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Philosophy in the Forest

by Avinaba Chakraborty

The temple of Rashomon

TLR Rating: 9 Reels.



Japan has won four Academy awards for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars so far, which is quite an achievement for an Asian country and 1950’s are considered as the golden age in the history of Japanese cinema. In this era, some newly emerged auteurs gave the audience a break from those patriotic movies made during World War 2 filled with age old clichés and lacking any original thoughts. According to the most of the critics around the world, this film revolution began with the film ‘Rashomon’ which marked the entrance of Japanese cinema onto the world stage and made Akira Kurosawa an international sensation overnight. Had Kurosawa made only this film in his entire life, he would still have been considered as a father figure in world cinema. One of Kurosawa’s huge admirers, Satyajit Ray certified it as the finest example of a director’s command over every aspect of the cinema. Based on a short story “In the Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, this movie gave birth to a new word in English dictionary “The Rashomon Effect” which stands for the contradictory interpretation of the same incident by different individuals involved.

The Bandit’s story

The film begins with a stormy, rainy weather and we see one priest and a woodcutter, looking bewildered, sitting inside the ruins of the Rashomon temple to save themselves from the hazardous weather. They experienced an incident moments before on that day which leaves them awestruck. They meet a commoner and the woodcutter shares the disturbing story of his discovery of a Samurai’s murdered body and the trial in the courthouse following the incident to him. One of the most brilliant directorial achievements can be observed here as Kurosawa uses a dramatic turbulent weather in the background which gives the hints of an incoming gruesome story. In fact we get one such unforgettable story presented by four of the personnel involved with the incident, one after another with their highly contradictory nature leaves the audience baffled. At first the notorious bandit Tajomaru, who is captured, confesses about his guilt and takes the responsibility of murdering the samurai and raping his wife. His story mainly glorifies his heroism, wit and how deeply he was enticed by the beauty of the woman who ultimately makes him kill the samurai. Getting hypnotised by her beauty he ultimately forgets to steal the precious dagger from the woman. After that the woman tells her story which is more of an attempt to gain the sympathy. She expresses her helplessness while getting thrown away by her husband after getting raped by the bandit and confesses about killing the samurai herself with the dagger.

The Rashomon Effect

Just when it feels like this story is getting nowhere the director blows the mind of the audience with a third version of the same story, and more amazingly it was the story of the dead man which is interpreted through a medium. He also puzzles the viewer just like the others by claiming that he took his own life after watching his wife running away with a bandit who raped her moments ago. However the truth as claimed by the woodcutter, the actual eyewitness of the incident was quite different and looks like the closest one to be true. Neither Tajomaru nor the samurai were elite warriors; that’s why while fighting, both were scared to death and we see more of a childish scuffle instead of a classic samurai showdown. The woman was not that innocent either, as she was the one who provoked these men to go for a duel, so that she can run with the survivor and ultimately ended up betraying both of the men as claimed by the woodcutter.

Technically this film is a cameraman’s delight. We can observe some brilliant shots of sunlight piercing through the jungle which add even more charm to this breath taking movie. The flowing cinematography makes the film something more than just a crime story. Just like a river, it flows from the very beginning, gains momentum with colourful incidents and ultimately ends up in an ocean of emotional excitements which is quite astonishing. A noticeable part of this movie is the background music; at times it thrills you and again at times, it is as calm as breeze. Another genius of Akira Kurosawa lies in the portrayal of the nature as an important character in the movie. The environment speaks for itself throughout the film. In the beginning the overcast weather adds an element of suspense in the story and at the very end, the bright sunshine shows one last hope for humanity.

The center of it all -The bride

This evil and selfish world of ours manipulates us all. It is a Frankenstein created by our civilization which threatens the fundamentals of a civilized society. To live in this cruel reality, every one of us needs to be dishonest and cruel at sometimes. It is a survival of the fittest scenario here, just like a forest where the mighty one rules. Those who can accept these basic realities, overcome almost everything that life throws in their path and are suited better in this purgatory. These seem to be the messages encapsulated with in this psychological thriller when we find out that the woodcutter, no matter how honest he is, could not control himself from stealing the valuable dagger from the murder spot. When things look like as murky as an overcast sky, Kurosawa gives us a ray of hope about the expectation of a better future while ending this epic with the cry of a child and the woodcutter taking the responsibility of this helpless infant whose parents had left him abandoned into the ruins of the temple. No matter how selfish and self-obsessed we are, we are humans none the less, this character transformation restores our faith in humanity which was shaken by a series of lies.

A glimmer of humanity

This film also manipulates the audience from the very beginning, which can be seen in many of the modern films with lots of plot twists but Kurosawa had achieved this with a simple story with absolutely zero twists and just by his sheer brilliance in delivering the story Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is one such modern venture to follow this. One will feel like it is a suspense movie in the first half but in the second part, the situation completely changes and it turns out to be more of a philosophical lesson than just a movie which was able to bag the Academy Honorary Award in 1952. However many movies sink into oblivion even after winning awards, accolades and appreciation but the simplicity and innovative story telling approach turned ‘Rashomon’ into a timeless classic which is hailed by the critics even today.

The author is an electrical engineer, a movie buff and a big fan of Satyajit Ray.

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