*This was originally published on 1st December 2009, but with the recent London Riots, there is a nice relevance to this choice. From Ozu to Kurosawa …
“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest to ourselves”
Akira Kurosawa is a director who, I find, splits the men from the boys. The film watchers and film obsessed. Most incredible films owe a debt to Kurosawa so, if you want to know your movies, you really must watch the back catalogue. Saying that, at Uni, I fell asleep during Seven Samurai and found it difficult to rewatch (the boy I was) … but I did rewatch, and decided to continue on this Kurosawa streak by watching Rashomon. This may be controversial but, I feel, it is a better film. Not as epic but more groundbreaking, interesting and ultimately asks much bigger questions. Maybe thats my ignorance towards essays on Kurosawa and Seven Samurai but, on face value, I prefer Rashomon. When its as cheap as a rental at Fopp, I buy and I watch.
Proud to be Obsessed
I watched the film as I was huddled alone in a duvet as I was coughing out demons from my chest, drinking lemsip, and it took me to a place few films take me. It made me feel proud to be so obsessed with film and what such a medium offers. Its not a representation or a substitute for sound – it is an art form in and of itself. This films shows the scope such a medium can offer. Your perspective is your own perspective, but the filmmakers and the characters in the film have their own perspective that may be completely at odds with your own. Nothing is clear – as is life.
John Boorman, director of Deliverance, introduces this film on the DVD, noting that Kurosawa records what the characters remember and not the truth – therefore changing the meaning and use of a camera and, ultimately, film. Its not capturing an event, it is a memory caught. Take this further, is that not any fiction? The memory and thoughts of filmmakers? I highly recommend hunting down Boormans introduction as it is enlightening – he even notes that this was the first Kurosawa film he watched and it began his interest in the director.
A Priest, A Woodsman and a Commoner
So, it begins outside an old house with a huge rainfall as priest, woodsman and commoner discuss a ‘horror’ story that they were involved with, as witnesses. It is pouring down with rain (something in Seven Samurai) and adds a darker and sinister edge as you can feel the muddy ground and the soaked-through wood that holds the house together. This puts clearly in perspective the crumbling society that they are involved within. This society is 12th century Japan – whereby, what is clear, is a cold-bloodied murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife. We see how the situation [Spoilers ahead…] from the three involved characters perspective – (1) the bandit who robbed and raped, (2) the wife’s and even the (3) deceased Samurai’s perspective. But the rouse is in the depiction of each memory recalled – the Samurai feels shame in his wife and murders himself, the wife kills her Husband because she cannot cope with his shame herself (She seems to kill him following a scene whereby she begins to go mad as he merely looks at her) and then the obvious killer – the bandit – seems to claim he killed the Samurai in a fair contest to win the affections of his wife … all three stories contradict each other and we are left to consider their purpose.
Visually, we see stunning shots of the dappled light gleaming through the forest while, especially in shots of the rain-soaked, crumbling house, we have clear definition of the foreground and background. Even during each characters testimony we see the priest and woodsman sit, in silence, in the background (is this representative of them or would they sit in on each testimony?). Interestingly, as an audience member, as the characters give their testimony, they speak directly to camera – indicating us as judge and juror. There is an ambiguous ending – whereby we see a final memory as the woodsman claims he witnessed the whole event and all the characters are shown as weak and shallow. Though the final memory – and with little cause for inaccuracy – I believe we are meant to doubt his perspective too. He was shocked and horrified by the situation – and maybe horrified enough that he despises all three people involved, assuming that they must have all been weak and shallow to then lie about the situation too!
The dead Samurai’s testimony is the most interesting as he gives it via a medium – a female character who speaks the voice of the Samurai. Though a little awkward to observe, we see her wreath and twist – as her cloth blows in the wind. Very unsettleing and, with the stark white colours of the womans clothes, recalls Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa.
The film often notes Vantage Point and The Usual Suspects as contemporary films inspired by Rashomon – there are so many and I am sure these films are simply well-known films opposed to good parrallels to such a masterpiece. Any type of multiple-perspective storyline which uses characters perspectives to show the memory has been inspired by Rashomon – I think better examples would be Jackie Brown, Go and Fargo. Rashomon is a true classic and, as John Boorman did, I would advise potential-Kurosawa fans to watch this first before moving on to the grandoise Seven Samurai.
NB – Considering the recent Riots in London, it is worth noting perhaps the current relevance this has in terms of the differing perspectives.
“If you’re a left-winger, the causes of the violence and looting are straight-forward: they’re the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.
For the right, explaining the violence is even simpler – because any attempt at understanding is tantamount to condoning it. Better by far to talk of a society with a sense of over-entitlement; or to do what the prime minister did yesterday and simply dismiss “pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick”. You can expect to hear more of the same rhetoric in today’s debate in parliament, especially from backbenchers on either side” – from Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian
Ah the film that launched a thousand impersonators but never an equivalent. It's safe to say that Kurosawa wasn't the first to try false narrative with Rashomon, but I think he was the first to really bring it all together, and present it to the world as a true form of cinema. Of course the impact of not only that but on the respect of cinema in the US for foreign countries, it's hard to ignore the importance of it. Great post!
I think you're right – “thousand impersonators but never an equivalent”. You would think the scope could be expanded but, as you said, I dont think Vantage Point even comes close! For some reason, personally, I love these non-linear, different stories-type film (Pulp Fiction, Magnolia …) and i think this ranks right up there with the most interesting ones.