Drama, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Rashomon (1950)

I’m writing today about my second favourite Akira Kurosawa film. My all time favourite film from Kurosawa is Ikiru. Coming in a close second though is Rashomon. This is a film that I never get tired of watching.

Rashomon is a film that I think you can have a great deal of fun analysing and discussing. It is so expertly put together and it looks stunning from a visual perspective too. The cast are also all at their very best playing characters who are all very hard to forget. 

Long before films like The Innocents,  L’ Avventura, and Picnic At Hanging Rock left us to decide for ourselves the truth of what we had just watched. Long before Quentin Tarantino played around with making films in a non linear style.

Long before this type of filmmaking was even appreciated by film audiences and critics, there was Akira Kurosawa’s RashomonKurosawa directed the film. He also wrote the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto. The film is based upon the short story, In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Several Japanese studios turned this film down. Eventually Kurosawa was allowed to make it at Daiei Studios. He chose the legendary cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa to work on the film. Miyagawa would go on to work on a lot of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. He would also work with Ozu, and would work again with Kurosawa on Yojimbo and Kagemusha. His work on this film is among his very best.

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The light in the trees looks like a cross. Screenshot by me.

Anyone who watches this film will usually be full of praise afterwards for the photography. I especially love the photography in the sequence with the medium.

My favourite piece of cinematography though in this is a shot of the wife sitting in the forest. In the trees behind her, there is a patch of light shining through that makes the trees behind her look like a cross. This shot looks so beautiful.    

This film tells the same event from the different perspectives of the three characters involved within it, and also from the perspective of a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed some of it.

We as the viewer are left to decide which of the depictions (if any of them are to believed at all)is actually the truth. I love the approach Kurosawa took with this film. It makes us think about whether or not we should take the characters memories to be facts. It makes you even wonder if you can trust what the camera is showing you. The film also makes you question everything you are seeing and hearing and leaves you to makeup your own mind about the characters and their experiences.

I even wonder if there is actually any proof to show that the entire story we are following is actually real. After all, everything we see begins with a story uttered by the woodcutter, but is he just making the whole thing up? Or is he simply telling a folktale or ghost story to help himself and the other two men pass the time? Are the flashbacks a reality in the film, or nothing more than an intriguing fantasy or story?

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The three men ponder the different versions of events. Screenshot by me.

I also have a theory that the film is making us the judge and jury of the film. The courtroom sequence is like no court you’ve ever seen. The witnesses give their testimony directly to the camera (therefore directly to us). We serve as the judge, the lawyers, the members of the public in the gallery etc.

This court sequence is also a memory (or fabrication)from the mind of the woodcutter, it is not presented to us in the typical way such a scene would have been had it been depicting a reality on the screen. Kurosawa is showing us from the beginning that we are to make up our own minds about what is going on here. 

The film also toys with our perceptions of people. For example if you believe the bandit raped the wife and killed the husband, then something in you must look at him and see him as a rough, despicable stereotype capable of that act to accept that story. If you believe that the woman was a victim, then you accept her story because you don’t believe her capable of lying about it. 

If you believe that the woman made the bandit kill the husband, then you believe that you shouldn’t take things at face value, instead you should look a little deeper at everyone involved.  The film is also showing us that no two people will ever see the same event in exactly the same way, everyone has such different perceptions of something they witness. 

It’s like the film is showing us that everyone is more complicated inside than they might appear on the outside. Life is full of good and bad. Life is full of events that often happen without a reason. People can end up doing unexpected things. Life is shocking, weird and very frightening at times, yet there is always good around if you look for it.  

The non linear style of the film and story was very new to audiences at the time. Some people found it (and still find it)infuriating that they didn’t get obvious and easy answers to what exactly happened in that forest. If done correctly (as in this case)such infuriating films can often end up being brilliant and thought provoking.  

This film was responsible for bringing Japanese cinema to the attention of Western audiences. The film won an award at The Venice Film Festival, and it also won an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Kurosawa’s name was to become well known in the west once this film arrived there.

Soon the names of other directors like Mizoguchi and Ozu would be as well known and respected as Kurosawa’s outside of Japan. Western filmmakers would even travel to Japan to shoot films on location there.

The film is set in eleventh century Japan. The film begins with three men; one is a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one is a Priest (Minoru Chiaki), and the other is a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The men are taking shelter from a rainstorm under the decaying Rashomon Gate.

This structure was a real giant gate(more of a building than the type of gate we would know of today) to a walled city, which was built during the Heian Period.

By the 12th century this gate had fallen into ruin, and it had become a place for people to leave corpses, unwanted babies, and for thieves to use as a hideout. Nothing remains of the gate today, apart from a marker commemorating it on the site where the gate once stood.  When the film was being made the gate had long since gone, so Kurosawa had a full scale replica built on the studios outdoor set.  

While they wait out the storm, the woodcutter tells the other two men the story of a murder. He claims to have found the body of a murdered man (Masayuki Mori)in the woods. A bandit was later captured and arrested for the crime. We then see in flashback the different versions of the events that led to the murder of the dead man.  

The first depicts the bandit (Toshiro Mifune)forcing himself upon the dead man’s wife (Machiko Kyo). At first she resists him, but then she gives herself to him, and then convinces him to kill her husband (who the bandit has tied up, thereby forcing him to watch what the bandit was doing to his wife).

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The bandit. Screenshot by me.

The second shows the wife get raped. After the attack her husband wants nothing to do with her. She passes out from the shock of what has happened. When she wakes up her husband is dead. 

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The wife. Screenshot by me.

The third version is conveyed to us through a medium who contacts the dead man. He claims that his wife was raped, but that she then asked the bandit to kill him. The man claims he felt great shame and took his own life in a ritual suicide. 

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The husband. Screenshot by me.

The woodcutter’s version of events has the wife being raped, but then the wife encourages the two men to fight one another. During this fight her husband is then killed. An event at the end of the film restores our faith in humanity. It also restores the faith of the woodcutter, priest, and the commoner. 

Some people think the acting in this is a bit over the top. I think Japanese cinema is all about emotions, and in making the viewer really feel those emotions. Sometimes some actors performances can come across as being heightened, but I don’t see that as being a bad thing. 

Mifune’s performance can certainly be seen as being quite theatrical in this. Mifune was often a very intense and physical actor, and he really used his body and gestures quite a bit during scenes. He steals every second of screen time in this film. Be it with his facial expressions, his body language, his laughter, or his constant swatting and squashing of flies.  

Machiko Kyo is much more subtle and natural in her performance. Her performance is all in the eyes. When she is on screen she has your attention and she makes you feel what her character is going through. 

Masayuki Mori is also quite subtle in his performance. He conveys how watchful and alert his character is very well. I also really like how defeated, depressed, and beaten he becomes in his version of events where he walks off into the forest. 

The rest of the cast are all solid. I find Japanese actors to be more emotional and expressive than many from other countries. I think that this emotional quality and intensity works well for the film to be honest. Mifune, Shimura and Kyo would all bgo on to become actors well known outside of Japan thanks to their performances in this film. 

My favourite scenes are the following. The sequence with the medium, where she gets in touch with the spirt of the husband. The wife giving her version of events at court. The bandit pushing through some branches to get to the wife. The opening sequence with the three men at the Rashomon gate. The wife watching her husband and the bandit duel. The woodcutter finding the body in the woods.

What do you think of this film?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Ikiru(1952)

 

 

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The famous swing scene. Screenshot by me.

Akira Kurosawa is one of my favourite film directors. I admire his films quite a bit. I have several favourites from amongst his work, but it is Ikiru that I consider to be my all time favourite Kurosawa film. It is a film that really impacts  the viewer on an emotional and spiritual level.

This film makes me stop and think about life every time I watch it. This film helps you realise that we should all stop and take in what is around us(the sky, the animals, the flowers etc), work is certainly necessary to pay the bills, but there is more to life than your job.

Treasure life with all your heart. There will come a time when one day you will no longer be here to appreciate life. Afraid that no one will remember you after you have left this earth? Then do something positive to help others while you’re living, that will make sure your name and deeds are remembered after death.

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Watanabe hears the worse news a person can receive. Screenshot by me.

Takashi Shimura gives a performance that really moves me, he makes you feel his characters pain, anguish, and also his eventual peace with his tragic and frightening situation.

Shimura is one of the most expressive actors in film history and I think that his performance here should be used in an acting masterclass. Every look, every expression speaks volumes and affects the viewer as we see the loneliness, pain, joy and fear of this man.

Kanji Watanabe(Takashi Shimura)is an office worker whose greatest pride in life is his work and his work record. He begins to suffer from terrible stomach pains and is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This news really hits him and he is adrift in life.

Watanabe’s work no longer brings him any joy, and he is desperate to find out the secret to enjoying life, he will learn that there is no such secret. He begs a young office worker(Miki Odagiri)to help him understand how to live, she is frightened by him and doesn’t understand what is driving him.

Watanabe doesn’t realise until later that enjoying life doesn’t mean laughing and going out partying; it can simply be nothing more than appreciating a sunset or sunrise, admiring the beauty of flowers, sitting and watching  what’s going on around you etc.

Life is the very world around us, the air we breathe, the snow, the rain etc. He also learns that he can leave something in this world that says he was here, he sets out to build a park for the local children. In one of the most iconic images in film history we see Watanabe sitting quietly on a swing as the snow falls around him, he is sitting quietly in that moment.

My favourite scenes are the following. Watanabe singing the song with tears in his eyes. When he discovers(before the doctors can tell him)that he is suffering from cancer, the fear and realisation in his eyes really gets to me. All the scenes between Watanabe and the young office girl. The ending showing the park being used as intended.

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Watanabe finds some joy. Screenshot by me.

One of the most moving films there has ever been. This film is so real to me(by that I mean I find myself connecting with Watanabe throughout)his pain and emotional journey don’t even seem like a film plot, they seem like a real experience that has been captured on film.

Shimura’s performance here is his very best in my opinion. He really was a one of a kind actor; his face is a kaleidoscope of emotion, and he really lets you see and share his characters grief, fear, and happiness. He makes me want to reach through the screen and hug his character. 

This story should be one that anyone from any country and background can enjoy, as the story is one that is so universal. This film is a human story and makes you realise how precious life is. 

Any other fans? If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.

Detective, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 2: Stray Dog(1949)

If you thought that Akira Kurosawa’s films were all historical epics, featuring swordfights and Samurai warriors, then you really need to think again. Kurosawa also made several dramas and thrillers set in the present day of his time(40’s and 50’s Japan.)

Two of my favourites amongst these particular set of films are Ikiru and The Quiet Duel. 

 

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Murakami gets desperate. Screenshot by me.

Stray Dog is another great favourite of mine. It is a type of film that I dearly wish Kurosawa had made more of. I really do love his Samurai films, but I find these lesser known drama films have become even more special to me than the samurai films. It is to these more intimate drama films that I keep returning again and again.

 

Set in Japan during a rather oppressive heatwave, this Noir Thriller features Kurosawa’s regular lead actor Toshiro Mifune. Mifune delivers one of the best performances of his career in this film.

Mifune is excellent as the sweat soaked, keen, rookie detective Murakami. When his police gun is stolen from him he doesn’t stop trying to track it down. As time goes on, Murakami finds that his gun has moved on from the pickpocket who snatched it and into the criminal underworld.

Murakami becomes guilt ridden when the gun becomes linked to crimes. It is at this point that he has to ask for help in his search for the gun(and in a way his own redemption). Murakami is helped by veteran detective Sato(Takashi Shimura at his best here, perfectly conveying wisdom and world weariness).

This is such a good film. It is exciting, moving and very thrilling too. There is some striking photography by Asaichi Nakai, and some strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast. Even people who feature for a small amount of screen time make a real impression.

The film is shot on location and that really adds a great deal of authenticity to the story we are watching. The film also shows us the good and bad sides of life in that country. The film also shows us a side of Japanese life which we don’t see too often on screen, that of nightclubs and dancehalls.

The film rarely lets up on its edge the seat thrills, but there are some quieter moments to be found too. A scene that always stays with me after viewing, shows the grief stricken husband of a woman killed by Murakami’s stolen gun sobbing in his wife’s garden; we see (as does Murakami)the terrible impact such a crime has on the victims loved ones.

 

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The wise Sato. Screenshot by me.

Interestingly Sato seems quite distant in that scene, which to me shows that he has seen so many similar things in his career. Due to his experience at dealing with such crimes he has in a way become used to and hardened against such things.

 

Sato tries to teach Murakami that he can’t get personally involved in every case, if he did the emotions would break him apart; but the older detective also knows he can’t teach that, it is something that has to be learnt by bitter experience. Sato and Murakami’s odd couple relationship also predates the buddy cop plots which are so common in films and series today.

The finale in the field is tense and deeply moving, as we find ourselves feeling some pity for someone who we should actually hate. If the film tells us anything, it is that crime is a destroyer and waster all round, there are only losers in such a life. The lives of both the victims and perpetrators of crime are ruined and forever altered by criminal activity of one sort or another.

Strangely enough Kurosawa himself never actually regarded this film very highly for some reason. I’d love to know why that was, as this really is one of his very best films.

A great one to watch over the weekend. If you’re not really into Japanese cinema this would serve as a great introduction I think, give it a go and share your thoughts.

If, like me, you are already a fan of this flick then please share your thoughts.