawa, who talked about the trouble of filming rain. He said that when you want to film rain, it always had to be a downpour otherwise, the rain never shows up on the film. Even then, in the case of Rashomon, he admits that they tinted the color of the rain to make certain it could be seen. Though Miyagawa and Kurosawa worked together well, they only teamed up two more times since the two men seldom worked at the same Japanese studio at the same time. Their next collaboration didn't occur until Yojimbo and, though he wasn't the d.p., Miyagawa did consult on the photography for Kagemusha. Since Miyagawa served as cinematographer on more than 80 features between 1938 and 1991, he did work with many of the biggest names in Japanese cinema at least once (often multiple times) including Kon Ichikawa, Takashi Imai, Hiroshi Inagaki, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Kenji Mizoguchi(including Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu), Yasujirô Ozu (on Floating Weeds) and Masahiro Shinoda, among many others.

Though the importance of the visual ingredients of Rashomon shouldn't be understated, I believe that ultimately the film's success depends on the two separate trio of performers. First, we have Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda as The Woodcutter, The Priest and The Commoner, essentially static characters that function as narrators of a sort as well as our surrogates, debating the philosophical ideas that the movie raises. The Priest struggles with his faith in light of what he has heard while The Woodcutter already has abandoned his on the basis of what he has heard and saw. The Commoner, who receives all the information about the events in the woods second hand, serves both as the audience surrogate and as someone who long ago realized that the world doesn't function in black-and-white terms and that horrible things happen every day. When he first arrives, The Priest informs him that a man has been murdered. "So what? Only one? Why, up on top of this gate, there's always five or six bodies. No one worries about them," The Commoner responds. At a later point, The Priest seems unable to listen to any more. "I don't want to hear it. No more horror stories," The Priest pleads. The Commoner fails to react with the shock of the other two men. "They are common stories these days. I even heard that the demon living here in Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man," The Commoner tells him. That part always reminds me whenever a news anchor reports on a workplace shooting somewhere and leads his or her report with someone being "shocked." How many of these over how many decades do these news readers have to talk about until they feel it's OK for them to drop the illusion of being shocked by them? I've also heard there's gambling at Rick's. All three actors serve their roles well but, as always, I'm amazed at the physical changes Takashi Shimura undergoes in his various Kurosawa roles. From a "modern" detective his own age in Stray Dog to The Woodcutter here, from the old dying civil servant in Ikiru to the main samurai in Seven Samurai — I'd be hard-pressed at any time to tell you how old he really was or what he looked like in everyday life. By cheating, I can find his age. He was 45 when he made Rashomon. He died in 1982 at 76.

The second trio's task provides a more difficult acting challenge for Mifune, Kyô and Mori. The three performers aren't simply portraying The Bandit Tajômaru, The Woman and The Man — the film requires them to play widely divergent versions of those characters while still staying within the roles' essential frameworks. All three do well but, as you'd expect, Mifune stands out, though Kyô gives him a run for his money as The Woman. When Tajômaru gives his version of events, he testifies about The Woman's reaction, saying, "Her face turns pale. She stares at me with frozen eyes, her expression intense like a child's." However, when The Woman gives her own testimony, The Woodcutter and The Priest who were at the courthouse say she was docile and nothing like Tajômaru described. The Man's tale given through The Medium paints yet another portrait.

When The Woodcutter finally comes clean about witnessing the events instead of just finding The Man's body afterward as he said before, he draws a sketch of The Woman as completely manipulative and evil. Kyô excels at all these variations. There comes a moment in one version where she's lying on the ground sobbing and suddenly sits bolt upright and lambastes both men that will send a chill down your spine. Mifune's most consistent quality is The Bandit's maniacal laugh, but his face seems incapable of exhausting possible expressions. He can be menacing, romantic, insane, sad — you name it, he probably plumbs it as Tajômaru. They even go so far as to show the difference in fighting abilities in the different version. In Tajômaru's testimony, he claims that he and The Man had a spirited sword fight and that no man had fought him as well as this samurai so he felt he owed it to him that he die admirably. In the account told by The Woodcutter only to The Priest and The Commoner, The Woman forces the two men to fight and their swordplay is sloppy and not done very well. Altman says in his intro that when Tajômaru's interrogation takes place, we never see anyone asking him questions because the audience is doing the interrogation and he was on the money about that. It's not as clear in the testimony from The Woman and through The Medium, but Tajômaru looks right into the camera and speaks to us. In that respect, Kurosawa achieved his goal of going back to the past and recapturing the days of silent movies because in many ways, that's how what divides the film and its two trios. The three men at the gate reside in the talkie and while dialogue exists in the woods, much of what happens, each time that it happens, occurs on the actors' faces.

The pair of prizes Rashomon picked up in Venice were just the first two in a long string of honors and nominations the film received stretching from September 1951 through the spring of 1953. Before Rashomon officially opened on Christmas Day 1951, the always-and-forever mysterious National Board of Review, shortly after changing its name from The Illuminati, awarded Kurosawa best director and gave the movie best foreign film more than a week earlier. The Oscars didn't have a competitive foreign language film category until 1956 so at the ceremony for 1951 films (held in early 1952), Rashomon became the fifth foreign language film to receive an honorary Oscar from the Academy's Board of Governors "as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States in 1951." The previous four went to Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief in 1947 and 1949, respectively; Maurice Cloche's Monsieur Vincent (1948) and René Clément's The Walls of Malapaga (1950). (Three additional foreign language films receive honorary Oscars before the regular category was added: Clément's Forbidden Games in 1952, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell in 1954 and Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai, The Legend of Musashi aka Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto in 1955.) Apparently, Rashomon didn't make it to England until 1952, because it was for that year that it received a nomination for best film from any source from the British Academy Film Awards, handed out in spring 1953 (and not yet merged with the British TV Academy to form BAFTA). What doesn't make sense is that NBR and the Academy both recognized that Rashomon's U.S. release occurred in 1951. Somehow though when the 1952 Oscars rolled around, the Academy nominated production designer Takashi Matsuyama and set decorator H. Motsumoto for their black-and-white art direction. Forget for the moment the question of how they ruled Rashomon eligible again but consider that being eligible the Academy ONLY nominated it for art direction in 1952, that year The Greatest Show on Earth won best picture. Also for the year 1952, Kurosawa received a Directors Guild of America nomination, the only DGA nomination he ever received, though he lost to John Ford for The Quiet Man — one of the 17 other contenders in the category. Hell, we’re already spending too much time talking about this year’s awards, I’ll stop talking about awards six decades ago now.

Besides, the honors aren't what matters in the end, it's the influence and it would be impossible to list all the movies, TV shows, plays and novels that have been influenced by Rashomon, which, of course, had its own influences to draw on before Kurosawa filmed it. Movies made before Rashomon had told a story through multiple points of views (most notably Citizen Kane), but nothing had really had alternate versions of a single event until Rashomon. When I watched Rashomon again most recently, the most recent film that popped into my mind was (500) Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character's interpretation of Zooey Deschanel's character and moments they shared changed depending how he felt toward her at that given moment. In 1964, Martin Ritt directed an actual American remake called The Outrage that set the story in the Old West and starred Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom in the roles equivalent to The Bandit, The Man and The Woman and Edward G. Robinson, Howard da Silva and William Shatner in the parts equal to The Commoner, The Woodcutter and The Priest. Two recent films with similar premises, updated for the modern age, were Courage Under Fire and Vantage Point. A little Rashomon peeks out at times in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. Many TV shows, especially sitcoms, have enjoyed borrowing the premise over the years, including a classic All in the Family where Mike and Archie differ over what happened when a TV repairman and his African-American apprentice came over. Almost by formula, any police or detective show has that quality to some extent. However, The Simpsons delivered by far the funniest dialogue exchange referring to the movie. In the 10th season episode "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo," Marge says to Homer, "You liked Rashomon the last time we saw it" to which Homer replies, "That's not how I remember it."

What remains important about Rashomon is that 60 years later, we do still remember it and the film has injected itself far enough into the cultural bloodstream that we'll continue to reference it. Sadly, the same can't be said for so much of our past works of film, television, music and literature as we increasingly become a disposable culture where it's been decided the most things should have an expiration date, usually tied somehow to the date Entertainment Weekly began publishing. Thankfully, Rashomon seems to have slipped by the pre-1990 terminators. Long may it baffle.
"It certainly changed my perception about what is possible in film and what is desirable. You just have to be able to let the audience come to that conclusion and they say, 'Oh, that isn't what happened.' Everybody that you would talk to about it — you'd sit down and make a person see the film — and ask them questions, you would not get the same answers from anybody which is the art of art. That is what art is — it penetrates your intellect…and your experience and history has to react on this new information. You're reacting from your own persona on it, but that's what gives it the power." — Robert Altman

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Man, you're on a roll, Ed. Great celebratory piece on this Kurosawa classic. This reminds me that I got to get out my Criterion disc and re-watch this (love the inclusion of that Simpson's bit). Well done. Thanks.
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