The British Film Institute is presenting a major retrospective of the work of Kurosawa Akira during January and February 2023 curated by Asif Kapadia and Ian Haydn Smith. It will accompanied by a national release of Rashōmon, one of Kurosawa’s best-known and most-discussed films. On Friday 30th December, the BBC Radio 4 programme Screenshot with Mark Kermode and Ellen E. Jones offered a piece on Rashômon which, though welcome and enjoyable, for me missed some of the key points (you can find it on BBC Sounds for the next year). I’ve dug out some notes from a course I ran in 2008 which opened with a screening of Rashōmon as an example of a ‘literary adaptation’ of short stories. I’m offering them here in a revised version as a supplement to the radio programme’s discussion.

Rashōmon is a cultural phenomenon. Kurosawa’s film adaptation based on two short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke became an international hit after the decision by Daiei Studios to send the film to the 1951 Venice Film Festival in an attempt to raise interest in Japanese films in the international film marketplace. Winning the Golden Lion (the major prize) meant that Rashōmon went on to achieve wide distribution
in Europe and North America, a first for Japanese Cinema.

The unusual narrative structure of the film – four different accounts of the same incident – attracted attention outside the film industry and sent adapters back to the original stories. Several theatrical adaptations have been staged since the 1950s as well as an opera. One of the stage adaptations, by Fay and Michael Kanin in 1959, then became the basis for a second film script. The Outrage (1964) was an American remake in the form of a Western starring Paul Newman, Claire Bloom and Laurence Harvey – one of three high profile Westerns adapted from Kurosawa films (alongside The Magnificent Seven (1960) from Seven Samurai (1954) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) from Yojimbo (1961)).

The commoner, the priest and the woodcutter discuss the incident.

Brief outline (no avoidable spoilers)

The ‘incident’ at the centre of the narrative involves a man (a samurai) and his wife walking through the woods outside Kyoto. A woodcutter (Shimura Takashi) and a priest (Chiaki Minoru) meet a commoner (Ueda Kichijirō) at the Rashōmon Gate during a typical Kurosawa scene of ‘extreme weather’, in this case torrential rain. The three men are sheltering from the rain in the framing device for the narrative which allows Kurosawa to present the context of 11th century Japan and the dereliction of this famous Kyoto location. The woodcutter begins his story about what he came across in the woods three days earlier. This account then merges into the woodcutter telling the story again as a testimony given to a form of court hearing. It is followed by the priest speaking to the court (he had earlier met the couple in the woods) and a report from a police officer who caught the bandit Tajōmaru in the woods. The bandit (Mifune Toshiro) then tells his story and is followed by the woman (Kyō Machiko), who was found sheltering in a temple and brought to the hearing. In each of the three accounts of the woodcutter, the bandit and the woman, the husband dies. But the bandit and the wife give different accounts of how he died – and different statements about how they felt about his death. Kurosawa then introduces a medium to the court through whom the dead man speaks. Once the dead man’s testimony has finished, Kurosawa has around a third of the running time of the film left to take us through some kind of analysis of what might have happened and whose story we might want to believe. The narrative does have a form of resolution, but not the expected clarity of knowing which account tells the ‘truth’. The action returns to the Gate where the commoner raises doubts and queries the stories of the woodcutter, the bandit and the wife.

Mifune as the bandit

‘Rashōmon’ has now become a ready reference for any film narrative that attempts to offer multiple viewpoints on the same events. Zhang Yimou’s Hero (Hong Kong-China 2002) was perhaps the most interesting recent film to use the device in 2008 and it was also cited in reference to the then current release Vantage Point (US 2008). Wikipedia claims that the ‘Rashōmon effect’ is now recognised in psychology as an “effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection”.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927)
This Japanese master of the short story was active in the Taisho period (1912-26). ‘Rashōmon’ was his first published story in 1915. ‘In a Grove’, perhaps his best known story, appeared in 1922. He wrote around 150 stories before his death by suicide in 1927. Initially interested in classical stories, partly in reaction to the contemporary interest in naturalism, Akutagawa was also drawn to English literature, becoming a university instructor in English. Later he travelled to China as a journalist. His later stories often reimagined classical stories in a modern setting.

Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998)
Kurosawa is perhaps the best known Japanese director in the West, partly because he has been a major influence on several high profile Hollywood directors such as Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Also, some of his films are ‘action-orientated’ with a muscular style that appeals to American audiences. However, some accounts of Kurosawa’s work fall too easily into the trap of thinking of him as “the most westernised” of Japanese directors, citing his admiration of John Ford and adaptations based on a wide variety of western literary sources from Shakespeare (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear) to Ed McBain and Georges Simenon. But Kurosawa was also deeply interested in traditional Japanese forms of noh and kabuki theatre and in Japanese history. He trained in both Japanese and western art and during his teens was an avid cinemagoer seeing many Russian and European films as well as American films in Tokyo.

Kyō Machiko as the wife

In a long career (1943-1993) Kurosawa made just 30 films – far less than most of his contemporaries. This was mainly because, as he became more successful, he gained more control over his own productions and as a perfectionist he spent much longer on productions than was the usual practice. (In his autobiography he refers to dyeing the water from the studio’s fire appliances in Rashômon to make it more visible as rainfall – rain and other forms of ‘extreme weather’ are major elements in Kurosawa’s films.)

Kurosawa’s films are roughly equally split between jidaigeki (period fifilms) and gendaigeki (contemporary films). Rashōmon comes at the beginning of his most productive and successful period, which lasted from 1949 until 1965. During this period he worked with the same leading actors, creative collaborators and crew – his partnerships with his lead actors Mifune Toshiro and Shimura Takashi were legendary. Japan had a strong studio system which developed in parallel to Hollywood and in the 1930s and again in the early 1960s it was the world’s biggest film producing nation. Kurosawa began as an apprentice at PCL (soon to become Toho) in 1936 and stayed linked to the studio for most of his career. In 1948, however, a major strike at Toho saw Kurosawa joining an independent group of filmmakers who then contracted to work for other studios. This situation lasted until 1951 and Rashōmon was made for the smallest and youngest of the major studios, Daiei. As is often the case, Daiei agreed to produce the film because the production was low budget with only two sets. The Gate, which was enormous, was in itself a quite expensive set to build. The wall and gravel area that constituted the court was easier to organise. The woods were virgin forest around Nara, the earlier Imperial capital just a few miles outside Kyoto.

Mori Masayuki as the samurai

Daiei didn’t understand the film at first and only really got behind it when it clearly worked for at least some audiences and critics. Kurosawa suggests that it was chosen for the Venice Film Festival by the Italian representative of the festival who was based in Japan. When it won the Golden Lion, Kurosawa was unaware it had screened at the festival. Its subsequent international success was a boost to Kurosawa who was depressed by the failure of his 1951 film, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot at the Japanese box office.

Adaptation

Japanese Cinema has a long history of adapting plays, novels and short stories. Adaptations have been common from traditional stories (often from kabuki or noh theatre), bourgeois novels and since 1945 from manga (graphic novels). Kurosawa suggests that Daiei didn’t like the title Rashōmon, thinking it wouldn’t attract a popular audience (but arguably the untranslatable name helped the film in foreign markets). Kurosawa first came across a script adapting ‘In a Grove’ as ‘Man-Woman’ from a new writer a few years earlier. The young writer, Hashimoto Shinobu, would later become one of Kurosawa’s regular collaborators.

Kurosawa realised that the script as it stood was not long enough for a feature film. It was then that he remembered a second Akutagawa story, ‘Rashōmon’. There are seven sets of witness testimony in ‘In a Grove’ and three of them are in contradiction – essentially the three central characters in the incident. Kurosawa ditched one of the other four testimonies and developed another to become a ‘framing device’ for the whole story. In effect, he took Akutagawa’s ‘Rashōmon’ story and used its setting and thematic, but not its characters, to help create the framing for the exploration of the remaining six testimonies.

Is this simply a matter of ‘opening out’ the original story? Or is it a narrational device that helps us as ‘outside spectators’ to consider how stories are constructed – and how they are ‘narrated’? For some commentators, Rashōmon is a story about ‘telling stories’. For the majority, however, it has been taken to be either a philosophical study about the nature of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ or a form of social commentary about morality, ego and the problems of creating/maintaining civil society. Kurosawa himself was always reluctant to spell out his intentions, but in the West he was seen as one of the central figures in the ‘humanist’ art cinema of the early 1950s.

A long shot composition showing the three characters together in the forest

The lasting fascination with Rashōmon is partly because its seeming simplicity leads audiences into a complex discussion. This is aided by stunning cinematography, editing and direction of talented actors. Since few Westerners in 1950 had seen a Japanese film before, audiences were taken aback by the physicality of Mifune’s performance and the contrast with that of Kyō Machiko. The cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo introduced new ideas such as shooting into the sun and the use of whip pans to follow the action. Overall, the film has a strong visual identity based around contrasting vertical and horizontal compositions. Widescreen cinematography was still three years away (more in Japan) and Kurosawa’s painter’s eye knew how to make the most of the almost square ‘Academy’ screen shape. In all of his films in the 1940s and 1950s Kurosawa uses a wide variety of camera shots and transitions demonstrating his knowledge of international cinema up to that point. It is also worth noting that in his autobiography (which is short and only covers the period up to Rashōmon) he states clearly that he is still inspired by ‘silent cinema’. Kurosawa did much of his own editing. He was also interested in music and he worked with the composer Hayasaka Fumio on each of his films up to the time of Hayasaka’s death in 1955. The music is one aspect of the film that was criticised. Donald Richie suggests that Western critics found the use of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ was too overwhelming. Kurosawa had asked Hayasaka to write something like a bolero and as Richie points out there are several other Kurosawa films where the influence of Western classical music (and painting styles) are evident.

Several approaches to the film have made a great deal of the chosen setting and the context of its production. In 1950, Japan was still under the control of Allied Occupation forces and all filmscripts were vetted (although after 1949 by Japanese rather than American censors). Period films were treated with suspicion by the Allies on the grounds that they may be used to maintain or encourage the military ideologies which had helped to steer Japan into war in the 1930s. Most jidaigeki had been set in the Tokugawa or Edo era (1603-1868), but Rashōmon goes much further back to the chaotic times of the late Heian period (794-1185) with economic depression and weak government. Yoshimoto (2000) argues that Kurosawa may have made the comparison with life in postwar Japan more explicit if the budget for the film had allowed for crowd scenes.

Versions of Rashōmon

Rashōmon was such a successful adaptation that it prompted a close American remake. It also saw adaptations for television performances in both the US (1960) and UK (1961). (The US TV version was directed by Sidney Lumet and the BBC version by Rudolph Cartier, a veteran of television plays who also directed various episodes of the Quatermass series.)

It is worth comparing the openings to the original stories and how they are presented on screen. It is then worth considering whether the overall approach of novelist and director are similar or if they inevitably lead to a different kind of narrative. Various translations of the stories are available. I have transcribed the openings as Akutagawa stories (a downloadable pdf). The possible options are that the stories:

  • are about the relativity of ‘truth’
  • are about the egoism of ordinary people
  • are about storytelling and filmmaking
  • are a commentary on the times of their ‘writing’
A moustachioed Paul Newman as the bandit with Claire Bloom and Laurence Harvey in The Outrage

The Outrage (US 1964)
This adaptation, based on the play by the Kanins that was in turn based on Kurosawa’s script, is a direct transposition of the events to the American West in the post Civil War period. Paul Newman plays a Mexican bandit, Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom (who had played the role on stage) were a Confederate Colonel and his lady, William Shatner was the priest, Howard da Silva the prospector who finds the body and Edward G Robinson a ‘snake oil salesman’. The Rashômon Gate becomes a run down railway station and the court session is held in the open in front of a burnt out gaol (caused by the bandit’s previous escape strategy).

Martin Ritt was the director and James Wong Howe the cinematographer (unfortunately the print I found was ‘panned and scanned’ so I missed the beauty of Wong Howe’s beautiful CinemaScope photography). The star cast and crew are evidence of the artistic interest in the production. One commentator on IMDb refers to the film as an ‘intellectual B-Western’. By this is meant a reference to 1950s Westerns such as High Noon (1952), that are intimate psychological dramas rather than spectacular action pictures. Westerns in the late 1950s and early 1960s were also popular on television and the idea of a ‘filmed play’ for the big screen was a logical outcome of a successful television screening.

There are several reasons why Japanese ‘samurai’ films have been linked to Westerns – producing remakes in both directions as well as the composite film in which Mifune Toshiro starred in a Western – Red Sun (1971). The Japanese samurai films – chanbara or swordfight films – were generally set in the late Edo period of the 18th and 19th century when individual samurai or ronin (masterless samurai) might encounter bandits or other commoners out for a fight. As in America with Westerns, these stories appeared in ‘pulp’ literature formats as well as popular kabuki theatre. Yet the more art-orientated films of Kurosawa (and Mizoguchi) were often set in earlier time periods when stories were more likely to focus on civil wars, nobility and peasantry in a strict feudal system. Rashômon is set in the 11th century – does this create problems for a Western adaptation?

Subtitles and translations

The Outrage has dialogue suiting the conventions of a 20th century narrative set in a fictional 19th century West. Rashōmon offers us subtitles in order to understand dialogue which has in turn been adapted from an early 20th century story about 11th century characters. If we refer back to that story, we also have to contend with the English translations of Akutugawa’s writings. Yoshimoto offers a different translation of the Rashōmon story to that given above. He points out that the story is a ‘reflexive’ story in which the author makes an appearance (“as has been said”). Yoshimoto also notes that Akutagawa uses a French term ‘sentimentalisme’ to refer to the servant and that this is not translated by Kojima Takashi in the version given here. The existence of the French term in Akutagawa’s writing is clearly a conscious comment on the juxtaposition of a traditional Japanese story and the literary conventions of European culture.

To some extent, the difficulties set up by translations between languages and from dialogue to printed subtitles, makes the whole question of ‘fidelity’ irrelevant. The multiple versions of the story offered in different contexts must all be judged on their own merits.

Kurosawa himself suggested:

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves . . . even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him . . . This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. Some say they can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand.” (Kurosawa 1983: 183)

So, what does Rashōmon mean to you?

Here’s the new BFI trailer:

 

References and further reading

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1952) Rashômon and Other Stories, transl. Kojima Takashi, New York: Liveright

Kurosawa Akira (1983) Something Like an Autobiography, New York: Vintage Books

Richie, Donald (1984) The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Berkeley: University of California Press

Russell, Catherine (2011) Classical Japanese Cinema Revisited, London and New York: Continuum

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Rashômon has meant many different things for many different audiences. What does it mean for you?

Roy Stafford, 22/4/08