Sunday, July 27, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.6: Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

It’s hyperbolic to suggest that a film “changed everything,” but it’s hard not to be hyperbolic about 1950’s Rashomon. Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece took the formal and thematic sophistication he’d built in his first decade as a director and found a new way to tell a story, a structural gambit that was both radical for its time and directly connected to the central questions of the film. In a way, it serves not only as an introduction of a master director to the West (the film’s triumph at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards shot him to the top of the list of great foreign filmmakers of the 1950s), but as Kurosawa’s thesis statement on humanity, moral failure, and the capacity for acts of great evil and good.

A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) gather under the Rashomon city gate to stay dry in a severe rainstorm. The priest is shaken by a story regaled to him by the woodcutter, about the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyō) by the notorious bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune).

The woodcutter then repeats the story for the commoner, first telling it from the testimonial of Tajōmaru, who claims the wife consented and he killed the husband honorably in a duel (after which the wife ran, frightened). But the wife’s story is varies greatly, as she claims that the bandit left her after the rape and the husband loathed her for being dishonored. And the samurai’s story (as told through a medium) is different still, claiming that his wife begged the samurai to kill him and he committed suicide after the incident. All three have twisted the story to their advantage, and while pieces of each might have some veracity, the plain and simple truth becomes hazier with each tale.

Kurosawa opens the film in the middle of a rainstorm, one of his many uses of weather to suggest a world bearing down on its inhabitants, and the sound of a drum and strings to suggest that something is not right with the world. Shimura and Chiaki are introduced slouching with bone-deep spiritual exhaustion; Shimura in particular is our moral center to the film, so his drooping, pained expression and grave intonations of the world’s disorder brings us into the inquisitive, mournful mood that Kurosawa wants us to be in. Why can’t we treat each other better?

Still, Ueda is essential beyond the need to hear exactly what it is that has Shimura and Chiaki so upset. Kurosawa often used the lower-class to contrast with the high-minded pursuits of the samurai, and that hits its stride here. The commoner is the healthy dose of skepticism in the film’s moral inquiries, the one who sees horror of the story but can’t help but point out that the idea man lying and killing for his own purposes isn’t exactly a new concept, and that our solemn moral voices of reason are hardly perfect themselves. It’s his presence that keeps the film’s morality from falling into naïveté. Plus, he gives Kurosawa a chance to use deep focus to contrast the ease and comfort in his body language with the way Shimura and Chiaki seem to fold into themselves.

When Kurosawa comes to the testimonials, he wisely chooses not to let the voices of the inquisitors be heard – he puts us in their perspective, lets us imagine that we are asking the questions, and puts us on their level, so as to hear their stories and take them at face value until we can’t anymore. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa also get a lot of mileage out of slight contrasts in camera placement for each witness:  while the woodcutter and the priest are shot from roughly the same objective angle, there’s a greater distance when the arrested Tajōmaru and his captor are brought in. This has nothing to do with need for greater space – Kurosawa could comfortably fit both in the same shot from the same distance – and everything to do with making us more frightened of Tajōmaru. When the cop reaches the end of his testimony, the camera is closer to him, until it dollies out to show Tajōmaru lauging like a maniac. We’re then brought onto the same level for him that we were for the woodcutter and priest, then even closer…and we don’t want to be there.

A number of Western critics have found Mifune’s performance to be a bit too over-the-top; it is one of his Cagney-esque big performances, a lot of ranting and raving, but with purpose. Everything Tajōmaru does is exaggerated with an almost superhuman level of bravado. He’s playing up his fearsomeness, with occasional moments of relative calm in order to assert that he’s also a noble, dignified warrior who gave the samurai a chance rather than a cold-blooded murderer. It’s also a purposeful contrast to what we learn might be his true nature later in the film.

He’s not the only one performing. It’s more than understandable that Machiko Kyō’s character is distraught, but there’s something overly considered about her performance, with reason. She’s trying to represent herself as an innocent victim of both her attacker’s brutality and her husband’s indifference, omitting any sense of moral grey that might suggest she was a guilty party in the murder. Here, Kurosawa dances on a dangerous line, but it’s less about blame and more about suggesting her limited faculties in defending herself in this case. In that era, questions of her virtue overshadow any harm that might have been done to her (hell, just hear how lowly her husband considers her following the assault), so any slim hope for justice would be dashed if those suggestions came about. Perhaps without even intending to, Kurosawa exposes the inherent misogyny of the system and of the men of the era, and her omissions actually humanize her more than a standard grim victimization storyline would have.

With the samurai, Kurosawa goes one step further in exaggerated performance by bringing out a female medium (Noriko Honma), whose kabuki-influenced performance turns his anguish into a form of performance art. By necessity, Kurosawa uses a wider shot to showcase the performative aspect of the medium’s role, but he also turns up the fans to bring an even greater level of cosmic disorder, as if the earth screamed right along with the samurai. Sure, he might be tortured anyway, being dead and all, but combination of the writhing of Honma, the gasping voice of Mori and his perspective of victimization and being dishonored lend themselves to the idea that everyone performs when trying to represent themselves, so as to best convince the listener that their perspective is the correct one.

When Kurosawa takes us into their takes on the incident, then, we’re not just seeing what they see, but we’re seeing what they’re thinking about, what the environment was like, where people were in relation to each other. My fellow freelancer Kyle Turner wrote something on Letterboxd about how he felt certain POV shots in these sequences didn’t make sense, given that these sequences are about putting ourselves in their perspectives and these shots imply another person’s presence. With all due respect, I feel a closer comparison would be how David Cronenberg places Christopher Walken in the midst of the murder when he flashes back to them in The Dead Zone. We’re now seeing everything about their perspective and the incident as they describe it.

With that in mind, a shot that pivots from showing Tajōmaru by a tree, watching the samurai and his wife pass by to showing them in the distance after they’ve passed is there to suggest the bandit’s single-minded focus on and awareness of his objective (the wife) and his obstacle (the samurai). A low shot of the wife fighting off Tajōmaru with a knife places her on his level even though she’s actually lower than him as a way to suggest his admiration for her for being able to fend for herself; a higher shot afterwards shows how lowly he thinks of her once she’s driven to beg for the death of her husband. The camera’s dolly towards him as he stabs the samurai (after a thrilling swordfight) blocks out the man’s death, so as to honor the man after a valiant fight and, in turn, make Tajōmaru an honorable warrior rather than a murderer.

In the wife’s story, meanwhile, Kurosawa places greater emphasis on wide shots to show her distance, her abandonment by both Tajōmaru and her husband. A shot placed behind the husband, still bound, as she pleads for him to stop looking at him lets us imagine the look of judgment and anger on his face that she dare be violated. Fumio Hayasaka’s score takes on the driving rhythms of Ravel’s “Bolero” (something I had no idea was intentional until about a minute ago) in order to drum away at the wife’s remaining defenses. The camera shifts, still only showing the wife but suggesting that she can’t escape her husband’s terrible gaze no matter how she tries. We’re brought closer to her perspective and in his hateful expression as she begs for death, anything to escape her fate and judgment by the society; her pleas will not be answered.

The score takes on a more exaggerated tragic element in the dead man’s story, so as to change from a story about a defenseless woman being demolished by men to a story about a poor man who was unlucky enough to have his wife’s rape happen to him. We have a more limited perspective, both to put us in the man’s shoes (he’s still bound) and to suggest just how trapped he is by this incident, to grow more claustrophobic, to make suicide seem like the only out. Kurosawa gets a thrilling effect in a match cut between the man’s fall from his suicide and the medium falling in a final bit of performance, which only hammers away the samurai’s own sense of victimization.

All of these stories are shot so as to best support the given perspectives, but there’s a constant through all of them: the contrast between shadows from the trees and light from the sun. The mixture of shadows and light are there to suggest the moral ambiguity of the situation, the lies that all of the storytellers are telling to support their respective versions. Miyagawa is either the first or one of the first cinematographers to point a camera directly into the sun, and it’s a striking effect, but it’s also an important one to the storyline. One debated scene is whether, when the wife stares into the sun, the sun goes out or stays shining, and whether or not both could support the idea that evil is borne in that moment. To me, it’s as much about the doubt of what happened in that moment and in the aftermath, and the difficult need to search for the truth.

Perhaps we get closer to that truth in the fourth version of the story, where the woodcutter, finally revealing that he was a witness to the crime and not just a man who stumbled upon the aftermath, tells a version of the story that makes all three parties look bad. The bandit is not a valiant warrior, but a pitiful man who begged for the wife to be with him rather than the husband. The husband becomes a worm of a man who’s self-important and unforgiving of his wife. The wife becomes a new judgmental figure, one who recognizes the weakness in both of them and can’t help but laugh at her situation. Even the swordfight has changed: no longer the dynamic, highly choreographed battle of Tajōmaru’s story, it’s now a pathetic battle between two cowards; yet she’s also a coward in her own right, one who calls for blood but can’t watch the fight. It’s all shot in a more objective way that doesn’t psychologically support any of them, but rather undercuts them.

The woodcutter’s version is likely closest to the truth, yet he omits that he stole the woman’s priceless dagger, which went missing after the crime. This comes out after he, the commoner, and the priest find an abandoned infant and the commoner chooses to steal the kimono protecting the child; the commoner sees through he woodcutter’s moral superiority and calls him out on his own misdeeds. That's also the real reason the woodcutter is so shaken by the story: it's not just the lies and selfishness of these people, but that they bring to light his own lies and selfishness – he's no better than them. It’s in this moment that the film’s focus shifts from the subjectivity of truth to the question of whether morality is futile. The commoner might be doing a low thing in stealing an abandoned child’s only protection, but he has no illusions as to who he is. He does selfish things because, as the film has illustrated in the earlier stories, that’s what needs to be done to survive. The acts of goodness might not be worth a damn at all, and moral failure might be inevitable.

Yet Kurosawa maintains hope as Shimura’s woodcutter chooses to take the child in, to take on another burden even though he has six children to feed already (“one more wouldn’t make a difference.”) The child might not have a great chance in the world, but it has a chance, and the smallest of kind acts has the capacity to mitigate moral failure (Kurosawa and Shimura would revisit this two films later with Ikiru). The film isn’t naïve enough to think that all is right in the world (Kurosawa wanted the skies to look overcast rather than clear but couldn’t wait to shoot any longer), but for the time being, order is restored.

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