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Akira Kurosawa’s well renowned film Rashomon was initially released in Japan in the fall of 1950. It was not until about a year later when it began screening in different countries across the globe at film festivals and making is box office debut in the United States in the winter of 1951. Rashomon received recognition from many critics at the time and ended up winning awards from BAFTA, Blue Ribbon and even received a nomination for an Oscar. The film’s story was not actually originally written as a motion picture, in fact, Rashomon’s main story was adapted from the Japanese short story titled “In a grove” which was written and published by author Ryūnosuke Akutugawa about 30 years prior in 1922.
Rashomon was released during what is considered by most to be the golden age of Japanese film and is often cited as one of the best films to come out in this era. Japanese golden age of cinema is generally referred to have taken place from the years 1945 to 1965 (Ragone 14) but most golden age films came out of the 1950s. The decade of the 1950s brought about many of Japans most well-known and critically acclaimed films such as Toho’s classic monster movies like Godzilla and Rodan as well as Hiroshi Inigaki’s Samurai film series.
Rashomon was a revolutionary film when it came out and is still talked about today, and its style is being used throughout cinema all over the world. Rashomon created the Rashomon Effect which is when there is an event with contradictory interpretations by multiple people, this effect can be seen throughout TV and movies. Rashomon uses mixes many types of genres like Crime, Drama, Mystery, Jidaigeki, and what feels like Noir with its use of lighting and shadows. They also break some of these genre conventions throughout the film. The film itself also has connections with Post-War Japan, events, locations, and people are reflections on Japans military defeat and the American occupation.
Rashomon uses many types of genre convention throughout the film, more notably its use of drama. Rashomon, in being told in a ‘traditional’ style, attempts to both break and rethink its very own conventions, utilizing the audience’s comprehension of Jidaigeki to make, and after that break, their previously established inclinations on how the characters should act and how it should to be filmed. Rashomon could be a period drama by following conventions of a standard drama and then break away from the over the course of the film, like its characters, setting, and major scenes. Kurisawa expertly uses camerawork and theme help make this film unique in its story telling capabilities. For the initial first half of the film, Rashomon plays out like a regular Jidaigeki with every character telling their own story to the court to prove that they are innocent, which shows how each character is faithful to their character archetype. Kurisawa even described the script as to show how human beings are unable to be honest about themselves with themselves. Another example of characters not following their archetype is the fight scene. In Jidaigeki, fight scenes are usually bloodless deaths with exaggerated movements. But in Rashomon there are many fight scenes and each one of them are different, but the fist fight starts off like any ordinary “heroic or honorable” fight. Then it slower gets sloppier and degrades into a pathetic and laughable dual where the samurai and Tajomaru are just running around, falling over, tripping over themselves, and barely able to even clash swords. But in the end the samurai still dies. Jidaigeki also has a clear moral good and evil with the characters, but Kurosawa blurs the line of good and evil making the audience guess who really is good or bad. Jidaigekis hero is usually a clean, perfect, and moral man while villains are the opposite of this. The samurai at the beginning is portrayed as the hero but is later shattered during the woodcutter’s story when you see how cruel and abusive, he is to his wife. Then there is Tajomaru who we think is a dirty bandit but is later seen has being noble and honorable in every story. Then there is the samurai’s wife, she starts off looking and acting like a goddess. But her hair and clothes get more disordered and dirtier, just like her personality and morals. There is also camera work and technique that Jidaigeki uses, and that Kurisawa breaks throughout the film. The act of looking at the sun hold many symbolic purposes, it breaks the convections of Jidaigeki, and was one of the taboos of cinematography as Kurisawa said.
Rashomon uses its camerawork and narration to its full effect to tell the story. “The main feature evident in the time series of Rashomon is the shift to a slower cutting rate after the end of the bandit’s testimony.” This shows who the pace changes throughout every testimonial, and even shows how the editing slows down over the course of the film. Then there is the acting of the actors and the camerawork. “But when Rashomon’s actors look directly at the camera and tell contradictory narratives — and even worse when the camera’s apparently objective view records different happenings — it forces upon the viewer, narratively and thematically, a self-conscious awareness of his or her own interpretive activity.” Small things like this add to the mystery of the death, for the audience is unable to figure out the truth.
Rashomon easily fits into the Japanese Golden Age of cinema, as well it fits into Japans post war cinema. Akira Kurosawa is one of the most well-known filmmakers during the Japanese post war cinema. The effects of the Second World War, most specifically the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings had a great effect on the artistic community in Japan, and these influences can still be seen in Japanese film and media to this day. Akira Kurosawa noted that one of his biggest inspirations during the production of Rashomon were films from the silent era. In the interview with Richie, Kurosawa said “I like silent pictures and always have. They are often so much more beautiful than sound pictures are. Perhaps they must be. At any rate, I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember, this way: one of the techniques of modern painting is simplification, I must there fore simplify this film.” Rashomon is one of the most historically significant films in Japanese cinema history, it’s experimental cinematography and timeless story is still studied to this day.
Cinematically, framing is one of the key features of Kurosawa’s films and is used in Rashomon in order to establish primitivity of his characters. Kurosawa is a painter with his shots, he tries to control every aspect of the shot as though it were a painting resulting in powerful and well-developed images. This is used effectively throughout many Kurosawa’s films and Rashomon is no different. One of the film’s central themes is that there is a thin line between humanity and animals. Tajomaru is used throughout the film to showcase this thin line as a man who boards on insanity and moves tact of an animal. During his first testimony, a scene captures Tajomaru stalking the two victims through the forest. One shot displays Tajomaru peering down upon them through the cover of the woods. He is framed perfectly by the leaves and branches, while his placement above gives him the look of a hunter following his prey. This is a powerful scene from Kurosawa and an early establisher of the primitive side of the civilized man. While Kurosawa was the creator of the narrative, his camera work is the most integral part to telling his stories. His use of photograph like scenes is a powerful source of storytelling as well as a key factor in all of Kurosawa’s films.
The story being told in Rashomon is another key feature of all that Kurosawa stands for. Rashomon is a look into the human mind and the terrible things that civilized people can do. Kurosawa has long been curious about these types of actions after living through a tumultuous time in Japanese history. As the screenwriter and director, Kurosawa had full control to create and film the exact movie he wanted. Rashomon brings to audience’s a story focused on this idea of human deceit and the objectivity of truth. Kurosawa uses his films and techniques in order to bring to life these ideas in way that is unique to most auteurs. Throughout all of Kurosawa’s films, including Rashomon, the uses of movement in his shots are powerful. He uses the movement of nature to create shots with great movement and thus drawing in full attention from the audience. In Rashomon, the movement of the powerful rain around the men recalling the stories helps establish the emotion wrapped up in this gathering. They are suffering through a loss of faith in humanity, just as Kurosawa himself has struggled with, and the weather and motion around them reflects that. These aspects all showcase Kurosawa’s inner struggle with human nature. The most telling part of the story, however, is the ending. In a story filled with conflicting accounts of a single incident, Rashomon leaves the audience without revealing what the real story was. Just as Kurosawa will never understand the depths of humanity.
Rashomon is a prime example of all the things that make Akira Kurosawa a great director. His unique filming techniques helps make scenes come to life with movement, and the story he wrote capture the raw emotion of the line between man and animal. Overall, this film would not be the success it was with Kurosawa and cannot be separated from his touches.
When a film is perceived differently than it is intended the viewer often misses a lot of story and major plot points. It is never a good thing for a movie’s meaning, story, plot, or ideas to not click with its viewers, but in many cases, especially those cases where the film is primarily foreign (if not completely foreign), this is due to the miscommunication of how a film’s location of creation or location of characters affects the way that the film is viewed. Some of these films are made without the intention of feeding the audience the background of the films culture. This is a pretty common way to look at films, and it is referred to as the National Cinema’s approach. In Kurosawas Rashomon, we are expected to know a handful of things about the Japanese culture in order to fully grasp the monumental weight of some of the actions that happen.
Rashomon is a harrowing tale that speaks directly to the nature of humankind. By exploring one of the most atrocious acts a human can commit and placing the film in the ravaged village of Rashomon, which has been plagued by war, natural disasters, and almost every sorrow you can think of, we can discover the true nature of humanity. When humans are placed in a situation of extreme distress will their morality hold up? Kurosawa uses this backdrop in order to create a skeptical view of humanity that has few redeeming moments save the last scene of the movie. The film attacks the idea of human sanctity by addressing the concept of truth, a value that humans hold in high esteem. The story of Rashomon would have us believe that humans only tell the truth when it best serves them and will lie if the truth reveals something compromising to their character that they would not have others or themselves believe. Kurosawa conveys this skeptical view of morality by setting the film in a period where gross human behavior has become the norm, revolving the plot around the immoral actions of its characters, and exploring the truthfulness of these characters.
As stated before, the film is set in the titular village of Rashomon. In the years leading up to the story the village has come upon a period a great misfortune, suffering countless natural disasters, war, famine, and disease. The village itself is in ruins and there are few people around. These circumstances have changed the people of the village, they’ve become hardened to the reality they must face.
The film also portrays our willingness to abandon our previous notion of morality through the actions of its characters. The most obvious example is that of the bandit Tajomaru. He’s notorious throughout the land for the deeds he’s done and is a character with no morals and little regard for his actions. Tajomaru seems to take joy in doing harm to others. In the story he murders a man (according to his account and the woodcutters) and rapes a woman. In his accounting of the story is almost seems proud of his actions, gloating about how he was able to capture and kill the man and have his way with the woman, he also lied to the court. Tajomaru seems to be the embodiment of immorality and the time period they are living in (Boyd).
A huge part of Japanese background is the history of the Samurai culture. One thing specifically that the culture had put an emphasis on was the honorable way to live life, even up to the inevitable death. There is a practice in Samurai culture called Seppuku which is when a samurai would voluntarily die with honor rather than fall to the hands of an enemy. It was common for a warrior to rather perform Seppuku, which was highly honorable in this era, than to be finished off by the person he was battling. Rashomon is set in the eleventh century of Japan, which Kurosawa uses to help showcase some extremities of human behavior. One of the extremities that the audience gets to witness is in one story when the Samurai falls to the Bandit, and instead of having a dishonorable death the Samurai decides to stand up and perform Seppuku in the background. This scene is one of the scenes that might just be confusing if the audience doesn’t know the history and background of the samurai culture before watching this movie.
Rashomon was made under the studio known as Daiei. At first the studio was very reluctant to fund the project because it seemed, “too unconventional” and they “feared that it would be too difficult for audiences to understand.” When Rashomon was entered into an international film festival entitled Venice Film Festive of 1951, it was met with a very positive reaction. Surprisingly Daiei, the studio, didn’t want to originally permit the film to be submitted for competition. Kurosawa’s visionary approach with this movie led to massive cinematic and cultural influence. One key point to the reign of Kurosawa’s impact is that he utilized the concept of a flashback before anyone else had done that in the film world. As much as this movie has affected the film world there is an even more unique connection of Rashomon and the current Japanese culture. Its name has become a sort of parlance to showcase the general conceptions of the reality of truth, subjectivity of memory, and the unreliability of our minds. When the Japanese reference this, it is most referred to in law and is called The Rashomon effect.
Often in film, the ideas and images presented are a direct representation of a director’s background and key ideals. Rashomon is a picture that was clearly affected and created by Akira Kurosawa. As the screenwriter and director, his influences are prevalent throughout the entirety of the film. From the formal film elements like framing and movement to the unique storytelling style, Rashomon showcases all the skills that make Kurosawa a great director and an influential auteur.
Rashomon is one of the only international films that have impacted the world in so many ways and is still discussed and taught to this day. This film alone was able to put Akira Kurosawa’s name in history as one of the most influential and revolutionary screenwriters and directors in international history. Rashomon will be one of the many films that will stand the test of time and be talked about in film and media history forever.
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