A classic remembered

Innovative: Akira Kurosawa (top) and his remarkable Rashomon. Photo: archives

Innovative: Akira Kurosawa (top) and his remarkable Rashomon. Photo: archives  

Masterpiece Akira Kurosawa's brilliant ‘Rashomon,' released 60 years ago, caused a sensation then. Its theme and technique make it relevant even today. Randor Guy

I n 1952, for the first time an International Film Festival had come to Madras and one of the films screened created a sensation. The film, from Japan, drew large crowds when it was publicly screened later at a city cinema hall, where it enjoyed an unusually long run. Many people watched the movie more than once because nobody understood what the ending was! And it had no conventional ending. The film was ‘Rashomon.'

The movie had created history in 1951 at the Venice Film Festival where it won a prestigious award, and later, it received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in America.

With ‘Rashomon' (1950) a mega talent, who had been virtually unknown to the rest of the world, erupted on the global cinema scene. The filmmaker was Akira Kurosawa.

The Japanese Consul in Los Angeles accepted the Oscar on Kurosawa's behalf and in his acceptance speech, he never even referred to the celebrated director! His speech raised titters and when it ended, an ironical cheer arose that the Consul misunderstood and bowed repeatedly!

Until ‘Rashomon,' the western world and India did not know that they made movies in Japan!

Ironically, the film was not meant to be entered at the Venice Film Festival. The representative of an Italian movie company in Japan wanted to have a Japanese film as an entry. The producers were not interested in sending this one, but the persistent and persuasive Italian managed to take it with him to Venice where it made an impact. Kurosawa had been unaware that his film was screened in Venice or that he had been invited to the Oscar ceremony. He was not keen to showcase ‘Rashomon,' because he had another one on his mind that he felt was better! However, he woke up the next morning in Japan and found that he had become famous globally!

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), is considered the greatest filmmaker that Japan has produced. Although Japanese Cinema began in 1897, the considerable and impressive creations before ‘Rashomon' were hardly known outside that country.

Among the Asian filmmakers, only Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and Lester James Peries of Sri Lanka were famous outside their homelands.

‘Rashomon' was adapted from two short stories by the well-known Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Kurosawa brilliantly blended them into a seamless fabric while working on the script along with fellow screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto.

The storyline

‘Rashomon' is an ancient, abandoned mansion deep in the woods. It means ‘the Gate of Demons'. The film's title is seen only at the end on the ornamental gate. A few people including a priest take shelter inside this abandoned mansion during a heavy downpour. One of them, a woodcutter, tells the others that he found the body of a samurai (member of the warrior aristocracy of ancient Japan) in the woods. The police have captured a bandit as the suspected killer, who tells the court how he met the samurai and his excitingly attractive wife in the woods. Engulfed by lust, he ties up the husband and rapes the wife in the presence of the man. Expectedly a fight follows, the husband is killed and the wife flees from the scene abandoning the husband's corpse.

This event is narrated in a series of brilliantly picturised flashbacks by four different people - in four different ways - each claiming that his or her version is the truth.

The woman's version is that the husband abandons her in the woods after the rape. The bandit also rejects her appeal to accept her and take her away with him. In a fit of rage against her husband, she kills him with her dagger…

The bandit says that the woman is a willing victim and in the later fight with the husband, he has no option but to kill him. The dead husband speaks in court through a ‘medium' and says that having enjoyed the macho power of the bandit his wife wanted to go away with him, but the bandit, shocked by her conduct, rejects her plea.

Shamed by the his wife's behaviour, who he feels is a willing victim, he kills himself with her dagger.

The woodcutter, who watches it all in secret, now narrates his version. According to him, the woman goads the two men to fight over her and it ends with the bandit killing the husband. The bandit refuses to accept her, as he feels that she is an unworthy wife.

The rain stops, the cry of an abandoned baby is heard and the priest takes charge of the baby. Life has to go on irrespective of crime and tragedy.

What then is the truth? Does it vary according to the perception of the person? Is there something known as ‘Absolute Truth'? Kurosawa etches these subtle questions of perception and truth in a remarkable way.

Born in Tokyo in 1910, Kurosawa studied painting but failed to make a living out of it. So he joined the PCL Studios to learn filmmaking. He was, for several years, assistant to the noted director Yamamoto. He also learnt screenwriting and invariably wrote or co-wrote most of his movies. He joined the major movie company of Japan, ToHo, in Tokyo. The basic theme of his films is illusion versus reality into which he had woven many social and cultural issues of Japan. A master of film technique, he was the first person in Japan to introduce the multiple-camera shooting, the zoom shot and the use of telephoto lenses.

Known as the ‘Kurosawa Signature,' his characteristic touch in ‘Rashomon' is the fast-gliding camera catching the action and investing the movie with dazzling movement and passion. Another highlight is the evocative use of the camera and the brilliant play of sunlight and shadow in the woods.

The camera tracking the action among the trees and bushes in ‘Rashomon' stunned critics, European and American audiences, as they never expected a Japanese film to be technically so brilliant, excitingly innovative and modern. In his films, the camera becomes a performer.

‘Rashomon' has Toshiro Mifune as the bandit. A top star of Japan, he made his presence felt in Hollywood too. (‘Hell in The Pacific', ‘Grand Prix,' and ‘Picture Bird'). It has the lovely and impressive Machiko Kyo as the violated wife. She too has done Hollywood films (‘Teahouse of the August Moon'). Takashi Shimuira, another excellent Japanese actor, plays the voyeuristic woodcutter.

Critical acclaim

The film received critical acclaim and a bonanza at the box-office in many parts of the world and was re-made in Hollywood as ‘The Outrage' (1964 with stars Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Bloom).

Kurosawa earned fame with his classics such as ‘Throne of Blood' (brilliant adaptation of the classic Shakespearean play ‘Macbeth'), ‘Seven Samurai' (1964, Hollywood remade it as ‘The Magnificent Seven', a critical and box-office hit) and ‘Yojimbo' (this classic inspired the Italian director Sergio Leone to make ‘A Fistful of Dollars.')

Around the same time came ‘Woman In Question,' a British film with a similar thematic approach. Directed by the Anthony Asquith (the son of the former British Prime Minister Lord Asquith). It had a limited run in India and inspired S. Balachander to adapt it for his Tamil classic ‘Andha Naal' (1954). At the time many people mistakenly thought ‘Rashomon' was his inspiration. In ‘Andha Naal,' many people confess to a murder, each claiming to have done it for a different reason.

Even after 60 years, ‘Rashomon' continues to be watched, analysed and studied by students of cinema and movie buffs, the hallmark of a true classic.

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