Half Empty, Since 1998

Summary of, and comments on the 1951 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa about the subjectivity of truth.

Marty's Notes On "Roshomon"

Marty Spellerberg. February 2nd, 2000

According to Noel Burch, Kurosawa was “superior” to his Japanese contemporaries for his assimilation of Western cinema practice as a starting point from which he proceeded to grow. While Roshomon was considered to have little importance by Japanese critics at the time of its release, and has been declining in western eyes since its speedy acceptance, it remains an original yet accessible film.

Roshomon is the story of two men as they sit and relate the events of an “interior narrative” to a third. They are debating the state of the world and how people are so easily driven to lie and cheat for their own ends. The interior narrative is of a trial wherein participants in a murder tell events as they saw them. The events they tell of involve a bandit tying up a samurai, having sex with his wife, and the samurai’s death by his own sword. The telling of these events varies from person to person, each of whom takes credit for the samurai’s death (including him).

When this evidence for humanity’s damnation has been presented, the three at the gate are presented with a challenge – there is an abandoned baby behind the gate and each must react to it. The “commoner” steals the baby’s clothes, the woodcutter is forced to reveal his part in the crime – that he witnessed the entire thing and stole the valuable sword. It is now that we get a definitive, “true” telling and Kurosawa shows that morality does exists separate from actions as the woodcutter is guilty for his part in the crime. The woodcutter wants to make amends and offers to care for the child, which reaffirms the Priest’s faith in humanity and is the case for the film.

It was his first use of the geometry that would become his trademark style, though in a rudimentary and simplified way. It serves to challenge film structure in a way that had not been done since filmmakers grappled with the introduction of sound years earlier. He rejected smoothness in editing, not hiding the frame line and the truth to materials that was popularly avoided in the west.

He used his camera in he “interior narratives” to reflect the characters – they wanted themselves portrayed after-the-fact. We are aware that we are being exposed to different versions of the same story because the visual style reflects the personalities and the egos telling the story. The bandit’s eccentricity finds its way into the camera as a quickly changing jerkiness, while the efforts of the wife and the samurai to sound heroic tend to their posing alone in the frame. The “truth” of the woodcutter’s story comes out in an all-encompassing, objective moving camera.

In his piece, “The Film Idea,” Stanley Solomon argues that the subjective truths of the different tellings are not the motivation for telling the story, that humanity’s preservation of ego is the real driving force. In composing the story, Kurosawa took two separate stories and intertwines them, using the gate of Roshomon and the subjective versions of “In A Grove” to symbolize a civilization in decline.

Personally, I was very excited by this film. It seemed to me very much more contemporary, owning, I assume to, its western influence. I found that this stylistic feature led me to a greater involvement in the film and consequently I was better able to understand what the filmmaker meant by it. Rather than having to decode every element, I could draw from what I already knew about visual storytelling.


Marty’s Japanese Film Notes

These notes were compiled in the winter of 1999 as part of Marty’s studies at the Ontario College of Art & Design. They may contain references to ideas in texts and credit is given to the authors.