Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Shot from Rashomon

As promised, here's a long bit of geekiness for the Kurosawa blogathon. If this looks like an (imperfectly) edited down version of a paper for school, it is, I assure you.

I want to write primarily about one shot: at the end of the Samurai's tale (told by a medium) - where we see the woodcutter and priest sitting in the background, and see - well - this:

The medium relays the samurai's claim that, after he was dead, someone crept on him and removed the dagger from his heart. Who could that be?

The conceit of the film (which it is famous for) is that it is the same incident told four times, by the participants and a witness. There is a frame story, in which a priest and the woodcutter who witnessed the events tell the stories to a traveler during a storm at Rashomon gate. They have witnessed the trial, where the stories are told, and are perplexed by it all. Kurosawa cuts back and forth between the ruined gate, the court, and the incident itself. In all the scenes at the court, the woodcutter and priest have been visible in the background. They don't do anything in those scenes - the participants tell their stories, answer questions, etc. - the priest and woodcutter just sit and wait.

This shot is different. For a start, Kurosawa cuts in closer - instead of a long shot, with the priest and woodcutter in the background (or a close up of the medium, telling the story) he shoots it so the woodcutter and priest are in the middle distance, the medium something of a frame for them. As she tells the end of the samura's story, we see the woodcutter behind her tensing, blinking, flinching. And when she stops, she collapses out of the frame entirely, leaving Takashi Shimura there alone...

It's an important shot - it sets up the possibility that the woodcutter has been lying so far. But it's interesting for another reason - where does this information come from? Kurosawa cuts from back to Rashomon gate, with the woodcutter pacing back and forth. An immediate reminder that we are seeing things that are being told by the woodcutter and priest (and before them, by the people at the trial.) Everything we see, whether from the trial or the stories told at the trial, is a visualization of something they tell the commoner. Everything in the film, from the trial or the woods, comes from a discreet source within the film. It's true that the camera doesn't take the literal POV of the characters, or even maintains a constant identification with them. Kurosawa often shoots from impossible angles, or uses camera movement that can’t be reduced to the perception of the narrators. There are even subjective shots from someone else’s point of view. During Tajomaru’s story, for example, we see shots of the sky, the sun through the trees, from the woman’s point of view. But, even with these shots, the high angles, the “wrong” points of view show events that are being related by the narrator in the story. The woman’s POV shots of the sky in Tajomaru’s tale show what he thinks she is thinking, not what she is thinking. We never really step outside the perspective of the person telling the story.

Except here. That shot of the woodcutters' reaction at the trial is not something anyone tells anyone else. Neither he nor the priest would mention it - the priest doesn't suspect him, and he certainly isn't going to incriminate himself. On the contrary - this bit inspires him to start telling his own version of the story, with the dagger playing no part. The shot of the woodcutter’s reaction can only come from the director. It cannot be traced to one of the diegetic narrators—it can only come from the author’s narration. There is almost nothing else like that shot in the film, certainly not in the embedded stories. Kurosawa does not let us outside the stories being told - he gives us nothing else to let us judge them, pick between them. Except here. He shows us something only the woodcutter would know, and he wouldn't tell.

Not that he doesn't give his agitation away, back at Rashomon, pacing back and forth and immediately launching into his own "true" version of the story. This version is set up, in a lot of ways, to resolve the story - to show what really happened. We've heard from the three participants in the incident in the grove, all peddling wildly incompatible and self-serving tales. Now we see a version from someone who was not involved. And we get it first hand: the woodcutter himself, not through an intermediary. This increased "realism" is reflected in the style - the sound for example: this is the only embedded story not to use music, sticking to the natural sounds. We are primed to see this as the "real" version of the story - the placement of this version of the story, the style and sound, the woodcutter's agitation at the gate, all seem to privilege it, mark it as being more reliable.

But it's a rhetorical trick - undercut before it starts by that shot of the woodcutter at the trial. Kurosawa sets us up to want a resolution - then sets us up to think one is coming - but gives us just another story, told by an interested party. He's told us that the woodcutter is not exactly a paragon; he's also rather pointedly intervened, giving us, for the first time, information not contained in the embedded stories. And when the woodcutter's story gets going, it soon turns into something different than the What Really Happened account we might expect. The stylistic elements (like the elimination of music) that privilege this section are almost immediately countered by other devices. Kurosawa quickly establishes a pattern of repeating details from the other accounts ironically. We see, again, Tajomaru urging the woman to run away with him - but this time ridiculous, wheedling and trite, promising to reform, like countless outlaws before him. She responds by trying to get the men to fight for her - but this time, she is bitter and ironic herself. Her husband reacts by denouncing and abusing her - which is both very conventional, and mostly a bid to save his neck. Everything becomes more stylized as the section goes on - the acting, the characters’ reactions, the direction. The close ups become more insistent; the geometric patterns (the triangles and ostentatious camera angles) become more intrusive. This builds to the mid-point of the story, when the two men fight. And the film has become almost a straight parody of a swordfighting movie.

There's another post to be written about Kurosawa's use of genre in Rashomon. [Actually, that was the other half of the paper I'm repurposing here.] The four segments of the incident in the grove are told in four different styles - Tajomaru’s version is a chambara, full of adventure and derring-do; the woman's is a melodrama; the samurai's a tragedy/horror story. You hear it in the music: Tajomaru’s story has exciting martial music, with hints of sensuality (the harp that emphasizes the wind that he says started it all). The woman's has that Bolero imitation, giving it an exotic, sensuous, melodramatic, tone. The medium’s trance has Japanese music, drums and chanting, and the rest of the Samurai’s story uses dark, foreboding music suggestive of tragedy or horror. The fourth section doesn't so much resolve the "truth" of the stories that came before as it criticizes and parodies the film genres they represent. (And represent something like the future of Japanese films - it points to the Japanese new wave, which shows a lot of the characteristics noted below.) It sets itself up as a "realistic" alternative to them, but soon becomes more of a parody, a deconstruction, of the earlier versions of the story. The style of this section reminds us of the importance of style throughout the film. It exaggerates the generic elements of the other accounts by parodying them; it underlines the role of music by eliminating it. It emphasizes the compositional and editing patterns used throughout the film by exaggerating them. It repeats shots and set ups - the angle used in the penultimate shot of the sequence, showing the clearing through a web of trees, is a repetition of a setup from Tajomaru’s story, used to frame the first shot showing the three principals together in the frame (in the fateful grove.) The use of such overt devices reminds us of the authorial voice in the film, and reminds us that the filmmakers are also interpreting the story. All the reasons we might give for considering the final version of the story more real than the others come from the director, are all elements of his style.

And back at Rashomon gate, what do we know about the incident? we can't trust the woodcutter's story - we've seen how he reacted to the medium's mention of the dagger, but his story contradicts that detail. The commoner certainly doesn't believe him. But more than figuring out what is happening in the story, I think Kurosawa is pushing at the edges of the nature of fiction. By intervening in the story (with that shot of the woodcutter at the trial), giving us information not related in the film, only to allow the woodcutter to contradict this information; and by making his own manipulation of the material more overt during the woodcutter’s story, Kurosawa makes explicit the ways he, as the narrator of these narratives, is imposing his interpretations on the story as much as the characters. In the end, I think the theme of the film is not so much the lack of a stable truth as it is the inextricable entanglement of narrative and interpretation. Each character presents as truth what they think the story means: and so does Akira Kurosawa. He sets up the woodcutter’s story as a resolution, only to undercut it. He comments on the story through the form and style of the final segment. The moments he privileges - the woodcutter’s reaction at the trial, notably - are themselves formal devices, which serve as much to show his interpretation of the story as to show a reality behind the interpretation.


Noel Vera said...

Interesting stuff! I happened to have heard of a stage production of Rashomon in Manila where the director had the couple passing by Tajomaru and arguing--possibly Tajomaru could be imagining this, to further excuse his taking the woman away. Or perhaps not; it would add to the bandit's vanity to have a fully faithful wife transform under his rough caresses.

If the latter were true, though, then the director made hash of Kurosawa's intentions. In the original story by Akutagawa, I remember having no framing story--the woodcutter merely introduced the corpse--and it seemed to suggest (or did it? I haven't read it in years) that the husband's testimony is the truth. Except for the detail of someone pulling the knife out of his throat.

weepingsam said...

The original story only has the testimony, more or less the same as in the film. The second frame, at the gate, is all added, including the woodcutter's second story. Nothing is really done to give any of the stories more credence than the others. It ends on the detail of someone taking the short sword out of the samurai's chest. And, of course, just as in the movie, all three participants claim to be the one who actually did the killing: all three of them think killing the man puts them in the best light...