Rashomon: Breaking Conventions divisionten

by: division-ten
for: Japanese film
when: March, 2009
length: 1,361 words
topic: the film Rashomon
notes: If you have not seen Rashomon, there are some major spoilers!

The jidai-geki, or period drama, is not unique to Japanese cinema, or cinema at all. Period dramas, regardless of which country they originate from, look upon the bygone era that they portray through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. Whether it be Greek mythical heroes, knights, or samurai, they are often portrayed in media as beings of justice, right and good with no moral faults. Even the thieves in ancient Sanskrit plays were depicted with high moral character and would not rob in the presence of a woman. This is why, when Rashómon tells the stories of the bandit, wife, and samurai, the audience does not think twice about their motives, until the woodcutter’s story shatters the ideals that both the characters, and the audience, have put in place. Instead of an honorable bandit, devoted wife, and noble samurai, we see three people whose only desire is self-preservation. Kurosawa’s themes, and even his camerawork, call into question the honesty of all those who testified in the court, and through his breaking of the jidai-geki themes of honor, villainy, and fidelity, and his camera looking away at crucial points in the plot, we can see how Kurosawa uses the film style of jidai-geki to break the idea of one.

For the first two-thirds of the film, Rashómon acts similarly to any other period drama- each of the characters testifying in court insists upon their own guilt in the act of the death of the samurai (including the samurai himself) to prove, not innocence, but faithfulness to their own character archetype. Tajomaru kills the samurai in a noble and evenly matched sword fight, the noble wife kills her husband out of fear, as she was unable to commit suicide after being raped, and the samurai, through a Shinto medium, explained that he committed suicide after witnessing his wife’s rape. However, Kurosawa himself describes this script as “human beings are unable to be honest about themselves with themselves” (183) and, according to the woodcutter, who is now seen as just as fallible as the other witnesses, Tajomaru is weak, the wife snaps at her husband, and the samurai is petrified of dying, or even fighting. By the end of the mess, only one thing is clear: even if one of the four told the truth, that would make the rest of them liars and amoral. Like the viewer, confused by all of the conflicting stories, Richie agrees that “the seeming reality of each version makes us question that of the others” (139).

The most notable scene to exemplify the characters’ inability to act as their archetype dictates is the fight scene. Fight scenes as a whole, specifically with bloodless deaths and exaggerated movements, are a mainstay in jidai-geki cinema. Replayed numerous times in numerous fashions, this scene, which starts off as a typical heroic swordfight with much fighting prowess by both the samurai and Tajomaru, degrades into a pathetic trope of the genre. The final depiction of the same fight is laughable. Both the bandit and the samurai, two professions where one ought to be proficient in martial arts, do not even seem to know which end of the sword is for killing, let alone how to keep one’s cool when death is staring at them in the face. Tajomaru kills the samurai out of little more than sheer luck after scrambling around.

Another theme of the jidai-geki that Kurosawa shatters is the clear distinction between the evil and good characters. The hero of a period drama is a man who is ‘perfect’: clean, orderly, and moral, while the villain is his clear opposite. Since Rashómon is a film about blurring the lines of truth, the samurai, who is portrayed as clean and orderly, is incredibly cruel to his own wife in the woodcutter’s tale. Meanwhile, Tajomaru, who is a dirty, wretched bandit, is portrayed as quite noble (considering his profession) in every testimony, to some degree. Lastly, the samurai’s wife starts off as a near-goddess like creature, but as each of the stories progressed past the rape, her robes and hair became more and more disheveled, in much the same way that she became.

Date Published
05/10/09 (Originally Created: 04/28/09)
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