Sunday, February 2, 2014

Akira Kurosawa | Rashomon

suddenly the sun went away
by Douglas Messerli
Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (screenplay, based on short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa), Akira Kurosawa (director) Rashomon / 1950, USA 1951

I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s great film Rashomon many years ago, but realized, that except for its structure, I had remembered very little of it; I welcomed the opportunity yesterday to revisit the film. Most filmgoers will recall that this movie presents reality through the views of four different figures: a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the woman he rapes (Machiko Kyō), her husband, whom the bandit kills (Masayuki Mori), and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who first discovers the body of the dead husband. This minimalist plot is truly all one needs to know, the recounting of the differ versions each serving the individual who tells the tale (the dead man tells his tale through a medium).
  Kurosawa brilliantly films this work in three major locations: the court—a pebble floored white space—a sun-dappled forest, and a decaying, half-dilapidated gateway. Two of these sites are brightly lit, while at the gateway there is a heavy downpour of rain. Indeed the rape and murder occur in the bright sun, into which Kurosawa’s cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, often directly points his camera—all of which leads me to cooncur with Japanese critic Tadao Sato, who argues that, reversing the standard use of light and dark, light is here represented as a stimulant for lust and violence, something that obscures the truth, while rain and darkness finally results in truth’s revelation. Almost all of the characters are shown heavily sweating in the sunny forest, and at one point in the testimony where the realization of the consequences of a treacherous act is perceived, a figure notes that “suddenly the sun went away.” The fact that Kurosawa had planned to end the film with a cloud overhead (the cloud they awaited, however, never appeared during filming).
     And in this context, recalling that original Emperor of Japan was believed to have been the child of the sun goddess, I think we can also perceive the director’s attitude toward his own culture in the immediate post-World War II context in which the film was made. Predictably the film was not well received in Japan, while winning awards at The Venice Film Festival and The Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts.
       Clearly the testimonies given by all four of these figures in the white-washed court is filled with lies, the woodcutter declaring that he came upon the dead body long after the event; the bandit bragging that after tricking and tying up the samurai husband, raping the woman before his eyes and dueling with the man after; the wife suggesting that she has stabbed her husband with her own dagger for his refusal to even acknowledge her after the rape; and the samurai claiming that after rejecting his wife, she seemed determined to go with the bandit, he killing himself in shame. These last two versions, particularly, paint a truly misogynistic picture of the husband, who plays out patriarchal and macho attitudes regarding the wife, suggesting, at least in Kurosawa’s version, a disdain of this proto-feminist perspective.     
     The final truth, however—and I do believe we can perceive the woodcutter’s second version of the story is the truth—lies somewhere between the testimonies of both husband and wife. As if confessing to the priest, and admitting that he had previously lied, the humble woodsman now admits that he had seen it all, the rape and battle, that after raping her, the bandit begged to woman to go with him, and in answer cut the ropes  that bound her husband. When he refused to fight for her, she egged on both men, demanding they act like real men by fighting for her. In the fight, we see the terror and clumsiness of both men, and the bandit wins the battle only through luck, with the samurai begging for his life before his was killed, the woman running away.
     Many critics, and Kurosawa himself, however, seem to shy away from declaring any of these “five” versions as truthful. But it seems make sense that the woodcutter, growing angrier and angrier as he tells his story to the commoner, would like yet a second time; he no longer has anything to gain, and by admitting that he had previously lied suggests that his retelling the story is an attempt to free his own conscience. His argument for why he had lied, moreover (“I didn’t want to get involved”) makes perfect sense. Kurosawa seems to point this up by showing the woodcutter to be, at heart, a good man, chastising the commoner for stealing a kimono and amulet in which a crying baby has been wrapped, and offering to take the child into his own family which already includes six children. So, although the film and original story, may have seemed somewhat experimental or even postmodern in their anti-linear subjectivity, in hindsight Rashomon seems far more related to psychological modernism, wherein we get four versions of reality that can be explained by the inner thinking and self-justification of its central characters. Only in the end, are the woodcutter and priest willing to abandon self-serving realities.
     Had the cloud that Kurosawa sought to darken the sky at the end of his tale appeared, we might clearly recognize that the sun god was no longer looking down upon them, and with it, the imperialist aspirations of Japan—filled with actions of greed, murder, and mendacity. However, even with the somewhat “sunny” ending, we realize, in the woodcutter’s gentle gesture of taking the baby into his arms, that he is acting against all that has preceded it.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2014

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