Kurosawa took up themes of betrayal, cowardice, dishonesty and personal responsibility — unmentionable subjects in Japan for decades after the war. As the director put it, his script portrays “human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies”
When the cable arrived from Europe, the president of Japan’s Daiei Film Company was puzzled. “What is a Grand Prix?” Mr Masaichi Nagata asked his office staff. No one knew. Months before, a representative from Italiafilm had requested that one of his studio’s recent productions, an historical tale called Rashomon, be screened at the 1951 Venice film festival. Mr Nagata complied, although he considered the movie unsettling. He had already demoted both the company executive and the producer responsible for the project following a disastrous run in Daiei’s cinema chain. Since then Mr Nagata had also suspended the film’s director, Akira Kurosawa, for continuing to make unprofitable motion pictures touching on awkward issues.
In the meantime news arrived that the Italians had awarded the Golden Lion to Rashōmon. No one was more surprised than the unemployed director, because Daiei hadn’t notified him the movie had been entered in the major festival. Kurosawa did immediately hear, several weeks later, that Rashomon had been nominated for Best Foreign Film in America’s forthcoming Academy Awards—an Oscar it won.
So the Daiei company re-released the film across Japan, and Mr Nagata, who had publicly dismissed the film as “incomprehensible”, appeared in the media taking personal credit for Rashomon. Still, domestic audiences did not flock to see it. Nor, when interviewed by journalists, would the film company’s president acknowledge what the difficult—and embarrassing—movie meant. Kurosawa opened up themes not discussed in post-war Japan.
Rashomon has a puzzling plot. It is bucketing down rain when the tale begins, and we are in Japanese woods. A journeyman in period costume runs for shelter under Rashōmon, the freestanding city gate of medieval Kyoto. This majestic edifice is half-wrecked and badly burnt, evidently in a recent battle. What we can see of the once great city through the gate is in utter ruins with dead tree trunks rising amid rubble.
Within the gate a priest and a woodcutter are squatting together, exchanging mute glances and headshakes, clearly bothered by something. The dripping journeyman breaks pieces of wood from the gatehouse walls, starts a fire and, settling on the flagstones beside them, asks what has happened. The pair explain that a local magistrate has just completed an investigation into a violent encounter between a samurai, his wife, and a bandit. But it is unclear what occurred because their statements are thoroughly at odds. Wicked things surely took place, although truth is buried under a heap of lies. No other evidence has been found shedding light on the incident, and everyone in the district is anxious. The community’s mood is expressed by the priest:
War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague, year after year it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this … This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.
He then relates the conflicting versions of events which had been given at the official inquiry—accounts which the viewer watches via extended flashbacks.
Domestic cinema audiences were unsettled by the subsequent twisting plot. Publicity suggested Rashomon was a popular Japanese jidai-geki, medieval costume movies with much swordplay between handsome heroes and theatrical villains. But it did not conform to type. Rashomon broke generic custom in ways unprecedented in Japanese cinema.
Mind you, Kurosawa’s film had troubling roots. It was very loosely based on two tales by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who had adapted the Western-form short story to Japanese literature. He was a controversial figure. Akutagawa was acknowledged as the leading author of the liberal modernising Taisho Period, and his suicide in 1927 was regarded as marking the end of creative and intellectual freedom. After came that cultural insularity, escalating militarism and political repression identified with the reign of Emperor Hirohito, an era when writers and artists lived in fear of the Shiso Keisatsu (“Thought Police”) which pursued “thought criminals” who encouraged “dangerous thoughts” (terms borrowed by George Orwell for his 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four). Akutagawa’s writing had been at odds with the mental climate during those troubled years, and Kurosawa’s inventive screenplay added a startling abrasiveness to Akutagawa’s stories by using feudal Japan to say unpalatable things about post-war Japan.
In the bandit’s testimony in the film, he boasts of overwhelming a travelling samurai by trickery, then tying him up. Finding her husband captive, the samurai’s wife pulls a concealed dagger and frantically tries to knife the lusting bandit. As the pair wrestle she becomes aroused and gives in to her attacker. After passionate sex, the wife begs the bandit to murder her grim-faced husband. The bandit cuts the samurai’s bonds, and they have a fierce duel which the bandit barely wins, running his blade through the expert swordsman. The distraught wife then flees into the forest.
The samurai’s wife tells it a very different way. She says she was raped by the bandit, who afterward left the scene. She is traumatised by the assault. But rather than comforting her, the motionless samurai glares, simmering with anger. He says she has dishonoured them both. So she begs her husband to kill her, although he does nothing. She becomes overwrought and faints. She finds her husband lying dead when she regains consciousness, mysteriously stabbed in his midriff with her dagger.
Next a clairvoyant appears before the inquiry so that the samurai’s ghost may also testify. The spectre holds that the bandit consoled his distressed victim after the rape, wanting her to become his concubine. However, the samurai’s wife demanded that the bandit kill her husband for honour’s sake. The bandit is unsettled by this, then turns to the samurai and offers to kill his wife. The wife panics and runs off. So the bandit frees the samurai, who weeps in humiliation and takes his own life with his personal dagger.
Rashomon’s quality as a motion picture relies on the craftsmanship of these flashbacks. Careful editing gives each segment its own mood and pace through variations in lighting, camerawork, even musical accompaniment. This is most evident in the second flashback which, set to Ravel’s Bolero, builds a throbbing emotional tension.
Lies are densely layered over each other as the film proceeds, and a Western audience wonders if we will ever get to the truth. Those acquainted with contemporary events in Japan were not so puzzled. James Davidson, a Japanese policy expert who had worked for the US State Department during the war, instantly recognised the overtones to post-war Japan. He pressed this point in an essay published not long after Rashomon’s American release:
It should not be forgotten that this film was made in the first instance for Japanese audiences, at a time when Japanese films were only beginning to emerge from an understandable period of complete escapism. A drama laid in medieval Japan, involving questions of human nature, could have provided a respectable type of escape without sacrificing its integrity. Yet the picture opens on the ruined Rashomon: once the great architectural symbol of the capital of Japan, now the crumbling reflection of a devastated city whence the seat of power has moved. It is deluged by a relentless, windless rain.
According to Davidson, the city ruined by war is an unambiguous metaphor for Japan in 1945. And he was certain Japanese audiences were being led to reflect on their own experiences, seeing events in the story accordingly. Making similar points, the film historian Mitsuhino Yoshimoto adds that having the camera never show the magistrate struck local audiences as signifying the Occupation legal system within its remote Western judges.
A similar view was taken by the academic Donald Keene, who worked as a Japanese interpreter for the US Navy during the war years. He was mightily impressed when he first saw Kurosawa’s film in Massachusetts where he was lecturing in Japanese language and literature. Keene likewise explained:
As I watched Rashomon in 1951 I became convinced … that it was an allegory for the war crimes trials in Tokyo, still fresh in everyone’s memory. For years the Japanese had read in the newspapers the testimony of men who had declared under oath that they had not committed the crimes of which they were accused, and they were contradicted by other men, also under oath, who swore the opposite. Who was to be believed? Were there no witnesses who could tell the truth?
Much about the conflicting accounts surely did mirror war trials. Retreating into self-justifying half-truths when presented with contrary evidence, the accused did not even adopt the infamous Nuremberg excuse, “I was following orders.” Instead, the blunt Japanese reply to allegations of misdeeds was, “I saw nothing morally wrong in what I did.” Blame was anathema to the proud.
The war tribunals were a fraught issue in Japan. Nearly 6000 soldiers, politicians and officials had been indicted and then prepared to appear before courts convened in Tokyo as well as China, South-East Asia and Melanesia from 1945 to 1950.
Trials held outside Japan proceeded efficiently. The most common charges comprised: the abuse, torture, maiming and murder of prisoners; execution without trial; rape and sexual slavery; ill-treatment of labourers; mass murder, pillage, brigandage and wanton destruction in invaded villages, towns and cities. The Japanese media’s reporting of these courts was often slim, which is understandable given the large number of cases. But obfuscation and heavy summarising did occur when atrocities were referred to.
The principal tribunal in Tokyo itself was a different matter. Sitting from April 1946 to November 1948 at the former War Ministry, it moulded public perceptions throughout the nation. Besides proclamations of innocence by the accused, and evidence problems because military records had been incinerated on a vast scale, there were mounting exemptions from prosecution. If over sixty military leaders, politicians and heads of business were charged, only twenty-eight of them eventually stood trial. The remainder were freed over 1947-48 while the Tokyo court was still active.
Behind the scenes there were frictions over this among prosecutors and the judiciary. Many from other allied nations felt the United States held too much sway. For instance, certain figures in finance, manufacturing and politics got off because America considered them crucial to post-war recovery. Most galling was how Emperor Hirohito was not charged on direct orders from General MacArthur. Likewise there was anger that Japan’s heads of research into biological and chemical warfare were given immunity from prosecution by the US military in exchange for all information gathered in their program. Even the activities of this shady unit, which conducted extensive experiments on live human subjects, were hushed up.
Public opinion in Japan was also soon influenced by an emerging Cold War arms race. Prompted by Moscow, leftist agitators in the West and Japan condemned America’s use of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events were branded as potential crimes against humanity far outweighing other disputed misdeeds in Asia and the Pacific.
Of course, the film industry itself was buffeted by political winds. In 1950, soon after Rashomon was completed, twenty-nine former staff members of the Daiei Production Company, who had previously been purged as war criminals, were excused and allowed to return to the firm. Then MacArthur ordered a nationwide purge of suspected communist elements, resulting in thirty other staff at Daiei receiving pink slips late in the same year. The newly expelled included Kurosawa’s assistant director Mitsuo Wakasugi.
As Rashomon nears its end we discover there was a separate witness to the crimes, although he did not present himself to the inquiry. The woodcutter admits to having gone into the forest to work that day and, coming upon the samurai, his wife and the bandit after the rape, spied on the trio from cover.
When the woodcutter arrives the bandit is on his knees begging the distressed woman for forgiveness, and asking her to run away with him. She frees her husband from his bonds, but he refuses to fight the bandit to avenge her. Instead, the samurai rejects her. He orders his wife to kill herself, then offers her to the bandit when she refuses. The wife becomes abusive in turn, mocking the two men as cowards without honour. The samurai and bandit then reluctantly start a floundering swordfight. Both shake as they nervously try to strike each other. There is much running for cover, dropping of swords, and frantic ducking behind protective tree trunks. Finally the unarmed samurai, whose sword gets stuck in the ground, is skewered by the frightened bandit. The samurai’s wife and the bandit then run off separately.
The priest and the journeyman look at the woodcutter in bafflement after hearing this independent account. They ask why he hadn’t come forward during the trial. “I didn’t want to get involved,” he whines defensively. The journeyman erupts into cynical laughter, claiming it is in human nature to look the other way. He has also noticed an inconsistency in accounts, and accuses the woodcutter of having stolen the wife’s ornate dagger from the crime scene. He is correct, for the woodcutter shamefully admits his theft.
The shocked priest says he will hear no more of human deceit, although the journeyman sneers, “They are common stories these days.” He looks around and sees the rain shower is ending. “Men want to forget things they don’t like,” the journeyman mutters as he stamps out the fire and prepares to leave. The priest objects, although the journeyman shrugs off his pieties with a rhetorical question, “Who is honest nowadays, anyway?” then hurries away.
The film’s poor reception in Japan was surely to be expected. Besides overt allusions to compromised testimony at the Tokyo trials, community cowardice, betrayal and brazen dishonesty in time of war are not easy subjects for a nation to stomach. Witness the response across France to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s similarly disagreeable movie Le Corbeau produced in 1943 during the Nazi Occupation.
Clouzot’s drama depicts havoc festering then breaking out in a country town when an elderly spinster anonymously accuses neighbours of misdeeds, even crimes. The story was based on true events at Tulle in south-western France where between 1917 and 1922 a wave of unsigned letters—around a thousand—had circulated, revealing family secrets, marital infidelities, illegitimate births and other social embarrassments. The emotional climate there became so toxic that some desperate townspeople were driven to crime and suicide.
If the film makes no reference to the war, denunciatory letters were a key factor of life in Occupied France, when Clouzot read an unsolicited screenplay by Louis Chavance. Written by corbeaux—“crows”: slang for authors of poison-pen letters—1500 were streaming into the Wehrmacht’s headquarters every day, the greater majority being sent by women intent on derailing the lives of often innocent neighbours. Clouzot got this risky project authorised by misrepresenting it as a drama of small-town life, precisely the type of film encouraged by Goebbels’s propaganda office. But the depraved and corrupt characters in Chavance’s script were far from those amusing and lovable, earthy and good-hearted rustic types common in approved movies.
There was tension in the Wehrmacht when the film was commercially released. The Gestapo wanted to know who gave it the green light, because denunciatory letters were an invaluable source in locating resisters, communist cells, Jews and others they wanted. Clouzot’s career was finished, on joint orders from Vichy and Berlin. Not that the Resistance admired his efforts, because the clandestine newspaper L’Écrain Français accused the film of upholding the Nazi attitude that “the inhabitants of our towns are nothing but degenerates”. Likewise the church condemned the movie for defaming village life and rural priests.
Far worse was actually to come after the liberation. Georges Sadoul, a Stalinist film critic, penned a caustic attack in Lettres Français accusing Clouzot’s anti-collaborationist movie of being pro-Nazi by presenting a bad view of the French people in wartime. This prompted charges being laid at a post-war government purge tribunal. Given the retaliatory fervour of the moment, the communists had their way. Le Corbeau was banned in France and Clouzot was barred for life from making films. Pierre Fresnay, the movie’s male lead, was also barred, and shorter sanctions were placed on other actors and film crew of Le Corbeau.
Fortunately the denizens of St-Germain-des-Prés, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Malraux and Raymond Aron, made a mighty fuss. So Clouzot’s ban was reduced to two years. Mind you, the issue was becoming an embarrassment because Hollywood had made Clouzot an offer (on his return to Paris, years later, he made the award-winning Wages of Fear). However, the government veto against screening Le Corbeau stayed in place until 1969. The French had continued to find this anti-collaborationist film unpalatable for twenty-six years.
Rashomon likewise took up themes of betrayal, cowardice, dishonesty and personal responsibility. These were unmentionable subjects which rubbed a painful nerve in Japanese society for decades after the war; which is probably why, writing in his autobiography as late as 1982, Kurosawa deflected questions of symbolism and covered the film’s contentious content tactfully:
Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium.
The international success of Rashomon allowed Kurosawa to join a more supportive film company. Over the next decade he produced nine major movies. There would be adaptations of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951) and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957), a low-life melodrama The Lower Depths (1957), a picaresque tale The Hidden Fortress (1958), and three films on pressing modern issues: Ikuru (1952) on a terminally ill bureaucrat who judges his life to be shallow; I Live in Fear (1955) about a middle-class family dealing with worries of atomic war; and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) on a respected corporate head with concealed war crimes in his past.
Significantly there were also two historical films set in the Sengoku Jidai (1467 to 1568), a period of turmoil and civil wars. Like Rashomon, they imply parallels between transitions in medieval Japan and contemporary society due to the loss of customary morals. The epic Seven Samurai of 1954—set during the peak years of medieval lawlessness—tackles the predatory opportunism and unscrupulous business practices which broke out in the immediate aftermath of defeat. Yojimbo of 1961—which highlights the displacement of noble values by a grasping merchant class—laments the spreading materialism and avarice of the 1950s economic boom.
The latter two films were soon adapted by foreign companies into the costly Westerns The Magnificent Seven of 1960 and A Fistful of Dollars of 1964. But both pictures are travesties. Besides shedding allusions to changing modern values, the characterisation is corrupted. The samurai became a rabble of tough gunslingers and hard-drinking cardsharps played with insolent swagger by Hollywood actors including Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughan. This is far from the moral worlds portrayed in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Kurosawa’s samurai are dignified men of high principle in a lapsed world of wickedness and greed. They aim to refrain from violent acts, and they abhor cocky arrogance, always living by a virtuous code. Hence, for example, their shock late in The Seven Samurai when one of the heroes is shot and killed by the bandit gang—using muskets in battle is disgraceful. It amounts to cheating.
If Hollywood did produce a Western in tune with Kurosawa’s medieval dramas, it was surely High Noon of 1952. The reluctant hero, a clean-cut man of principle played impeccably by Gary Cooper, displays samurai-like traits throughout. Abhorring violence, he walks about weaponless; although when forced into a fight, he is a master. High Noon also had an overarching allegorical intent. The director Fred Zinnemann, writer Carl Foreman and producer Stanley Kramer employed the Western genre to set American audiences reflecting on mass cowardice in the face of McCarthyist bullies: the entire town is too scared to help a decent pillar of the community who has done no wrong.
High Noon’s similarity to Kurosawa’s approach was, however, quite coincidental. As for a cluster of cowboy and gangster movies now claimed to have been indebted to the Japanese director, none really stand up to critical scrutiny. Then there are commercial films that did begin as Kurosawa stories but succumbed to heavy-handed rewrites and garish Hollywood razzmatazz—like the sorry metamorphosis of The Hidden Fortress into George Lucas’s glitzy hit Star Wars of 1977.
Still, one great motion picture has an irrefutable connection. In 1958, Ingmar Bergman’s admiration for Kurosawa, and Rashomon especially, came to creative fruition with The Seventh Seal. In a story set in medieval Sweden during the Crusades, again we encounter a brooding reflection on how the trauma of the Second World War has affected humanity. The central character is a knight who has been fighting in the Holy Land. But as a consequence of his brutal experiences he has lost his religious faith, lost even his belief in human decency. In other words, he has suffered an existential crisis, and he gives voice throughout Bergman’s arresting film to those urgent spiritual questions coursing through post-war Europe, and the early Cold War.
Having unsettled its Japanese audience with the depths of human frailty and deceit, Rashomon does finish with a redeeming act of kindness. After their discussion, the men sheltering beneath the city gate hear a baby’s cry. They search the ruins and find an infant wrapped in a kimono and placed in a safe corner. The troubled priest wonders what to do. But the woodcutter says he will take this abandoned orphan into his family, raising it as one of his own sons. So he picks up the baby tenderly, and sets off for home.
Christopher Heathcote wrote on the Italian paintings of Jeffrey Smart in the July-August issue. His most recent book is Inside the Art Market: Australia’s Galleries: A History 1956–1976 (Thames & Hudson).
 Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California, 2006, p.92.
 Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, Knopf, New York, 1982, p.187.
 see Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, op. cit., p.188.
 It was mostly based on Akutagawa’s short story “In a Bamboo Grove”, with aspects of another story “Rashōmon”.
 Kurosawa explains that the stories are set in the Heian period (794-1184). Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, op. cit., pp.181-81.
 Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, op. cit., p.186.
 James Davidson, “Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashōmon,” Antioch Review, vol.14, no.4, winter 1954, pp.496-97.
 Mitsuhino Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, 2000, p.189.
 Donald Keene, “Kurosawa”, Grand Street, vol.1, no.4, summer 1982, p.142.
 On problems of responsibility and evidence see Yuma Totani, The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008, ch.5 & ch.7.
 Nogami, Waiting on the Weather, op. cit., p.93. The “de-purging” was part of a directive by MacArthur which saw all prison sentences for war crimes reduced to one third, while those Japanese war criminals serving life sentences be paroled after fifteen years
 Frederic Spotts, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, Yale UP, 2010, p.252.
 The screenplay had been written in 1937 by Chavance, then was filed away at the production company where Clouzot came across it six years later.
 Spotts, Shameful Peace, op.cit., p.252; Richard Vinen, The Unfree French: Life under Occupation, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p.176.
 Spotts, Shameful Peace, op.cit., p.252.
 quoted in Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Vintage Books, New York, 2011, p.196.
 Spotts, Shameful Peace, op.cit., pp.252-53.
 Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper, Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1994, p.136.
 Spotts, Shameful Peace, op.cit., p.253.
 Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, op. cit., p.183.
 Joan Mellen, Seven Samurai, British Film Institute, London, 2002, p.14.
 Mellen, Seven Samurai, op. cit., p.69.
 Mellen, Seven Samurai, op. cit., pp.20-21.
 See Melvyn Bragg, The Seventh Seal, British Film Institute, London, 1993.