Thursday, July 30, 2015

Betcha didn't know ... The real Rashōmon Effect

"Movies are the new opiate of the people. They’ll believe anything we can get on the screen.”
— James Ellroy, The Big Nowhere
As is often the case when I want to read something but I don't know what, when I'm itchy and anxious and grabbing books off the TBR pile, then flinging them aside, I have turned to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short stories. You might call Akutagawa my ideal discomfort reading.

You may not have read Akutagawa, but you have likely seen a movie that takes its title, but not its plot, from one of his stories: "Rashōmon." Another thing that Rashōmon, the movie, does not take from "Rashōmon," the story, is "the Rashōmon effect," the phenomenon of different witnesses' offering mutually contradictory versions of the truth. That, and the multiple-witness murder-rape plot, come instead from another Akutagawa story, "In a Bamboo Grove." (The only element of  "Rashōmon" that Akira Kurosawa appropriated for Rashōmon appears to be the picturesque setting of the decrepit Rashōmon, or "Rashō Gate.")

In Kurosawa's movie, the gate is merely the setting where the characters offer their testimony about a rape and killing. Akutagawa's story, on the other hand, makes of the gate a dumping ground for dead bodies, where an unemployed servant on the verge of becoming a thief encounters an ancient scavenger, and each offers justification of his or her ghastly acts.  If not itself a noir story, it's at least a wry commentary and questioning of the nature and roots of criminal behavior, and it appeared a decade and a half before the Flitcraft Parable in The Maltese Falcon. As such, it ought to interest any reader of noir and hard-boiled crime writing.

As for that stuff about contradictory versions of the truth, it should really be called "The Bamboo Grove Effect," but I won't hold my breath.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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14 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

I am intrigued, and I will be tracking down a copy to read. (Disclosure: I have a special interest in the story in that I portrayed the rapist/bandit in a stage production of the story way back in 1970 when I was engaging in the pretense that I was an actor with a future.)

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow! I am trying to picture you as an unkempt wild man, braggart, bandit, rapist, and killer.

"Rashomon" is a terrific story, though it has almost nothing to do with the movie. Its protagonist could be a less-confident version of the co-protagonist of "In a Bamboo Grove," the role Toshiro Mifune made famous in the movie.

It's interesting to speculate about why Kurosawa decided to use the gate as setting for an unrelated story. Whatever the reason, that opening sequence of the quick cuts between shots of the gate in the rain is one of the great sequences in movie history, and a fine interpretation of Akutagawa.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger R.T. said...

That is why they call it "acting."

I've never seen the film, so I cannot make comparisons.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

See the film, read the story, then offer your opinion here or at your place. It would be interesting to read a fresh view of these classics.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

You were reading it in French?

I didn't know Kurosawa had done so much switching around of things, but that waiting at the gate in the rain is certainly a memorable image from the film.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: No, I read in English, but that French cover was cooler than any of the English ones I found.

It's not so much that Kurosawa switched things around as that he combined stories, but chose the title of the one from which he took less.

Akutagawa's story has nothing that corresponds directly to the quick cuts between shots of the gate from different distances, but Kurosawa's decision was a beautiful,apt, and ingenious interpretation.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

That is correct. Actually Akutagawa took two medieval stories, one about a servant who had been fired and found himself at the gate, Rashomon, where he drives off a woman who is stealing from the bodies left there and who also is cutting off the hair of the corpses to sell to wig makers and he then takes the stuff she left behind. This became "Rashomon."

The second story is about a samurai who is traveling with his wife and whose greed allows the bandit to capture him and rape his wife. All survive in the end. Both tales are found in _Tales of Times Now Past_, translated and edited by Marian Ury.

Akutagawa completely revised this story into the now familiar testimonies before a magistrate's court, with the three conflicting versions by the wife, the bandit, and the husband's tale as channeled by a shaman. This is "In a Bamboo Grove."

The three confessions format may be the result of Akutagawa's familiarity and enthusiastic introduction of the writings of Ambrose Bierce to the Japanese reading public. In particular, one of Bierce's short stories, "The Moonlit Road," involves a death and the different versions of her death by those involved in it, including the ghostly appearance of the murdered woman who tells her side of the story. (See translator's note NO. 2 on page L in _ Rashomon and Seventeen other Stories_, with an Introduction by Haruki Murakami.)

Kurosawa then took the title for the film from the short story "Rashomon" and the setting and used that as a frame for the testimonies in the magistrate's court. The film was made shortly after the defeat of the Japanese in WWII and perhaps the destruction of the Gate may evoke memories of similar scenes resulting from bombing raids by the US.

A Hollywood remake appeared in 1964. The director is Martin Ritt, and the cast of characters includes Paul Newman as the bandit, Laurence Harvey as the husband, Claire Bloom, as the wife. In the frame, Edward G. Robinson plays the role of the con man/thief and William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner) is the preacher.

For a more detailed and, I hope, a more coherent commentary, I have several posts on my blog about Rashomon, the film, the short stories, and the medieval tales.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Fred said...

I just realized I forgot to mention the title of the remake--it is "The Outrage" and is set at an empty railroad station, probably in southern Arizona or New Mexico. Paul Newman is cast as a Mexican bandit.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: Here's another try, after Blogger ate my well-thought-out comment.

I knew Akutagawa based both stories om medieval tales, though I have not read the tales. I do like that he set "Rashomon" amidst the tawdry, exhausted, impoverished end of the Heian period, Japan's most celebrated and refined literary era. That's a delightful bit of literary iconoclasm and, I suspect, a nice indication of Akutagawa's temperament.

I get a kick out of Western remakes of Kurosawa's movies, because he adapted freely from Western sources, including Ed McBain.

The speculation that the decayed Rasho gate might reflect Japan's defeat in World Was II is plausible, especially when one considers the scenes of ravaged countryside in Stray Dog, which appeared the year before Rashomon.

July 30, 2015  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I have also speculated about the frame that Kurosawa added to the stories--especially the ending. A infant is usually a symbol of hope for the future. I wonder if having the woodcutter, one of the common people, leave with the child was Kurosawa's hint that the future of Japan now rests in the hands of the common people, since the government and religion (the Buddhist monk who had lost his faith) had failed. Of course, the sunshine breaking through and shining on the woodcutter as he walked off is a bit of a cliche, I suppose, but it still works.

On the other hand, this is probably just another example of my tendency at times to do a tiny bit of over-reading.

July 31, 2015  
Blogger R.T. said...

Fred and Peter, I am envious of your incredible recall/memory. I barely remember my _Rashomon_ experience (i.e., actor on stage) from 1970, and I could not begin to tell you much about the plot. Your recollections/memories of the stories and film remind me of two things: (1) I should have paid more attention to the play when I was in it, which says a lot about my not very considerable acting abilities; (2) my septuagenarian memory really is like a rusty old sieve. But, hey, I'm enjoying your conversation even if I cannot remember much of anything about the play.

July 31, 2015  
Blogger Fred said...

R.T.,

It's not memory, but recency. I have my own DVD of Rashomon (one of the few I own), and I watch it regularly. In addition I have several posts on my blog about Rashomon, Akutagawa, Kurosawa, and the various short tales that form the basis for the film. There's my external, non-volatile memory.

July 31, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: I don't deserve praise for my memory' I don't recall an ending with an infant, but it has been years since I last watched the movie.

Don't worry about over analyzing. Over-analysis is film criticism's gift to the world.

July 31, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., divergence, variation, and even failure of memory seem appropriate for "Rashomon," I would say.

July 31, 2015  

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