Blog Directory CineVerse: "If men don't trust each other, this Earth might as well be hell."

"If men don't trust each other, this Earth might as well be hell."

Monday, August 10, 2020

Any film that has introduced an oft-used term and well-understood concept in the pop culture and legal lexicon must be innovative and important. And that's certainly true of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's 1950 treasure of world cinema, which marks a 70th birthday this month. CineVerse celebrated by spotlighting the film last week and probing deeper into the profound mysteries woven into its intricate tapestry. Our discussion covered many salient points, including the following.

Why is Rashomon worth celebrating all these years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why does it still matter?

  • It’s debatably the most philosophical film ever made. Rashomon poses serious moral, ethical, psychological, and even spiritual questions; not only is it a gripping story supported by virtually flawless filmmaking, but this picture challenges you to ponder philosophically difficult questions and existential ramifications.
  • The nonlinear narrative employed creates a complex story that forces you to pay attention and think, not just sit back and be a passive viewer.
  • It’s also smart that we don’t see or hear the judge or judges presiding over the bandit’s trial in court; instead, the witnesses each face the camera and speak directly to the viewer, as if we are the magistrates of this moral dilemma.
  • Rashomon often plays like a silent movie, with few words and many expressive unspoken gestures, actions, and reactions; the filmmakers aren’t aiming for realism here, but rather the honesty of emotion prevalent in silent films.
    • Also, in its minimalist sets, it invokes the spirit of silent cinema as well as contemporary art: there are only three settings: the woods, the Rashomon gate, and the court.

In what ways do you think Rashomon set trends or was influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • It was the primary film that introduced Japanese cinema to many viewers in the West.
  • Arguably, this may have been the first deeply philosophical film many viewers had seen in 1950.
  • The reliance on non-linear storytelling via conflicting flashbacks and multiple points of view was a radical but refreshing notion for many viewers.
    • Taking a cue from a few predecessors like Citizen Kane, this would have been one of the first uses in the cinema of contradictory flashbacks that disagree with the action and suggest unreliable narrators: You’re not sure what to believe.
    • What’s brilliant is that all the flashbacks are both true and false—true because each testimony is portrayed as accurate by that particular witness, and false because they contradict each other and reflect a point of view that could be or definitely is wrong.
  • It’s been suggested that Kurosawa attempted to illustrate the despair and confusion of a devastated post-WWII Japan by depicting tales of personal heroism that proposed models for social recovery.
  • The ending may have also been uncommon for this period in film history. We are shown four testimonies that dispute each other and a conclusion in which there is no clear resolution about what truly happened. Moviegoers at this time were used to more definitive denouements in which the mystery gets solved, crimes are punished, and justice is served. Before the woodcutter offers to take the abandoned baby, this was, in fact, a decidedly pessimistic, perplexing, and disturbing film due to its ambiguity and ethical quandaries.
  • Kurosawa breaks a lot of rules in making this picture, too.
    • First, he defied the 180-degree rule, thus confusing spatial relationships: The 180° rule is a basic guideline in film making that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other. If the camera passes over the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line. The new shot, from the opposite side, is known as a reverse angle.
    • He had the camera shoot directly into the sun, one of the first known examples of this in cinema.
    • He sometimes used a diverse array of shots back-to-back, juxtaposing close-ups, long shots, and contrary motion shots. Kurosawa and his collaborators additionally created interesting triangular compositions that emphasized the spatial and emotional relationships between the three main characters.
  • The term “the Rashomon effect,” which describes the problem of contradictory testimony from witnesses, has become a catch-phrase in the popular vernacular, kind of like “Catch-22.”
  • Films that would have likely been inspired by Rashomon are plentiful, with examples including The Usual Suspects, JFK, Courage Under Fire, Hero, Reversal of Fortune, Gone Girl, Wonderland, Blow-Up, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the Hollywood remake of this film, The Outrage.

What’s the moral of the story here? What messages or themes are explored in Rashomon?

  • This film asks profound questions, like what is the nature of reality, and what is the relativity of truth?
    • Kurosawa himself said the truth of what happened in the woods that day isn’t the point of the story; if that’s the case, the lesson here is that truth can be interpreted differently by different people, and that truth is subjective.
    • Ultimately, the movie posits, perhaps there is no truth: only a subjective assessment of events.
    • Kurosawa summed up the essence of the story as such: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.”
  • The unreliability and partiality of experience and memory.
    • The first words we hear are: “I just don’t understand,” and later, the commoner says “In the end, you cannot understand the things that men do.” We also hear the commoner say “Men just want to forget the bad stuff and believe in the made-up good stuff; it’s easier that way.”
    • The characters, like the audience, can’t trust what they’ve seen or heard.
  • This movie reminds us that the human heart and mind is complex and can be impossible to understand. It also reminds us that human beings are capable of extreme behavior. Human beings can easily succumb to dishonesty, duplicity, weakness, self-centeredness, greed, and corruption. But to buck that trend and be a force for good in this world, you have to demonstrate selflessness, empathy, and benevolence—as the woodcutter does at the finale by agreeing to father the orphaned infant.
  • Experts like Stephen Prince suggest that the film can be seen as a metaphor for the defeat of Japan in World War II and the erosion of Japanese culture throughout history. The baby appearing at the end can be interpreted as a ray of hope for the future of Japan, a theory bolstered by the use of traditional Japanese music at the film’s conclusions after western-influenced music is heard throughout most of the movie.
  • The word “Rashomon” means “gate of the dragon”; this is a fitting title because, as viewers, we are each gatekeepers of the truth.
    • A gate also signals a demarcation of boundaries and territories: Once we enter into the woods, we enter into foreign territory.
    • Also, the gatehouse stands as a visual symbol for a passage into the tale; it’s interesting to see the men pull pieces of the gate apart and use it for kindling, insinuating perhaps that honesty and truth are crumbling and disposable in our modern world.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Although this is a period piece and culturally different from the expectations and values of modern westerners, perhaps it’s difficult in 2020 to see a lead woman character with so little agency and acting so subserviently. But how much power and autonomy did a woman in 11th century Japan actually have anyway, and in that period what would have been the fate of a wife who was sexually assaulted?
  • On the other hand, Rashomon speaks a universal and eternal certainty: that the nature of truth and honesty is elusive, and human beings can deceive others as well as themselves. Those messages never go out of style, unfortunately.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • This is probably the greatest film featuring and about unreliable narrators ever made. When you consider how many filmmakers today use lead and secondary characters who prove untrustworthy and inconsistent to throw the viewer off track and keep you guessing, that’s a testament to the power and immense reach of Rashomon. Not only do the four conflicting witnesses make for a compelling study in human behavior and an enthralling story, but they and the three men taking shelter in the rain who are parsing this tale conjure immense questions about what we choose to believe as gospel and who and what we can trust. Real life is complex and often morally convoluted, and unlike so many other movies, Rashomon forces us to grapple with those complications, faults, and ethical predicaments.

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