The Compassionate Kurosawa (Rashomon)

by Ezekiel Fry

Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon is based in very large part upon the story “In a Bamboo Grove” by early 20th century Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa’s work is heavily informed by American writers Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane. This is fiction that attempts to see the world exactly as the author believes it to be (What some might call “Naturalism”). There is no moral equivocation or justification, merely the harsh events seen through an almost cinematic lens. Bierce and Crane both showed an uncaring and unmoved world, filled with absurd and sometimes horrific coincidences. There are no answers in stories such as Crane’s “The Open Boat” and Bierce’s “A Baffled Ambuscade” merely the events as they occur. Taking this idea to the next logical step, with “In a Bamboo Grove”, Akutagawa creates a world completely devoid of truth. There are facts in abundance, but that fleeting oracle called Truth is unknown. It may very well be that it does not exist at all.
The murky world of “In a Bamboo Grove” is fully realized in Kurosawa’s film, but Kurosawa adds his own perspective as well. The film begins in a downpour. The world is obscured by blankets of rain, setting the stage for the half truths and skewed facts that will be unfolded in the body of the film. This body is essentially the single event from different perspectives that are described in Akutagawa’s story, it is the skeleton—the framework of the tale—that is wholly Kurosawa in thematic and narrative structure. Huddled in the dilapidated Rashomon gate (which references another Akutagawa story slightly) a woodcutter and a priest sit disconsolately. The woodcutter states bleakly “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand” and the priest later states, concerning the “strange story”, “I may finally lose my faith in the human soul”. Soon the priest and the woodcutter shall retell the events, as they see them, to the third man who is devoid of any of their moral questions. This opening scene is not from Akutagawa. Akutagawa’s tale is a mere documentation of seven perspectives on one event, there is no introduction or conclusion. The testimonies must stand on their own, in much the same way that any discussion concerning the nature or validity of death is absent from the chronicling of the shipwrecked men in Crane’s “The Open Boat”. The reader must decide what, if any, truth or justice is available to man in an uncaring world. It is from this model that Kurosawa departs in his filmic version of “In a Bamboo Grove”.
The aforementioned lines from the woodcutter and the priest set the parameters for Kurosawa’s telling of the events in the forest. It is shown before hand that there is a good chance the proceedings that are about to be documented end poorly, or in doubt. There is a clinging sadness, an incomplete quality that is emphasized by placing these statements of confusion prior to the telling of the tale itself. The viewer is left wondering before there is truly anything to wonder about. Kurosawa effectively places the viewer on guard, raises the level of skepticism, before anything has even happened. This also works in reverse, as nearly everything that is to be held up to close scrutiny has already passed. As the film moves into what appears at first to be a narrative progression it becomes clear that we are actually viewing dead events—events of the past. The highly stylized, and yet strangely impotent performances of the three parties directly involved add to this static quality. Each time the tale is told we are not seeing the actual characters themselves but a caricature created in the retelling. They are templates of what the storyteller wishes each individual to convey. There is no more depth than what the teller says. Tajomaru, the samurai, and the wife, each act as creators of half-life through the hollowness of their words. As events accumulate things are obscured rather than brought into focus. Looking backwards it is easy to see why the woodcutter and the priest are so distraught in the present. The woodcutter’s lines “I just don’t understand” seem to echo throughout the film.
There is another purpose to these early lines from the woodcutter and the priest. Where Akutagawa is content to leave questions unanswered in any form, Kurosawa puts the unanswerable question forward in order to attempt a resolution. This device, seen here in one of Kurosawa’s earlier films, will recur prominently in all his work. There is no bleakness in Kurosawa’s worldview. His lens does not capture suffering for the sheer sake of documenting man’s abysmal condition, or our collective inability to do right. There is always purpose—a road to redemption—in Kurosawa’s viewing of the fragmented and evanescent nature of humanity. This purpose is fully realized in the final scenes at the Rashomon gate.
The hopelessness that bears down on the woodcutter and the priest is momentarily compounded when the third man attempts to steal clothing from an abandoned baby found in another part of the Rashomon gate. One can almost feel the priest’s faith in man’s soul shattering. It is at this crucial moment, when everything hangs in the balance, that the recently besmirched woodcutter rises to the occasion and takes the baby from the third man and promises to take care of it. The priest is renewed in his hope for mankind’s future. In this redemptive act the woodcutter answers the unanswerable question. There is no resolution concerning the validity of anyone’s story, or the grand nature of Truth. There is merely the strength of compassion. Through perseverance and faith in the good, mankind may find hope, or at the very least the illusion of hope—the illusion of Truth. This original ending is completely separate from the tone of Akutagawa and writers of his type, Kurosawa has his own vision of humanity and it must be present in his work. There are Akutagawan ways of viewing Rashomon to be sure, but the initial and final appraisal of the work will always bring us back to the vision of Kurosawa; a vision that does not see the world as hopeless. In some ways the conclusion to Rashomon feels rushed and out of place. There is a jarring quality, a sort of after the fact feeling, to the resolution and reaffirmation of the woodcutter and priest’s faith. Kurosawa seems unable to take Akutagawa’s view of things, but at this point in his career the film-maker does not tackle his overarching theme of compassion in the face of suffering from a position of negation. It will not be until Throne of Blood that Kurosawa effectively examines the need for compassion from a perspective where compassion is completely lacking. Even so, Kurosawa places his stamp on “In a Bamboo Grove” and transforms the contents into Rashomon, a tale of mutable reality, suffering, compassion, and hope. Akutagawa writes in the priest’s testimony, “This is so sad, so sad. What can I say?” (11). The priest cannot answer this question and the answer, if there is one, is left floating in the void. Ambitiously, Kurosawa attempts to answer the question.
Kurosawa works from a perspective first put forth by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin that James Goodwin discusses in his book Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Goodwin writes, regarding Bakhatin’s theory on the language and world of the novel, “the novel’s literary language is not a consistent, unified field nor the writer’s private province but rather a dialogue among mixed and opposing ideologies, voices of authority, genres, and social idioms” (57). This statement defines the relationship Kurosawa will continue to have towards his source material. The literary world is mutable and forever changing. The word, whether it is in the form of a play, novel, or short story, is constantly open to reexamination and creative interpretation. The story does not begin and end with the first and last lines written on the page. Kurosawa will come to understand this idea more fully as his career progresses, but Rashomon shows many of the important methods and themes that will color the artist’s work in the future. It is truly a foundational study in Kurosawa’s imagery and thematic imperatives, particularly when working with adapted material.