It all started back in 1915, when up-and-coming Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa penned a short story, one whose title would eventually enter the English vocabulary for reasons that had almost nothing to do with the story itself.
That story was “Rashōmon,” a word that has since become synonymous with the concept of multiple, conflicting and overlapping points of view for a single event. That’s due mostly to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, also named Rashōmon, and which claims the story as one of its influences. What’s surprising is how little the original story had anything to do with the final product, or even with the very conceit with which it now irrevocably shares a name.
You see now why I wanted to write a guest column on this for Lost in Translation? And not just because I’m a Kurosawa fanboy, but that helps.
Let’s wind back to Akutagawa first, because it was his pen that provided at least 80% of the inspiration for Kurosawa’s film. “Rashōmon”, the story, provided the title, the setting, and little more than that—especially since there is barely enough story there for a short film, or any film at all. Set in the dying years of the Heian period in Japan, when a decadent aristocracy had crumbled under the onslaught of a rising military class, the story takes place in the ruins of the southern gate of the city of Kyoto, a grim place where dead bodies were abandoned and crows circled. (The name of the gate itself was the Rashōmon, so the title is little more than an invocation of the place.)
The whole plot is essentially a vignette that the author mines for cynical insights into human nature. In the shadow of the gate sits a servant who has recently been dismissed from his duties with a noble family, mulling over whether he can sink into banditry to stay alive or will simply end up starving like so many others before him. He encounters an old woman scavenging the dead—not for valuables or even clothes, but for the very hair on their heads so that she might make wigs. Having been enlightened anew as to the depths people can sink to survive, he decides the woman won’t take much umbrage if he steals her clothes, and on doing so he flees into the ever-encroaching night. The last words of the story are: “What became of the lowly servant, no one knows.” It was one of many such stories Akutagawa wrote in his lifetime, where he cast an acerbic eye over the self-justifying hypocrisy of human behavior across the ages.
He did it again in 1922 with his story “In a Grove”, and it was this story which provided the vast majority of the meat for Kurosawa’s Rashōmon sandwich. Set also in the Heian era, and told entirely in the form of short, first-person accounts, it gives us a parade of characters who tell, in turn, their own subjective impressions of an incident in a forest involving a nobleman, his wife, and “the infamous criminal Tajōmaru”. As each character comes and goes, new evidence comes to light about what did, or did not, happen, and in the end—which even involves a spirit medium channeling the soul of the dead man—we realize how truth is all too often a human invention, and how even what seem to be the most concrete of facts can be blurred through misinterpretation (whether willful or not).
Both stories had long since entered the pantheon of Japanese literature, and world literature generally, by the time Kurosawa elected to use them as the source material for his film. How this happened, as Kurosawa himself described in his book Something Like an Autobiography, was a combination of happy accident and collaboration.
Shortly after Kurosawa had finished directing Scandal (1950) for Daiei Studios, the company asked if he wanted to do one more picture for them. He agreed, and in casting around for material found an adaptation of “In a Grove” by a man who would later go on to become one of his most stalwart collaborators, screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto. Kurosawa liked the script, even though he knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a feature film, and with Hashimoto’s help he expanded it by adding “Rashōmon” as a wraparound to give the whole thing that much more length, heft and dimension.
The wraparound uses almost nothing from Akutagawa’s story. Rather, it has one of the witnesses from “In a Grove”, a woodcutter, reminiscing about the whole experience in the company of a few other men in the broken-down shadow of the Rashōmon. The woodcutter would be played by another Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura, later immortalized as the first of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai—and the thief Tajōmaru by another Samurai who needs no introduction, Toshiro Mifune. The bleakness of the setting worked as a backdrop for the story’s equally faithless ruminations about human nature—about whether mankind can be trusted to utter a single word in earnest when he lives in a world that prejudices him ruthlessly against ever doing so in the first place.
What makes the adaptation particularly great is how many of the story’s themes are re-embodied in the film. Most movies adapted from literature tend to settle for filming the plot of the story. This works for stories that are mainly plot, which is why Dan Brown or Michael Crichton tend to adapt better than Proust or Thomas Mann. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to adapt other, more plotless work, but even the most stalwart fan of films or literature would have a hard time sitting through the Jeremy Irons version of Swann in Love, because so much of what the story is about simply cannot be put on a screen. Or, maybe it would be better to say, such a story cannot be put on a screen without making it a different story. With Rashōmon, though, the meanings in both stories map beautifully to the action.
That didn’t stop the three assistant directors on the film (and the board of Daiei) from buttonholing Kurosawa endlessly about what it all meant. Kurosawa said time and again that he could not find any way to make clearer the meaning he wanted to bring to the story. He wanted to tell a story about the human inability to be honest, to be unable to survive without lies, to demand “flattering falsehoold, even beyond the grave,” as he put it. (How many times has one stood over the tombstone of another and mouthed easy platitudes?) It was not an easy lesson to swallow, but a vital one, and in Akutagawa’s stories he had found the raw material for that lesson.
The effect Rashōmon had on movies was galvanizing, even if it did not manifest all at once. The problem is that much of its effect has been obscurative, borne of the kinds of misinterpretations that once started can never be completely dispelled. The film’s appearance at the Venice Film Festival did help to put the Japanese film industry on the world map—but both the films production company (Daiei) and the Japanese government didn’t feel it served as a representative example of what they wanted Japanese cinema to be seen as. The misconception then circulated that the reason Japanese films had never “gone wide” with the world film market was because their films were all this complex and multifaceted! But Japanese critics themselves were taken aback; they felt Kurosawa had created a movie that was, get this, too Western for Japan itself—hence its greater success abroad than domestically. (There’s been something of a longstanding tradition in Japan of critical lambastment for films produced there which in their purview are little more than Oscar bait or easy exports.) It’s even been claimed (although I have never properly traced the source of this claim) that Rashōmon was the reason the Academy created a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
What’s most striking is how the end result of much of this was any number of films that owed itself entirely to Rashōmon—adaptations of the adaptation. A decade after the original film’s release, a teleplay directed by Sidney Lumet (and later again by Rudolph Cartier) preserved the name but used a Western cast and locale. The Outrage, a 1964 Paul Newman oat opera, borrows the same basic idea (with a dash of Little Red Riding Hood for good measure) but changes the locale. Even the Shinto medium of the original movie is preserved, albeit in the form of an Indian speaker-to-spirits. Or consider Iron Maze, which has a Western cast (Jeff Fahey, Bridget Fonda) but a Japanese director (Hiroaki Yoshida, he of the thoroughly bizarre Twilight of the Cockroaches), a grimy Pittsburg setting and again, the same Akutagawa story.
Even Japan decided remaking the original material was a smart idea. In 2009, director Hiroyuki Nakano (director of “hip samurai” productions like Red Shadow and Samurai Fiction) picked up on the idea of re-adapting “In a Grove” to an entirely new generation of moviegoers—those raised on the slam-bang samurai action that Kurosawa himself inspired without ever actually approving of. The end result was Tajomaru: Avenging Blade, which expands vastly on the original story by working backwards through the character Tajomaru and making him into a role—a role which is passed down across generations by successive outcasts. The idea, and the photography, were more intriguing than the finished product.
But the original stands, and continues to outlast the competition, by dint of its timelessness. What comes through most about Rashōmon is how Kurosawa was able to take a staple piece of Japanese high culture, turn it into a piece of popular culture, and in the end create something that was high culture all over again. The movie continues to be watched by every successive generation, to be plumbed for meaning, and to be traced back to its origins—including, most bewitchingly, the story that gives it a name but little else.