Tag Archives: mifune

Kurosawa: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” or, What You See is Not Always What You Get.

The “Rashomon Effect” is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of the same event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.  It is named for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950), in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways.  The film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka,” otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).  Later films and TV users of the “Rashomon effect” focus on revealing “the truth” in a now conventional technique that presents the final version of a story as the truth, an approach that only approaches Kurosawa’s film.  Here are some examples of the half-ass Rashomon Effect employed in western programing:

  • All in the Family            “Everybody Tells the Truth.”     Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic give conflicting accounts of an incident involving a refrigerator repairman and a black apprentice repairman.
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation “Rashomama.”  The episode required the CSIs, deprived of any of the usual forensic evidence, to rely on the eyewitness accounts of guests at a wedding to solve the case.
  • Fame (the TV series)    Under a theater marquee, two characters wait out a rainstorm.  Only after the entire story has unfolded in flashback does the camera divulge that the theater marquee announces “A Kurosawa Festival.”
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air      “Will Goes a Courtin.”  When Will defies his uncle’s orders by having his friends over by the pool after he refuses to pay his rent to his Uncle Philip unless Philip repairs the air conditioner in Will’s guesthouse, Phil sues the two stubborn men and they plead their cases in court before Judge Reynolds.  Uncle Phil, and Will and Carlton respectively, paint very different pictures before the judge of the same incident.
  • Grey’s Anatomy           “I Saw What I Saw.” A patient dies because of a mistake and Chief Webber interviews Owen, Cristina, Bailey, Alex, Lexie, Jackson, Reed and April and gets all differing versions of what transpired that night to determine who made the mistake.
  • Happy Days     “Fonzie Gets Shot.”      Fonzie is shot on a weekend camping lodge trip with Potsie, Chachi, and Roger.  At the hospital, they all offer different versions of how the Fonz was shot, each of which is transformed to make the speaker look more heroic.

The Film

Kurosawa’s film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka”, otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).  Rashomon is the film that introduced Kurosawa and the cinema of Japan to Western audiences, albeit to a small number of theatres, and is one of his masterpieces.  The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.

Now the Show

The film opens on a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the Rashōmon gate to stay dry in a downpour.  A commoner joins them and they tell him that they’ve witnessed a disturbing story, and begin recounting it to him.  The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest; upon discovering the body, he says, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities.  The priest says that he saw the samurai and the woman traveling the same day the murder happened.  Both men were then summoned to testify in court, where they met the captured bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), who claimed responsibility for the rape and murder.

The Bandit’s Version

Tajōmaru, a notorious outlaw, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered.  In the grove, he tied the samurai to a tree, then brought his wife there.  She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually “seduced” by the bandit.  The woman, filled with shame, then begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of having two men know her dishonor.  Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him.  In Tajōmaru’s version, they each fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajōmaru was the victor and the woman ran away.  At the end of the story to the court, he is asked about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai’s wife: he says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.

The Wife

The samurai’s wife tells a different story to the court.  She says that Tajōmaru left after raping her.  She begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly.  She then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace.  He continued to stare at her with a look of loathing.  His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with dagger in hand.  She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest.  She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts.

The Samurai’s Story

The court then hears the story of the deceased samurai, told through a spiritual medium.  The samurai claims that Tajōmaru, after raping his wife, asked her to travel with him.  She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men.  Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, grabbed her, and gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her.  “For these words alone,” the dead samurai recounted, “I was ready to pardon his crime.”  The woman fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free.  The samurai then killed himself with his own dagger; later, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.

The Woodcutter’s Story

Back at Rashōmon gate (after the trial), the woodcutter explains to the commoner that the samurai’s story was a lie.  The woodcutter had actually witnessed the rape and murder, he says, but just did not want to get too involved at the trial.  According to the woodcutter’s new story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai’s wife to marry him, but the woman instead freed her husband.  The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for a spoiled woman, but the woman then criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman’s love.  She spurred the men to fight one another, but then hid her face in fear once they raise swords; the men, too, were visibly fearful as they begin fighting. They began a duel that was much more pathetic than Tajōmaru’s account, and Tajōmaru ultimately won through a blind stroke of luck.  After some hesitation, he killed the samurai, and the woman fled in horror.  Tajōmaru could not catch her, but took the samurai’s sword and left the scene limping.


At the temple, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter’s account by the sound of a crying baby.  They find the baby abandoned in a basket, and the commoner takes a kimono and an amulet that have been left for the baby.  The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, but the commoner chastises him.  Having deduced that the woodcutter in fact stole the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocks him, “a bandit calling another a bandit.”  The commoner leaves Rashōmon, claiming that all men are motivated only by self-interest.

These deceptions and lies shake the priest to his very worldview of humanity.  He returns to his senses when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in the priest’s arms.  The priest is suspicious at first, but the woodcutter explains that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own children, of whom he already has six.  The simple revelation recasts the woodcutter’s story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a whole new light. The priest gives the baby to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him reason to continue having hope in humanity.  The film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby.  The rain has stopped and the clouds have opened revealing the sun in contrast to the beginning where it was overcast.

These stories are mutually contradictory and not even the final version can be seen as unmotivated by factors of ego and the Asian tradition of face.  Apparently even the actors kept approaching Kurosawa wanting to know the truth, which he claimed was not the point of the film as he intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth.  Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II.  A little too much of a stretch for my taste but we need to keep professors employed now don’t we?

What can you say about a film when its title has become synonymous with a story-film technique used to this day and not even nearly at the level Rashomon does?  For some this movie may seem a little boring, but for the real viewer it will show the origins of a method we have seen numerous times but probably without knowing its nomenclature or origins.  Rashomon needed to be reviewed after Vantage Point because I didn’t want JPFmovies readers thinking that Vantage Point employed the use of the Rashomon Effect nearly as fittingly as seen in the Kurosawa source.  If you are into films, this is one to see since Kurosawa realized an innovative technique that no one has really been able to duplicate to date.


Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Movie Reviews


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Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.

In 1956, Hiroshi Inagaki’s ambitious “Samurai” trilogy, based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel “Musashi,” came to a close with “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.” Toshiro Mifune first stepped into the role of the impulsive villager Takezo who would steadily transform himself into the master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto two years before. The series’ final film focuses on the remaining gaps Musashi needed to fill in his life which relate to his ascension as a warrior and a lover.

We continue to see the mellowing changes to Takezo, in a very restraint introduction in a fight sequence no less with the Hozion priests where Musashi has a Zen like approach to various situations remaining a formidable force should the situation calls for unsheathing of a sword.  His skills have grown considerably and earns a disciple in the process.  In this installment Musashi turns toward a higher calling by helping poor villages in need of protection against bandits, just like in Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai.

There are still a number of shortcomings of course, and it stemmed from the introduction of characters in the final arc of the story, such as Kojiro’s lover Omitsu (Michiko Saga), who serves little purpose than for her and her family to serve some pride in having Kojiro as a relative-to-be after his appointment by the Shogun. Little is seen beyond the demonstration of class, and for conversational pieces with Kojiro to highlight his inner desire and turmoil. Takezo’s childhood friend Matahachi (Sachio Sakai) also gets conveniently forgotten here, despite my feeling that he should have played a larger role in the lead up to the finale. Instead he’s relegated to a support character without any sort of sendoff.

So what’s my verdict of the Samurai Trilogy? It’s a lot better than I expected.  While it moves at snail’s pace, it does have a couple of short, highly intense, fight sequences that are still able to interest the modern film audience.

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Posted by on May 22, 2011 in Movie Reviews


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Installment 1 Musashi the Early Years

“Step by step walk the thousand mile road.” – Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

We are going to start our series where it probably should start—at the beginning.  All Musashi movies are based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s famous biographical novel Musashi, often considered as the Gone with the Wind of Japan.  It is an excellent work and I encourage everyone to read it.

We will follow all three works one segment at a time, the Original 1954 Mifune film Miyamoto Musashi (or the Original 1954 version); Zen & Sword (1961); followed by Showdown at Hannyazakaz also known as Dual at Devil’s Mask Pass (1962) (it took both Zen & Sword and Showdown at Hannyazakaz to reach the same stopping point as the Original 1954 version) and the first several episodes of the 2003 NHK series Musashi (we’ll call that series NHK), until roughly the same chronological stopping point in Musashi’s tale.

The Original:


Toshiro Mifune stars as the foolish young man, Takezo (the town’s wild, orphan kid) who leaves his village when the battle of Sekigahara looms and convinces his friend, Matahachi to join him despite some initial reluctance.  Instead of glory, they barely escape with their lives and Matahachi suffers a significant leg wound.  While evading enemy forces that are bent on killing all survivors, the pair find shelter with two women–an incredibly self-serving sociopathic mother and her daughter who is not yet as jaded and selfish as mom.  Mifune resists temptation and runs from them, while his friend succumbs to their pleas to stay–and in essence throws away his life, fiancée Otsu and his honor.  

Matahachi and his two female companions go to Kyoto, but Takezo returns to their village to provide Matahachi’s family with news on his condition.  Matahachi’s family rejects Takezo’s report and has him arrested for treason.  A monk, Takuan, rescues him from death and uses his influence with the regional lord to sentence him to study of the samurai code found in hundreds of great philosophical books.  Takezo’s cell?  A windowless attic where he spends the next three years of his life “becoming a human again.”  Otsu and Takezo have also fallen in love and she promises to wait for him when he sets off on the road as a knight errant.  In fact Otsu waits the three years, but is ditched by Miyamoto Musashi f/k/a Takezo when she finally meets him again.  Though Musashi does carve the characters “Forgive Me” into the bridge before he left. 

This is a classic movie let’s make no mistake about it, despite  having Mifune in the lead, this is not an Akira Kurasawa film (i.e. Yojimbo) and some may be disappointed that it is a little more stodgy than one of his other films.  Naturally, when one thinks of who should play a Japanese legend – and Miyamoto is known as Kinsei, or “Sword Saint” in Japan – only Mifune comes to mind.  The assumption cuts both ways in that the film focuses on Mifune and ignores many of the other important sub-plots that follow Musashi’s story.  We only get a glimpse of what is happening to Matahachi or the posse that Matahachi’ s mother forms to kill Miyamoto as “revenge” for spoiling her son.  Be that as it may, we will get a better idea of the differences in the next posting when we can compare the interpretation of the Musashi story as it appears through the films. 

The beauty of Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto lies in the spiritual journey Takezo undergoes as a wild man.  He will not be tamed by the lusty ways of women or by nature itself, but Takuan the monk does succeed when he forces the warrior to look inward as Takezo learns that power and strength are not sufficient.  The movie also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but Americans would have to wait almost ten years to see part 2. 


Posted by on April 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews


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