• Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon

    By Akira Kurosawa


    [Note: in Japan, it is customary to refer to a person with their last name first. We have retained this practice in the below excerpt from Kurosawa’s text.]

    The gate was growing larger and larger in my mind’s eye. I was location-scouting in the ancient capital of Kyoto for Rashomon, my eleventh-century period film. The Daiei management was not very happy with the project. They said the content was difficult and the title had no appeal. They were reluctant to let the shooting begin. Day by day, as I waited, I walked around Kyoto and the still-more-ancient capital of Nara a few miles away, studying the classical architecture. The more I saw, the larger the image of the Rashomon gate became in my mind.

    At first I thought my gate should be about the size of the entrance gate to Toji Temple in Kyoto. Then it became as large as the Tengaimon gate in Nara, and finally as big as the main two-story gates of the Ninnaji and Todaiji temples in Nara. This image enlargement occurred not just because I had the opportunity to see real gates dating from that period, but because of what I was learning, from documents and relics, about the long-since-destroyed Rashomon gate itself.

    “Rashomon” actually refers to the Rajomon gate; the name was changed in a Noh play written by Kanze Nobumitsu. “Rajo” indicates the outer precincts of the castle, so “Rajomon” means the main gate to the castle’s outer grounds. The gate for my film Rashomon was the main gate to the outer precincts of the ancient capital--–--–Kyoto was at that time called “Heian-Kyo.” If one entered the capital through the Rajomon gate and continued due north along the main thoroughfare of the metropolis, one came to the Shujakumon gate at the end of it, and the Toji and Saiji temples to the east and west, respectively. Considering this city plan, it would have been strange had the outer main gate not been the biggest gate of all. There is tangible evidence that it in fact was: The blue roof tiles that survive from the original Rajomon gate show that it was large. But, no matter how much research we did, we couldn’t discover the actual dimensions of the vanished structure.

    As a result, we had to construct the Rashomon gate to the city based on what we could learn from looking at extant temple gates, knowing that the original was probably different. What we built as a set was gigantic. It was so immense that a complete roof would have buckled the support pillars. Using the artistic device of dilapidation as an excuse, we constructed only half a roof and were able to get away with our measurements. To be historically accurate, the imperial palace and the Shujakumon gate should have been visible looking north through our gate. But on the Daiei back lot such distances were out of the question, and even if we had been able to find the space, the budget would have made it impossible. We made do with a cut-out mountain to be seen through the gate. Even so, what we built was extraordinarily large for an open set.

    When I took this project to Daiei, I told them the only sets I would need were the gate and the tribunal courtyard wall where all the survivors, participants and witnesses of the rape and murder that form the story of the film are questioned. Everything else, I promised them, would be shot on location. Based on this low-budget set estimate, Daiei happily took on the project.

    Later, Kawaguchi Matsutaro, at that time a Daiei executive, complained that they had really been fed a line. To be sure, only the gate set had to be built, but for the price of that one mammoth set they could have had over a hundred ordinary sets. But, to tell the truth, I hadn’t intended so big a set to begin with. It was while I was kept waiting all that time that my research deepened and my image of the gate swelled to its startling proportions.

    When I had finished Scandal for the Shochiku studios, Daiei asked if I wouldn’t direct one more film for them. As I cast about for what to film, I suddenly remembered a script based on the short story “Yabu no naka” (“In a Grove”) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It had been written by Hashimoto Shinobu, who had been studying under director Itami Mansaku. It was a very well-written piece, but not long enough to make into a feature film. This Hashimoto had visited my home, and I talked with him for hours. He seemed to have substance, and I took a liking to him. He later wrote the screenplays for Ikiru (1952) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) with me. The script I remembered was his Akutagawa adaptation called “Male-Female.”

    Probably my subconscious told me it was not right to have put that script aside; probably I was—without being aware of it–wondering all the while if I couldn’t do something with it. At that moment the memory of it jumped out of one of those creases in my brain and told me to give it a chance. At the same time I recalled that “In a Grove” is made up of three stories, and realized that if I added one more, the whole would be just the right length for a feature film. Then I remembered the Akutagawa story “Rashomon.” Like “In a Grove,” it was set in the Heian period (794-1184). The film Rashomon took shape in my mind.

    Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

    In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, ruminating over the aesthetics that had made them special.

    Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa “In a Grove” story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I moved the setting to a large forest. I selected the virgin forest of the mountains surrounding Nara, and the forest belonging to the Komyoji temple outside Kyoto.

    There were only eight characters, but the story was both complex and deep. The script was done as straightforwardly and briefly as possible, so I felt I should be able to create a rich and expansive visual image in turning it into a film. Fortunately, I had as cinematographer a man I had long wanted to work with, Miyagawa Kazuo; I had Hayasaka to compose the music and Matsuyama as art director. The cast was Mifune Toshiro, Mori Masayuki, Kyo Machiko, Shimura Takashi, Chiaki Minoru, Ueda Kichijiro, Kato Daisuke and Honma Fumiko; all were actors whose temperaments I knew, and I could not have wished for a better line-up. Moreover, the story was supposed to take place in summer, and we had, ready to hand, the scintillating midsummer heat of Kyoto and Nara. With all these conditions so neatly met, I could ask nothing more. All that was left was to begin the film.

    However, one day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors Daiei had assigned me came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. “Please read it again more carefully,” I told them. “If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.” But they wouldn’t leave. “We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.” For their persistence I gave them this simple explanation:

    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. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.

    After I finished, two of the three assistant directors nodded and said they would try reading the script again. They got up to leave, but the third, who was the chief, remained unconvinced. He left with an angry look on his face. (As it turned out, this chief assistant director and I never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation. But, aside from this, the work went well.)

    During the rehearsals before the shooting I was left virtually speechless by Kyo Machiko’s dedication. She came in to where I was still sleeping in the morning and sat down with the script in her hand. “Please teach me what to do,” she requested, and I lay there amazed. The other actors, too, were all in their prime. Their spirit and enthusiasm was obvious in their work, and equally manifest in their eating and drinking habits.

    They invented a dish called Sanzoku-yaki, or “Mountain Bandit Broil,” and ate it frequently. It consisted of beef strips sautéed in oil and then dipped in a sauce made of curry powder in melted butter. But while they held their chopsticks in one hand, in the other they’d hold a raw onion. From time to time they’d put a strip of meat on the onion and take a bite out of it. Thoroughly barbaric.

    The shooting began at the Nara virgin forest. This forest was infested with mountain leeches. They dropped out of the trees onto us, they crawled up our legs from the ground to suck our blood. Even when they had had their fill, it was no easy task to pull them off, and once you managed to rip a glutted leech out of your flesh, the open sore seemed never to stop bleeding. Our solution was to put a tub of salt in the entry of the inn. Before we left for the location in the morning we would cover our necks, arms and socks with salt. Leeches are like slugs—they avoid salt.

    In those days the virgin forest around Nara harbored great numbers of massive cryptomerias and Japanese cypresses, and vines of lush ivy twined from tree to tree like pythons. It had the air of the deepest mountains and hidden glens. Every day I walked in this forest, partly to scout for shooting locations and partly for pleasure. Once a black shadow suddenly darted in front of me: a deer from the Nara park that had returned to the wild. Looking up, I saw a pack of monkeys in the big trees about my head.

    The inn we were housed in lay at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. Once a big monkey who seemed to be the leader of the pack came and sat on the roof of the inn to stare at us studiously throughout our boisterous evening meal. Another time the moon rose from behind Mount Wakakusa, and for an instant we saw the silhouette of a deer framed distinctly against its full brightness. Often after supper we climbed up Mount Wakakusa and formed a circle to dance in the moonlight. I was still young and the cast members were even younger and bursting with energy. We carried out our work with enthusiasm.

    When the location moved from the Nara Mountains to the Komyoji temple forest in Kyoto, it was Gion Festival time. The sultry summer sun hit with full force, but even though some members of my crew succumbed to heat stroke, our work pace never flagged. Every afternoon we pushed through without even stopping for a single swallow of water. When work was over, on the way back to the inn we stopped at a beer hall in Kyoto’s downtown Shijo-Kawaramachi district. There each of us downed about four of the biggest mugs of draft beer they had. But we ate dinner without any alcohol and, upon finishing, split up to go about our private affairs. Then at ten o’clock we’d gather again and pour whiskey down our throats with a vengeance. Every morning we were up bright and clear-headed to do our sweat-drenched work.

    Where the Komyoji temple forest was too thick to give us the light we needed for shooting, we cut down trees without a moment’s hesitation or explanation. The abbot of Komyoji glared fearfully as he watched us. But as the days went on, he began to take the initiative, showing us where he thought trees should be felled.

    When our shoot was finished at the Komyoji location, I went to pay my respects to the abbot. He looked at me with grave seriousness and spoke with deep feeling. “To be honest with you, at the outset we were very disturbed when you went about cutting down the temple trees as if they belonged to you. But in the end we were won over by your wholehearted enthusiasm. ‘Show the audience something good.’ This was the focus of all your energies, and you forgot yourselves. Until I had the chance to watch you, I had no idea that the making of a movie was a crystallization of such effort. I was very deeply impressed.”

    The abbot finished and set a folding fan before me. In commemoration of our filming, he had written on the fan three characters forming a Chinese poem: “Benefit All Mankind.” I was left speechless.

    We set up a parallel schedule for the use of the Komyoji location and open set of the Rashomon gate. On sunny days we filmed at Komyoji; on cloudy days we filmed the rain scenes at the gate set. Because the gate set was so huge, the job of creating rainfall on it was a major operation. We borrowed fire engines and turned on the studio’s fire hoses to full capacity. But when the camera was aimed upward at the cloudy sky over the gate, the sprinkle of the rain couldn’t be seen against it, so we made rainfall with black ink in it. Every day we worked in temperatures of more than 85º Fahrenheit, but when the wind blew through the wide-open gate with the terrific rainfall pouring down over it, it was enough to chill the skin.

    I had to be sure that this huge gate looked huge to the camera. And I had to figure out how to use the sun itself. This was a major concern because of the decision to use the light and shadows of the forest as the keynote of the whole film. I determined to solve the problem by actually filming the sun. These days it is not uncommon to point the camera directly at the sun, but at the time Rashomon was being made it was still one of the taboos of cinematography. It was even thought that the sun’s rays shining directly into your lens would burn the film in your camera. But my cameraman, Miyagawa Kazuo, boldly defied this convention and created superb images. The introductory section in particular, which leads the viewer through the light and shadow of the forest into a world where the human heart loses its way, was truly magnificent camera work. I feel that this scene, later praised at the Venice International Film Festival as the first instance of a camera entering the heart of a forest, was not only one of Miyagawa’s masterpieces but a world-class masterpiece of black-and-white cinematography.

    And yet, I don’t know what happened to me. Delighted as I was with Miyagawa’s work, it seems I forgot to tell him. When I said to myself, “Wonderful,” I guess I thought I had said “Wonderful” to him at the same time. I didn’t realize I hadn’t until one day Miyagawa’s old friend Shimura Takashi (who was playing the woodcutter in Rashomon) came to me and said, “Miyagawa’s very concerned about whether his camera work is satisfactory to you.” Recognizing my oversight for the first time, I hurriedly shouted “One hundred percent! One hundred for camera work! One hundred plus!”

    There is no end to my recollections of Rashomon. If I tried to write about all of them, I’d never finish, so I’d like to end with one incident that left an indelible impression on me. It has to do with the music.

    As I was writing the script, I heard the rhythms of a bolero in my head over the episode of the woman’s side of the story. I asked Hayasaka to write a bolero kind of music for the scene. When we came to the dubbing of that scene, Hayasaka sat down next to me and said, “I’ll try it with the music.” In his face I saw uneasiness and anticipation. My own nervousness and expectancy gave me a painful sensation in my chest. The screen lit up with the beginning of the scene, and the strains of the bolero music softly counted out the rhythm. As the scene progressed, the music rose, but the image and the sound failed to coincide and seemed to be at odds with each other. “Damn it,” I thought. The multiplication of sound and image that I had calculated in my head had failed, it seemed. It was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

    We kept going. The bolero music rose yet again, and suddenly picture and sound fell into perfect unison. The mood created was positively eerie. I felt an icy chill run down my spine, and unwittingly I turned to Hayasaka. He was looking at me. His face was pale, and I saw that he was shuddering with the same eerie emotion I felt. From that point on, sound and image proceeded with incredible speed to surpass even the calculations I had made in my head. The effect was strange and overwhelming.

    And that is how Rashomon was made. During the shooting there were two fires at the Daiei studios. But because we had mobilized the fire engines for our filming, they were already primed and drilled, so the studios escaped with very minor damage.

    After Rashomon I made a film of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951) for the Shochiku studios. This Idiot was ruinous. I clashed directly with the studio heads, and then when the reviews on the completed film came out, it was as if they were a mirror reflection of the studio’s attitude toward me. Without exception, they were scathing. On the heels of this disaster, Daiei rescinded its offer for me to do another film with them.

    I listened to this cold announcement at the Chofu studios of Daiei in the Tokyo suburbs. I walked out through the gate in the gloomy daze, and, not having the will even to get on the train, I ruminated over my bleak situation as I walked all the way home to Komae. I concluded that for some time I would have to “eat cold rice” and resigned myself to this fact. Deciding that it would serve no purpose to get excited about it, I set out to go fishing at the Tamagawa River. I cast my line into the river. It immediately caught on something and snapped in two. Having no replacement with me, I hurriedly put my equipment away. Thinking this was what it was like when bad luck catches up with you, I headed back home.

    I arrived home depressed, with barely enough strength to slide open the door to the entry. Suddenly my wife came bounding out. “Congratulations!” I was unwittingly indignant: “For what?” “Rashomon has the Grand Prix.” Rashomon had won the Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival, and I was spared from having to eat cold rice.

    Once again an angel had appeared out of nowhere. I did not even know that Rashomon had been submitted to the Venice Film Festival. The Japan representative to Italiafilm, Giuliana Stramigioli, had seen it and recommended it to Venice. It was like pouring water into the sleeping ears of the Japanese film industry.

    Later Rashomon won the American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Japanese critics insisted that these two prizes were simply reflections of Westerners’ curiosity and taste for Oriental exoticism, which struck me then, and now, as terrible. Why is it that Japanese people have no confidence in the worth of Japan? Why do they elevate everything foreign and denigrate everything Japanese? Even the woodblock prints of Utamoro, Hokusai and Sharaku were not appreciated by Japanese until they were first discovered by the West. I don’t know how to explain this lack of discernment. I can only despair of the character of my own people.

    Excerpted from Something Like an Autobiography, trans., Audie E. Bock. Translation Copyright ©1982 by Vintage Books. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House.

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