Common Access WMP Filmmaking Essays

Rashomon | How to Make an Art Film + Solution to the Mystery

Why is Rashomon the ultimate art film? And what really happened that afternoon – with clues from Kurosawa!

What is an art film? And what are the important elements of an art film? I explain why Rashomon is probably the greatest art film ever.

And for Rashomon fans – the mystery solved! My solution to what really happened that afternoon, with clues from the great Akira Kurosawa himself!

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What is an art film?

On one level a “great movie” the sum of its parts. If you write it out as a formula it might look like this:

Great acting + great script + great cinematography + great sound and music + great etc. = Best chance of a great Film

If you fall a little short in some department, the movie is still good. But it’s only a great movie if you hit full marks in all departments, or as close to 100% as possible.

The Godfather is a great example of a great movie. Every department is top class, and it’s hard to imagine a better movie with all that raw material.

However, an art movie is more than the sum of its parts:

Great acting + great script + great cinematography + great sound and music + great etc. + DIRECTOR’S SPECIAL = Best chance of a great Art Film

This means, even if you read the script or listen to the music separately, or watch the shots for cinematography, you still will not be able to enjoy the movie unless you actually see it. There is no other way for you to get the extra message without watching the movie in its entirety.

The Godfather is a great experience. But if you read the original novel, there’s nothing new in terms of story or plot in the Godfather. However, with Rashomon, you can read the short story it is based on (see below) watch the video I made above to check out the cinematography, listen to the music and so on – but you still won’t get the full experience. That’s because the way the director has used the cinematic medium is an integral part of the experience. Even if you try to write an essay of that ‘experience’ it is almost impossible to put it into words – like orgasm.

Pulp fiction is another excellent example of a great art film. From the video, the movies I listed (there are others but this is from different continents):

  1. Rashomon
  2. 8 1/2
  3. Pather Panchali
  4. City of God
  5. Trainspotting
  6. Metropolis
  7. Battleship Potempkin
  8. Chungking Express
  9. Breathless
  10. El Topo

Obviously there is some subjectivity in “art”. What is art for me might not be art for you. It’s the same as painting or music, but even more complex!

Your upbringing, education, belief’s, intelligence, emotional intelligence, attitudes and your mood on that day will determine whether you will “get” the message, and if you do, how you process and understand it. That’s why people take cinema and art appreciation courses. Or you could just watch my videos.

The key elements of an art film

The key elements of an art film, which I strongly believe, are as follows:

  1. It shouldn’t bore you. Unfortunately many of the “art films’ from India are boring as hell. There are very few art films from India that I can recommend. Thankfully, in our world as a whole, there are a good selection of truly great art films to pick from.
  2. The honest liar. This one should be obvious but isn’t. What you are really trying to do is create a character that’s as human as possible. And all humans lie.
  3. Don’t be literal. It’s the height of boredom to state the obvious. I don’t know if more intelligent people have a proclivity towards art in general, but if that’s true, then they would get ideas and messages easily, without needing to have it spoon fed to them. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a good idea to underestimate your audience’s intelligence. What I’ve understood is people can understand things, but if they “reject” an art film it’s because they are simply not interested in doing the mental work.
  4. Cinema is entertainment. I’m talking about fictional feature films. I’ve explained this in detail in the next section below since it is a controversial idea.
  5. Master the medium. This goes without saying. To take painting as an analogy. The great painters first learn how to paint well, then deviate from established art. That’s why it evolved so much over the centuries. You cannot hit full marks in all departments without mastering the medium. And like I said in the video, you can’t make a movie better than the sum of its parts without first reaching the sum of its parts.

Why movies are entertainment

I’ve never understood the popular notion that cinema is a medium for social change. Seriously?

Let’s say you have a social message you want to share. Let’s say a typical low budget movie costs $30 million to make. It takes two years to get it done, from writing to putting everything together to shooting it to editing to audio, and you’ll be employing hundreds of individuals who have no direct relationship to your message. You’ve wasted two years and 30 million dollars and you’re hoping millions of people will see it, even though the odds of a movie reaching that many people are very low. You can’t even guarantee it will get a wide release or even a theatrical release at all.

On the other hand, if you wrote that message on a piece of paper and photographed that, or paid a well-known actor $1,000,000 to read the message back to camera, you then have $29 million dollars and two years to advertise the message to hundreds of millions of people.

Documentaries, yes, I can understand that. But fictional movies? You’re only deluding yourselves.

About the screenplay of Rashomon

Rashomon is based on a short story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, called “In a Grove”. The major plot of the movie, the rape and murder, and the courthouse, are all in this story.

Writer Shinobu Hashimoto independently wrote a screenplay based on “In a Grove”, before Kurosawa knew about it. However, because it’s a short story, the duration was only about 83 minutes or so.

When he was introduced to Kurosawa, they discussed ways to increase the size of the screenplay. Unfortunately, Hashimoto fell ill due to his bad back and had to return home to recuperate.

Akira Kurosawa rewrote the entire script and bookended it with the story at the gate of Rashomon. Ryûnosuke Akutagawa also wrote a short story called Rashomon, which happens at the Rashomon gate. However, that story is totally different. Kurosawa only borrowed the location and the name, nothing else.

The name of the gate was historically Rajomon, where ‘Jo’ means castle. ‘Rajo’ means city castle, and ‘mon’ means gate.

Rash?mon (???) is a Noh play by Kanze Nobumitsu (c.1420). Kanze changed the name by replacing ‘Jo’ with ‘Sho’, which means ‘life’.

Therefore, Rashomon could mean ‘The Gate of Life’.

Coming back to the screenplay. Even though the story elements were in the script (just like Godfather) the actual experience of watching and understanding Rashomon cannot be extricated from the film itself. Akira Kurosawa is an order of magnitude above most other ‘great’ directors in his understanding and usage of the cinematic language. The video above shows how his touch is what makes the difference.

From Macbeth

Here’s an interesting quote from Macbeth about the dagger:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep. Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives.
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.


Video on focal lengths Kurosawa used

On the full list of focal lengths, read this article.