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Sunday, June 27, 2021

A New Take on a Classic Movie

N.B. The original post had a serious mistake which has been fixed.

 Last week, a film group I belong to watched the Akira Kurosawa classic, Rashomon.  It concerns the apparent murder of a samurai and rape of his beautiful young wife by a bandit.  In  a trial, both the bandit and the wife tell the story of what happened, and the samurai does as well, speaking through a medium.  Meanwhile, an old woodcutter, who found the body, watches in horror.  As he explains to a priest and another man a day later, in a pouring rain under Rashomon Gate, he saw the whole thing, and his version is very different as well.  Critics usually cite the film as a meditation on the relativity of truth.  I had seen it only once before, sometime in the 1970s, and that was all I had seen in it then. This time I saw something completely different.

The film opens with an extraordinarily bleak shot of the rain and the gate, and the credits mentioned that it dated from 1950.  That was about five years earlier than I thought it was, and it set me thinking.  1950 was only five years after the end of the Second World War, and the American occupation was continuing as it was shot.  Although the plot appears to be set centuries earlier, the sense of devastation in the opening shot could not help but evoke the devastation wrought by the war all over Japan.  I began to think that the plot might be an allegory for the war, its aftermath, and the Japanese peoples' inevitable tortured confusion over who was to blame, and where their allegiances lay now.

I must first summarize the stories the four witnesses told.  The bandit explained that he had seen the samurai and his wife passing by, and had been excited by her beauty.  He lured the samurai deeper into the forest with a tale of buried valuables, and then fell upon him, overcame him, brought him back to his wife, and tied him up.  Then he began to rape the wife, but, as he told the story, she suddenly was seduced by him and welcomed him.  Afterwards, she was filled with shame, and demanded that the bandit untie her husband and fight him to the death to determine which would keep her. He does so, and after a long sword fight, he kills the samurai, only to find that she has run away.

The wife, who testified next, said that the bandit had raped her and then left.  She begged her husband's forgiveness but he looked at her coldly.  Filled with shame, she begged him to kill her, but he merely looked at her with contempt, and she fainted, holding a dagger in her hand.  When she awoke, he was dead with the dagger in his chest.  She then tried and failed to kill herself.  

The samurai's testimony, delivered through a female medium, is a dramatic highlight of the film.  After he had been tied up and the bandit had raped his wife, he says, the bandit asked her to travel with him (promising even to stop being a bandit.) She agreed, and then asked the bandit to kill her husband since she could not belong to two men.  Instead, the bandit offered the samurai either to kill the woman or to let her go.  The samurai told the court that he had been willing to pardon the bandit for what he had done.  But the woman fled, the bandit set the samurai free, and the samurai killed himself with his wife's dagger.

The woodcutter then announces to the priest and the third man that he has lost all faith in humanity because everyone had lied.  He had not merely found the body, he had seen the whole incident. He said that after the rape, the bandit had begged the woman to marry him, but she freed her husband instead.  He did not want to fight for the honor of a despoiled woman, but she taunted him into doing so.  The fight in this version is very tentative and both men seem terrified, but the bandit eventually won and killed the ceremony.  Again the woman fled.

It occurred to me that from the Japanese perspective, the bandit might represent the United States and the samurai the government of imperial Japan.  The wife and the woodcutter might represent the people of Japan, both as victims of the war (the wife) and observers (the woodcutter.)  The wife's equivocal behavior towards the bandit represents the equivocal feelings of the Japanese (including Japanese women) towards the American occupation.  The question of whether there was more shame in surviving than dying in battle for the samurai--that is, whether the imperial government should have surrendered at all--comes up repeatedly.  Whose fault, ultimately, was the death of the samurai and the rape of the woman?  How should she have lived the rest of her life?  These stand for the bigger questions of who was really to blame for the war--imperialist Americans or a rogue Japanese government?  And to whom, now, should the ordinary Japanese took for guidance and inspiration?  All these were very much unanswered questions in the Japan of 1950.  And that is not all.  Responding to the woodcutter's tale, the priest beneath the gate talks about the state of his country. "War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague, year after year it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this … This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul."  No Japanese in 1950 could hear those words without thinking of the world around them.

It turns out that at least two Americans deeply familiar with Japan, a State Department official and an academic, recognized the postwar implications of the movie at once. They however seem to have focused on one specific postwar episode, the American war crimes trials of Japanese leaders for specific atrocities.  A Japanese critic noted that the judges in the court are never shown in the film.  That is a telling point, but I still prefer to focus on the overall responsibility for the war and the predicament of the helpless Japanese people in its wake.  In another telling incident, it turns out that the valuable dagger that plays such a big role in the story has disappeared.  One cannot help but think that the woodcutter stole it and sold it--a metaphor for the ways in which some Japanese benefited from the occupation.  And in the very last scene, the woodcutter, claiming to have six children of his own, takes a baby abandoned at the gate home with him--a symbol of hope for the future in a devastated land.  Rashomon is surely a profound historical work.


Energyflow said...

Obviously one could hardly talk openly about al of this back then so a work of art as allegory would be suitable. This was typical in Soviet Russia or during the Red Scare of the 50s in Hollywood. Perhaps some film or novel exists now explaining current madness from some rational perspective which might help us see ourselves in a better light in a more calm future. Kurosawa was one of the greatests directors. It is good to see art taken at various levels of meaning. Film nowadays has degenerated to comic book form, losing artistic value. Profit is everything and I fear this is our basic current problem.

Skimpole said...

The movie is based on a 1922 story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Apparently there's a December 1954 Antioch Review article by James F. Davidson who makes similar connections.