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).
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.
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