Free Essay On Eisenstein On Rashomon
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Just the other day, I, Sergei Eisenstein, had a curious experience – I walked around a strange street corner and found myself in the year 2013, in front of a small arthouse theater playing something called Rashomon, by a young Japanese fellow named Akira Kurosawa. Intrigued, I decided to buy a ticket and watch the film. Ninety minutes later, I left the theater with a feeling of joy – I was absolutely inspired by this film. So much of what Kurosawa accomplished in this film follows along with the very principles I tried to instill in my own films and write about, including the concepts of dynamism, montage and expressive movement. In having a film that is so visually alive and mysterious, Kurosawa’s samurai murder-mystery drama is an incredible work that I am glad to see takes its influence from filmmakers like myself.
Image and Expression
So much of Rashomon reminded myself of my own film philosophy and style. Much like Kurosawa, I find myself obsessed with the idea of having stylized narratives and cinematography, with costumes and sets that are very moody and heightened in terms of reality (Oxford 168). Just like I do, the interesting visuals present in Kurosawa’s films, like Rashomon, are there to serve a greater thematic point, using motion in a very interesting way to make the narrative move forward (Yoshimoto 405). Kurosawa likes to tell his stories through interesting pictures rather than have the dialogue spell out the film’s themes for you, something which I admire and try to do in my own work. In both Rashomon and my own movies like Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, visuals take priority over telling a realistic story – we both understand the nature of the work we are doing, and focus very much on letting the images tell the story at least in part. Much of the film’s mood and themes, and even bits of character, can be found in exploration of the film’s images and the way it looks.
Many of these images are alive and well in Rashomon – Kurosawa very much knows how to craft fascinating stage pictures using Expressionistic movement and framing. In one shot, the thief stands in front of the samurai, shown in a low-angle shot where the thief is in the foreground, legs spread in front of the camera, with the samurai framed in between them. This broadly shows the samurai himself as being made to look smaller than the thief, which shows the thief’s idea that he is dominant over the samurai. This shot, for example, shows the thief’s ability to lie to himself about his accomplishments (since he is shown later to not be the brave warrior he claims he is in his retelling of the crime).
Other striking images pervade the film that remind me of my own Expressionistic camerawork. The woodcutter’s discovery of the samurai’s body is a very arresting shot, with two mangled, grasping hands frozen and reaching from either side of the frame, as if the camera is from the point of view of the dead man’s eye. The woodcutter is stuck terrified in the middle of the frame, the backlit hands grasping for him as he stares at the camera. This kind of shot places the audience in the position of the victim and the observer at the same time, creating a uniquely scary mood for the film that I found fascinating. The image is far from realistic, but it is played up for effect – showing that sense of expressive movement I find very interesting.
One of my favorite shots, and one I would consider doing myself in one of my own movies, is at the end of the film, when the Woodcutter is pacing back and forth outside Rashomon Gate, while torrents of rain pour down upon him. In this way, the water in the scene reflects the guilt of the Woodcutter at having witnessed a murder, while the ruined, burned temple lies around him. This sense of mise-en-scene is very stylized, which is very similar to the highly expressive way I would shoot my films. Consider, for instance, the stairs scene from Battleship Potemkin; the dramatic way the baby carriage tumbles down the flight of stairs is an arresting, hyper-real image, just like the image of the Woodcutter feeling sorry for himself in the rain.
Performance and Dynamism
Even the performances are heightened and expressive in a very interesting way that I adored. Toshiro Mifune’s thief character acts very much like a character in one of my films – his acting is very heightened and passionate, wild with lots of movement and expression. I am very drawn to expressive movement, and Mifune’s performance is interestingly strong and loud in exactly the way I like (Oxford 168). His gestures of defeat, victory, gloating and more in the various sequences of the film fits very well with the kind of gestures I would have actors perform in films like Ivan the Terrible (Oxford 168). The stoic nature of the wife and the samurai at various points in the film is shown to be a contrast to the thief’s crazy personality, something that seems similar to Cherkasov’s own gesturing in Part 2 of Ivan the Terrible in comparison to the more grounded performances around him. Like Kurosawa, I like to have that sense of over-the-top fantasy pushing itself on reality, which is true of both my films and of Ivan the Terrible.
The central conceit of Rashomon, which I very much appreciated, was the concept of different perspectives. In the film, a man has been murdered, and a trial is being conducted to determine who is responsible. As the film goes on, the event that led to his death is replayed from the different perspectives of everyone who was involved – from the thief, to the murdered man, to his wife, to the woodcutter who came across his body. By replaying the same scenario over and over again with subtle changes depending on who is telling the story, Kurosawa very much lives up to my original idea of ‘dynamism,’ in which the different perspectives that bring about conflict are explored. As I once wrote in my work Film Forms, “I regard the inception of new concepts and viewpointsas dynamic” (47).
With Rashomon, Kurosawa makes literal what I was talking about in my work; the dynamics between characters as shown through their unique treatment of each situation. The thief, for example, shows himself as a brave warrior who puts up a good fight against his opponent, proving himself to be a good fighter. The wife, however, claims to be very passive in the whole affair, with the husband not forgiving her for being raped by the thief. In the samurai’s story (told through a clairvoyant), he claims that the wife turned on him and told the thief to kill him. The woodcutter, however, offers a more objective view, saying that everyone’s stories were fake, and the samurai’s death was a matter of chance. The comparison between all of these viewpoints is very interesting, and is a fine example of the exact kind of thing I like to do in my own films.
Rashomon and Montage
Another one of my favorite techniques is the use of montage, in which images are mixed and edited together in a way that would not be realistic in linear time or space, but which makes an artistic statement through this skipping of time (Oxford 168). Instead of being a smooth movement, I wanted to make the audience aware of the cuts, so that they were surprised or affected by them (Sikov). Editing shots like this is meant to encourage my viewers “to think and see in a new, andradical way” (Sikov). Through these efforts, I wanted to make the audience just as much a part of the film experience as I am making it; they help create the movie by interpreting what I put up on screen, including my edits. This is definitely present in Rashomon, with the different perspectives forcing the audience to determine whichever perspective they think is the real one, if any.
The very opening sequence of the film uses montage in a very interesting way. In the first few shots, rain is shown falling on a bunch of different objects; this intercutting sets the tone to be vey sorrowful, letting the audience know that the film is going to be very dark and serious. By keeping the focus off a particular object for very long, the focus becomes set on the rain; this way, the rain becomes the main thing the audience thinks about. Also, this use of montage allows the audience to get a good feel or the environment and set the stage for everything that is going on. This also creates a sense of fluidity in terms of the speed of time passing – it is unknown how much time has passed since the events that will be discussed, and seeing the Woodcutter and his friends stranded among these ruins gives a feeling of isolation and alienation. These aspects and more within the film are facilitated very well through the use of montage, a tradition I feel is very well developed from my original creation of the idea.
One particular technique of montage I noticed quite a bit in Rashomon is the use of metric montage, one of my five different kinds of montage. This is most frequently used when the Woodcutter is shown walking through the forest, which is one of the most striking scenes in the film. The scene itself is made up of similarly-timed shots, as the several shots that are cut between are more or less equal in duration. At the same time, Kurosawa cuts between a shot of the sun cutting through the trees, the Woodcutter’s ax in close-up, a tracking shot of the Woodcutter himself, the use of tilt and dolly technology, and more all in equal measure. With the musical score, the strange steady rhythm of bolero music, each cut is easily scanned and felt by the audience, being able to measure them because they are so consistent.
The endless shifting of perspectives is incredible and disorienting in this sequence in the best way. The audience is shown the woodcutter from all different angles – moving right to left, left to right, walking along a log from a low-angle shot, and more. This allows metric montage to occur – by cutting between all of these shots in the same amount of time, a sense of consistency is felt in the audience that I admired. At the same time, the montage allows the story to be focused on the woodcutter, and instill in us a sense of tension and dread, especially when the film keeps cutting to the ax. A sense of mystery and tension is accomplished through this use of montage and expressive movement, which I really appreciated. The visual expressiveness in these shots are fantastic; in particular, I adored the close-up shot of the Woodcutter we were given, in which his face is lit from behind, creating a moody shot that expresses the character’s terror at what he has seen much better than if we were just given the actor’s expression in a shot. In this way, Kurosawa’s command of cinematography and visuals complements my own, making me feel as though he is a successor to my own work.
That is not the only kind of montage found in Rashomon, however – rhythmic montage is also found in the scene where the psychic conjures up the ghost of the murder victim. First, the Woodcutter relates to his friends the story of the clairvoyant, then it cuts to a fast shot of a toppled statue just outside, covered in the harsh rainfall that surrounds the ruins. Kurosawa then cuts to the statue in close-up, then immediately jarringly cuts to the clairvoyant’s ceremonial staff rattling, tracking on her for some time. Then, Kurosawa cuts to an overhead wide shot, holding for a few seconds to set up the new space. Each of these shots is dramatically different in shot length, but their jarring cuts and variation in shot length and distance from the characters help to establish the change in setting very efficiently. By making the audience aware of the cuts, Kurosawa makes great use of montage in jarring the audience into paying attention to the clairvoyant’s story. This abrupt change in quiet moment to loud moment in the transition, is a great example of rhythmic montage, something I attempt to use in my own films.
In much the same way, Kurosawa also makes use of tonal montage in this very same sequence. With the moody shots of the rain-soaked statue, the shaking rod, and more, there is a darkness and mysticism present in each of the shots, evoking things like nature and ceremony. When putting these two elements together in montaged shots, the effect is otherworldly and tense, linking the clairvoyant’s use of mystical energies with the power of nature. This use of montage allows for a very specific tone to be achieved in the narrative, thus permitting the audience to better believe that the supernatural is real in the world of the film. This more extreme kind of fantasy is the same sort of world that I try to make in my films, as I try to inject family dynamics into the melodrama of movies like Ivan the Terrible while the drama of a murder mystery is at the center of Rashomon.
It could probably be said that Kurosawa took many of his techniques and use of montage from me, as well, making him “the direct heir of Eisenstein in so far as he returned the shot-change to its true function as a visible, avowed parameter of filmic discourse” (Burch, in Prince 21). In short, the use of fragmented editing and quick cuts, as well as filmmaking and cinematography style, found in Rashomon is not unlike the same kind of work that was found in some of my works, like Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. Even in Ivan the Terrible, my mise-en-scene uses shadow and movement in much the same way as Kurosawa does in Rashomon – using it to hide people’s secrets, or to show that people even have them in the first place. Apart from that, the excessive doom and gloom of Rashomon makes it a very chilling and uniquely heartbreaking movie, in the same kind of existential tradition my own movies showcase.
Through its use of montage and expressive movement Rashomon is exactly the kind of film that I, Sergei Eisenstein, enjoy and relish. The broadness and theatricality of the film itself is very interesting to me, and provides me with the ability to appreciate everything that Kurosawa is good at with his direction. Dynamism is achieved through making a literal structure of the film out of the idea of changing viewpoints to see what everyone sees as truth. Mifune’s theatrical acting is the kind of expressive movement that can be found in my film’s performances, and the dynamic camera movement is something we both share as a technique. Montage, in particular, is a common tool in Rashomon, Kurosawa using quickly-cut dramatic images to set a mood rather than tell a story in a straightforward way. Injecting a great deal of style through his camera angles and compositions, Akira Kurosawa creates a very stylized picture of a terrible crime and its consequences, leaving the audience to make up their mind about what they believe is reality, and whose story really is true. When I left the theater in this future timeline I was thrust into and returned to my own time, I felt assured that the future of film (as I wanted to express it) was in the right hands.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Forms. New York, 1949.
Kurosawa, Akira (dir.). Rashomon. Perf. Toshiro Mifune. Janus Films, 1950.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Prince, Stephen. The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Princeton University
Sikov, Ed. Film Studies: An Introduction. Columbia University Press, 2009.
Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema. Duke University Press.
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