Culture and Representation

Rashomon : Between The Story and The Film

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Rashomon is a story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of the most famous writer in Japan. His writings are cynical and bring up uncommon theme thus he is said to have strong characteristic in the way of writing. “What he did was to question the values of his society, dramatize the complexities of human psychology, and study, with a Zen taste for paradox, the precarious balance of illusion and reality,” (Kojima, 12). Rashomon itself is the largest gate in Kyoto when Kyoto was a capital city of Japan. With the decline of West Kyoto, the gate became a hideout for thieves and robbers and a place for abandoning unclaimed corpses.  The story is about a discharged servant who saw an old woman on the top of Rashomon is stealing hair from the corpse left there. The woman said that she was doing this to earn money for life. Even though at first the servant thought stealing like that was the worst thing that he had ever seen, in the end he stole the woman’s clothes.
When Akira Kurosawa wanted to adapt Rashomon into a film, he found a problem that if he wanted to recreate this story into a film, the film’s duration would be too short because the story itself is really condensed. Then he decided to combine two stories from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s works, which are Rashomon and In a Groove, into one film. Even though the movie titled Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa only took the nuance of devastated Kyoto and the ruined gate of Rashomon from the Rashomon story and the rest of the film is mainly based on the  In a Groove  story.  In a Groove tells a story about the finding of a dead man body and then followed by seven of various testimonies on how the man could be killed from different people. In the end, there is no conclusion which one was true and how each testimony related to each other.
Combining two stories to make them into one story in Rashomon film is not enough for Akira Kurosawa because he modified some parts of In a Groove story by adding new characters in order to make the story fits the film’s plot, and probably it would make the audiences understand the content of the film easily. The most significant introducing new character is a man who met the priest and the woodcutter under the gate. He was there to hear the story which is told by both the priest and the woodcutter. He asked and gave comments which sound cynical on all the various versions of the story that he heard. He is the only one who essentially was uninvolved in the story of the finding of the dead man’s body thus he had no version to tell. But through his questions actually the film develops. The second new introducing character is the abandoned baby who is found under the gate by the priest, the woodcutter, and the unknown man. This abandoned baby probably appeared  to resemble the original Rashomon story because later on the unknown man stole the abandoned baby’s clothes and then just went away, which is similar with the discharged servant who took away the old woman’s clothes. And the interesting part is when the woodcutter told the priest that he wanted to adopt the baby. Isn’t it very contrast with the values that shown in the entire film? The entire film tells us that we cannot determine which one is good which is bad, because good things and bad things are vague. But in my opinion what the woodcutter had done is simply because he felt pity with the baby. He just wanted to do good thing, there were no certain motives at all.  Maybe that’s why in the end the priest said to the woodcutter that because of the woodcutter’s act, he still had faith in man.
            Akira Kurosawa made this film simple, in terms of cinematic sounds and place settings. As we usually see in other films, background sounds often appear to support the scene’s condition, nuance, or emotion. In Rashomon, there are background sounds but compared to other films the background sounds rarely appear. The film shooting also did in only three places; the gate, the wood, and the courtyard. Based on the story indeed the places are only there but actually Kurosawa could modify if he wanted to, but he did not. As Kurosawa said, “I like silent pictures and I always have. They are often so much more beautiful than sound pictures are. Perhaps they had to be. At any rate I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember in this way: one of techniques of modern art is simplification, and that I must therefore simplify this film,” (Richie, 79).  And another reason why Kurosawa made Rashomon simple was because of the low budget for this film. 
            Although the film is simple as Kurosawa said, actually he did many implicit ways to deliver the message of the story. For example, he played with shadow and light during the scenes in the forest. “Again, during the rape scene, the camera seeks the sky, the sun,  the trees, contrasting with the two, wife and bandit. When the rape is consummated and just before we return to the prison courtyard for the conclusion of the bandit’s story, the sun comes out from behind a branch, dazzling, shining directly into the lenses : a metaphor,” (Richie, 14). This shadow-light effect can be interpreted as human heart that seeks for the truth. And the sun as the guide in the film can be interpreted as selfishness or instincts that determine what humans finally choose to do. Another example is the composition of the casts that often shot in triangular position. In the very beginning of the film, we can see the priest, the woodcutter, and the unknown man gather and talk together and this position remains along the development of the story in the film. The scenes of the main characters; the husband, the wife, and the bandit are also often taken the same way as the priest and friends’ scenes which may show the development of the problems and tensions among them.   “ The picture is filled with masterful triangular compositions, often one following directly after another, the frame filled with woman, bandit, husband, but always in different compositional relationship to each other,” (Richie,14).
            The last point that the writer wants to discuss here about the adaption of Rashomon into the film is the time. There are two kinds of time, one is the ostensible time and the other one is the psychological time. Ostensible time is usually easily noticed by the audiences, that Rashomon is kind of flashback story. But the audiences are not really aware about the psychological time, the time that each sequence or shot takes. If each shot takes short time, it creates more sense of real in the film. Richie, written in his book Rashomon,  also had another reason regarding this matter,  “ But another reason for the extreme brevity of the Rashomon shots might be that the director knew he was asking his audience to look at the same material four or more times. He could rely upon the novelty of the pictorial image to help sustain image.”
            As we go through these analyses how Rashomon is adapted into film, we know that there are many differences between the original story and the film due the practical problems that the director may face thus the director should modify some parts or do something so that the film can be more realistic and interesting. Maybe that is why some people like the original version of the story better than the film, or vice versa.

1.     Kojima, Takashi. Rashomon and Other Stories (Tokyo: Charles E.Tuttle Company,1972)
2.     Richie,Donald. Rashomon (The State University, 1987)
3.     Richie,Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa ( University of California Press,1998)



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