Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Response to Trevor Lynch’s Analysis of RASHOMON by Akira Kurosawa

Trevor Lynch(or Greg Johnson?):

Rashomon is the story of a rape and murder committed in 12th-century Japan. Or, rather, it is four radically divergent stories of the same rape and murder. Rashomon is constantly trotted out by coffee-house intellectuals as an illustration of the subjectivity of our perceptions and the relativity of truth. But this is a superficial misreading of the film.
The stories in Rashomon do not diverge because of the ineluctable subjectivity of all claims about the world. The witnesses are simply lying. Furthermore, if we pay attention to their testimony, the characters of the witnesses, and the enduring facts of human psychology, we can reconstruct what really happened. Finally, Rashomon does not just presuppose that reality is objective and knowable, but that there is a moral order that is objective and knowable as well, an objective ought as well as an objective is. In short, Rashomon is not a relativist film but a deeply realist one.

I have to disagree. First, Akira Kurosawa's film adaptation deviates significantly from Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story that is tempered & measured in its narrative and construction. It revolves around an extreme incident -- rape and murder/suicide -- yet the story is relayed almost without emotional content. Akutagawa maintains a zen-like distance and stillness despite the emotionally charged confessions of the three people involved. This has a flattening effect in pressing all three narratives into a panel of patterns, like glass slides beneath a microscope.

In the short story, there is no account of the violent encounter by the woodcutter who only bears witness to having found the body. The three accounts are by the bandit, samurai, and the wife. As such, Kurosawa drastically changed the nature of the story by inventing a fourth account by the woodcutter that undermines the crystal clarity of the original story. Imagine three crystals. They are different in shape and receives light differently. And yet, they are made of the same material, transparent, and penetrable by light. And in the original story, what matters is NOT what happened physically -- we can never know for sure -- but what happens psychologically. Three different characters tell three contrasting stories, and yet, the all three are fueled by the same egotism and emotions in relation to the norms of Japanese culture. Different stories but same emotional motivations. So, on a deeper level, they are telling the same 'story' for each story serves the same emotional needs of the fragile ego.

After all, what is strange about the confessions is that all three people confess to the crime. Usually, the accused say "I'm innocent and someone else did it." In RASHOMON, each of the involved confess to the killing. Bandit says he killed the samurai. Woman says she killed her husband. Samurai says he killed himself, suicide as honor and self-pity. Though the accounts are different, they are driven by the same need for self-justification in a strict shame culture. Bandit is willing to be hanged but wants to die with reputation. He tells the judge that he gave the samurai a fair fight and won with superior swordsmanship. It was not murder but a duel. Thus, the bandit wants to be remembered as a real man, not just some punk who killed an innocent helpless man bound in rope. He is willing to face execution but with pride.
As for the woman, she says she was wronged by both men. She was raped by the bandit though she resisted. And then her husband accused her with his contemptuous gaze. It was bad enough to be raped, but it was worse for her husband to put the blame on her, as if it was her fault that she was ravaged by the filthy bandit. So, she couldn't take the injustice and shame, and she killed the husband. She was the victim of both bandit and husband.
Then, the husband's account is conveyed through the shaman. Through the medium channeling a voice from the netherworld, we hear the husband say he killed himself. By his account, he was the victim of both the bandit and his wife. The bandit fooled him and tied him up and raped his wife. And then, the wife told the bandit to kill her husband so they could run away together. So, he wasn't wronged only by the bandit but by his own wife. Unable to deal with this shame, he killed himself.

All three accounts are different in narrative detail but they tell the same psychological truth. All three stories are driven by the need for ego's pride, self-justification, and social assent.

And for the meaning of Akutagawa's story to hold, we only need those three accounts. The fourth account by the woodcutter complicates, even confounds, the original meaning of the story. Also, it is topsy-turvy tragi-comic in spirit, what with the woman freaking out, the men flipping out, and fighting like two clowns out of fright than fury. It rather undermines the purity of Akutagawa's philoso-poetics. As Jonathan Rosenbaum's capsule review states, the meaning of the story goes from an emphasis on psychological truth to physical lie. (To be sure, Rosenbaum also seems unaware that the fourth account by the woodcutter was NOT in the original story.)

Akutagawa designed the story so that there is no way for us to know who really did what. But that very uncertainty is essential in order for us to notice the certainty of something deeper: ego and pride. It could be all of them are lying OR only one is telling the truth but, regardless of who did what, their accounts are fueled by the same psychological need for self-justification and pride. Indeed, this pride is even more important than life in Japanese culture. The bandit and the wife, by confessing the murder, can be put to death. But they fear death less than social opprobrium. Bandit's ego wants it to be known that he was the proud victor. Wife's ego wants it to be known that she was a double-victim, that of bandit and husband. As for the samurai, he would rather say he died at his own hands to redeem his honor than say he was killed by a lowly bandit or by his wife.

Kurosawa's addition of the fourth narrative makes us more aware of the issue of LYING. We know from the woodcutter's reaction when pressed upon by the commoner(who steals the baby's clothes) that he told a lie. We know that for certain because he withdraws in shame when accused about the missing dagger. This element turns the philosophical query of Akutagawa into a kind of medieval mystery of 'who dun it'? But the original concept, like Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA, isn't about what-happened than what-happens-in-the-mind.

Also, only Akutagawa's original vision justifies the priest's pessimism. The priest says the trial shook him to the core, more than any earthquake or disaster. Why? If he was so shook by the fact that people lied, it sounds rather ridiculous. After all, people lie all the time, especially about crimes they're accused of.
No, what makes the story so unnerving is that all three, bandit-wife-samurai, confess to the killing but we still don't know the truth. If three people say, "I'm innocent", that's par for the course. Naturally people tried to avoid blame. But if three people admit 'guilt', what the hell is going on here? And yet, the paradox is the three egos are seeking innocence through guilt. Bandit said he killed the samurai but in a honorable duel. Woman says she killed her husband but because she was wronged by both men. And husband says he killed himself because honor made it impossible for him to face life after humiliation at the hands of not only the bandit but his own wife.

Once the woodcutter's account is thrown into the mix, the focus of the story goes from phenomenological to ontological. Priest's gloomy view of humanity only makes sense in relation to Akutagawa's vision. After all, spiritual men cannot hope to know the certainty of worldly affairs. They are limited like everyone else in terms of senses of sight and sound. But spiritual men, even as they distrust the world of things and flesh, believe in the deeper and redemptive sanctity of the human soul. And yet, the priest is confronted with the problem of soul-itself in RASHOMON since all three characters seem willing to meet their maker. All three speak in redemptive terms of willing to give their lives for the truth. The bandit sounds half-way noble in his willing to face death as a man of pride. The wife seems sympathetic as a woman willing to be put to death as long as the court recognizes her as a poor broken soul wronged by two men. And the husband, speaking from the ghost world, has nothing to lose in terms of life since he's already dead. And yet, he tells a story that makes himself the tragic victim.

This suggests that the priest is confronted not only with deception of the flesh and worldly actions but with deception of the soul itself. If depths of the REDEMPTIVE soul can be so self-deluded and so at odds with certainty, what is a spiritual man or a man of god to believe in or trust?

Kurosawa could have maintained this sense of spiritual crisis, but he concocted a fourth tale by the woodcutter that alters the discourse from a philosophical crisis to sociological question of the problem of human dishonesty. Also, if indeed the priest is so troubled on the spiritual-philosophical level, why would his faith in man be restored by the woodcutter's kindly deed of adopting the abandoned baby? That goodness of deed would still not resolve the crisis of the soul as expounded in the first half of the film.

The difference between Akutagawa and Kurosawa was the former had the courage or nerves to look nihilism in the face without judgement. Not that Akutagawa welcomed nihilism but he saw it for what it is in a world that is what it is: ultimately absurd and meaningless.

RASHOMON the film is a combination of two Akutagawa stories: 'Rashomon' and 'In a Grove'. Both are short and concise. 'Rashomon', which is just a few pages, is about a commoner dismissed by his master in a time of social decay and destruction. He has no place to go and finds temporary shelter from rain in a ruined temple. He hears noise from upstairs, and it's not an abandoned baby but an old woman pulling hair from a dead woman. The old woman justifies her putrid act by saying the dead woman was no good in life... whereupon the man kicks the old woman and steals her robe and runs out of the temple. Once racked with anxiety, he now feels free with nihilism. There's no such thing as goodness, everyone is rotten, everyone leeches off everyone, so why shouldn't he? It's a depressing view of life but one that Akutagawa portrays unflinchingly, even coldly. Kurosawa was a humanist and sentimentalist, and he simply couldn't accept or fully comprehend that kind of nihilism. So, he dramatized it into an existential tragedy and wrapped up the ending in a fragile but hopeful message.
The commoner in the film acts like the man in the short story who finds dark liberation through nihilism. He steals the baby's clothes. But whereas Akutagawa portrayed his character with cold detachment, Kurosawa's humanist eyes judges the commoner as vile and gross.

On a conceptual level, Kurosawa's film is much less than Akutagawa's short stories. And yet, I would still defend the film because there just wasn't enough material in the original stories to make for a feature film. If 'In a Grove' had been filmed faithfully, it would run at most 15 min. And 'Rashomon' could be told in 5 min. Also, the storytelling is so cold and dry that it doesn't allow much for dramatics. So, Kurosawa felt a need to fill it in with flesh-and-blood material, and his film works on its own terms. It's like the original script of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID by Rudy Wurlitzer was an interesting idea on paper but didn't have enough meat-and-bones for a movie. So, Sam Peckinpah had to fill it in with more human-relationship material. TWO LANE BLACKTOP is closer to Wurlitzer's script and is interesting as a cinematic experiment, but sensibility taking the front seat means the characters recede into the rearview mirror.

RASHOMON is now more respected for its historical impact -- introducing Japanese cinema to the world -- than for its merits, which, though considerable, now seem dwarfed by Kurosawa's much greater achievements with IKIRU, SEVEN SAMURAI, THRONE OF BLOOD, YOJIMBO, and HIGH AND LOW. Also, some of the flaws are blaring. The music sounds like a ridiculous parody of Bolero, which seems utterly out of place in medieval Japan. Also, as inspired as Toshiro Mifune's performance is, it's a bit over the top. Mifune would become a much better actor later on.

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