Thursday, 28 August 2014

Based On: Rashomon


'Based On' will be posts about book to film adaptations. If I am not too lazy they will become a regular feature. Warning: sometimes the book's plot is slightly different from the film, and if you don't want it spoiled for you, do not read this post (I mean that in the nicest way). First up:

Ryunosuke Akutagawa's 'Rashomon' and 'In a Bamboo Grove'; and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) is a cinema classic based on two short stories by Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa: 'Rashomon' and 'In a Bamboo Grove.'

Rashomon is the gate of Kyoto, a city which has recently undergone a several severe calamities. A young servant with a festering pimple on his cheek is sitting under the gate taking refuge from the persistent rain. He decides to become a thief in order to survive. He has an encounter with an old woman who is plucking hair from corpses in order to make wigs to sell.

'In a Bamboo Grove' presents seven separate testimonies and confessions relating to circumstances surrounding the death of a man in a bamboo grove (what a surprise). Four of these are different versions of the events in the grove, and the reader learns very quickly that no one is telling the exact truth.

If you have seen Kurosawa's film you will have noticed that the screenwriters stuck very closely to 'In a Bamboo Grove.' So why call it Rashomon?

The film keeps the torrential rain from 'Rashomon' but has three disparate people, a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner, take shelter underneath the Rashomon. The commoner retains some of the servant's characteristics from the short story: near the end of the film he steals trinkets from a baby abandoned at gate. He also berates the woodcutter, who may have inadvertently killed the dead man, for being a hypocrite.

In the short story the servant is morally disgusted at the sight of the old woman plucking corpses' hair, but she attempts to justify it, explaining that she had known the dead person, and they had sold dodgy fish to survive when alive. The old woman says 'I think she'd understand what I'm doing to her.' (8) The servant responds by stealing the old woman's clothes, and before he runs off into the night replies 'That's what I have to do to keep from starving to death.'(9)

This world that Agutagawa presents is clearly an amoral one, and for the majority of Kurosawa's film the audience is presented with the same world. People will do anything to protect themselves: lie, cheat, steal.

Ryunosuke Agutagawa committed suicide at thirty-five, and spent much of his life fearing he would suffer from mental illness like his mother. This partially explains his pessimistic view of human behaviour, a view which leaves a reader without a morally upright character to lean on.

Kurosawa's film ends quite differently. The baby, as babies often do, stands as a symbol of hope for the future. It acts as a reprieve for the woodcutter, who tells the priest that he will look after it, as he has six other children at home; it is a place is will be cared for and loved. The film's final shot is the woodcutter walking home with the baby. He is able to go home because the rain has stopped; his way is now clear.

Kurosawa and the screenwriters could have chosen to tell only the story of 'In a Bamboo Grove.' It is a very clever story but it the audience leaves mistrusting the characters. The reason for the more uplifting ending is likely to lie with the historical context of the film.

It is five years after World War II, and we all know Japan had suffered and inflicted lots of pain in that war. People would have felt that society was in a decay similar to the decay represented by the flooding rain at the film's beginning. The positivity about the future at the end, with the passing of the rain and the return of sunshine reminded the viewer that just like climate with its changing seasons, the world goes through decay and re-growth.

If you haven't read Agutagawa's short stories I would highly recommend doing so. It is interesting to note that Kurosawa's Rashomon is not technically a 'faithful' adaptation of its source material, and a good argument against that approach to book-to-film adaptations.

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