Rashomon

Rashomon

Japan (1950) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

Following on from watching the Hollywood adaptation of this film The Outrage, it was only fair I give the original a rewatch to ensure the comments concerning the various comparisons and differences were just and accurate.

There seems little point in fully recapping the plot in lieu of how the two films are almost exactly the same – the truth about the death of a man is obfuscated by three differing versions of the events. As this was an original Japanese work by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the story revolves around samurai and not Mexican bandits and Southern gentlemen. It’s not just the location that makes all the difference but the philosophical and sociological aspects of the story which prove more congruent due to their grounding in Asian culture.

Retelling the story under the city gates of Rashomon during a nasty rainstorm to a local commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) are an old woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki). The bandit Tajōmaru is brilliantly portrayed by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, a savage and uncouth figure of pure testosterone and lack of morals. The first immediate benefit of having a native character is no cheesy accents or lapses into stereotype, something Paul Newman’s bandit suffered from in The Outrage. In his short time with Kurosawa, Mifune had been the moral, square jawed hero in modern day dramas, so this turn as the antagonist was a huge step but a profitable one, laying the seeds for Mifune to make his name as the definitive samurai hero in some of Kurosawa’s most acclaimed and influential works.

Exposition is short on the ground in Rashomon unlike the US remake, so we get right down to the nitty gritty inside eight minutes while Martin Ritt was still introducing his three storytellers. There are many moments where a simple look, gesture or action says more than a page of dialogue does, explaining the seven minute difference in run time between the two films. It may not sound much but Kurosawa manages to pack everything into his film as Ritt does while somehow creating something with a little more depth and understanding of the characters.  

This might be because Kurosawa – and Japanese filmmakers in general – presumably didn’t expect his film to be screened outside of Asia thus didn’t feel the need to explain anything since it would be taken as read. Ironically Rashomon was a flop both critically and commercially in Japan, and there was much head scratching when it was popular on this side of the world, the only suggestion being its appeal was due to its westernised style!

But don’t be alarmed if you are not someone completely familiar with Japanese culture you soon pick it up, such is the superb crafting of the characters which tells us all we need to know their social mores. Embodying this the most is the wife (Machiko Kyō) a woman who sits veiled and silent on horseback while her samurai husband and future corpse (Masayuki Mori) walks ahead leading the horse. A gentle gust from the summer breeze temporarily lifts her veil to give Tajōmaru fleeting glimpse of her face, which is enough to get his heart pumping, and he immediately decides to off her husband and take her for himself.

The idea that the wife should would to kill herself after being raped by Tajōmaru and is now an unfit spouse for her husband would seem like an gross overreaction to us westerners but this long held belief in the importance of chastity and piety was a paramount concern within the sanctity of marriage (and in some instances is still very much alive in modern Japan). Thus the wife has been shamed and spoiled and is no longer worthy for her husband, and if she can’t killer herself then her husband must. Yet in the alternate versions of the tale, the husband rejects his loving wife for being spoiled while Tajōmaru isn’t fussed and will run away her regardless. In the final account the wife plays both men off against each other claiming she will leave with the winner.

It is this uniquely Japanese/Asian attitude towards the female role in a marriage that makes the character of the wife in The Outrage comes across more as a deranged or possessed harridan than the southern lady she is supposed to be, by virtue of this eastern ideal being impressed upon on a western character. The bigger story however is the enigmatic and energetic performance of Machiko Kyō who became a huge star off the back of this role, giving Mifune a run for his money as the star of this film.

One thing that is rather diluted in translation in the US version is the loss of faith the priest feels as a result of the trial. While it is present in Pitt’s film, its importance to the plot fees incidental compared to it being a prevalent theme in Kurosawa’s, demonstrated by the two endings. Pitt’s ending is sudden and ambiguous; Kurosawa’s provides a definitive conclusion. It’s a small issue but its one that makes all the difference.

Rich with his trademark filming techniques, camerawork and observational narrative this, along with The Hidden Fortress, is the film that is the portent of things to come with regard to the monster that was Seven Samurai. It is fair to say Kurosawa’s adaptation of Rashomon remains the definitive telling of this tale (although The Outrage was a fair attempt at “westernising” it) and is indeed one of the most important works in his impressive canon.