One of the most-celebrated passages of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a sequence near the beginning of one of the main characters, the Woodcutter, walking through the woods, axe slung over shoulder, camera moving as he does. In his book The Warrior’s Camera, for example, Stephen Prince claims this sequence is “the most striking” part of the film, composed of “among the most sensuous moving camera shots in cinema history,” and possessing a “hypnotic power.” Many other film writers follow suit. Read an online review of Rashomon and it’s a good bet the Woodcutter’s walk will be mentioned, with special emphasis on its vaguely-defined technical polish (and, as you’ll find in Roger Ebert’s review, the precise breaking of one “taboo”: shooting into the sun) and the mesmerizing power it has on the viewer. But let’s take a closer look:
The sequence, like most of the film, is a flashback. From the Woodcutter’s point-of-view, it shows his version of events, how he first stumbled upon the actions and characters that make up the film’s story-within-a-story about murder, cover-up, and possible theft and rape. Contrary to at least my own first impression, the sequence is short (02:00), contains no dialogue, and is constructed from sixteen shots, of which the Woodcutter appears in twelve. It is book-ended by two close-ups: a present-time close-up on the Woodcutter’s face as he begins to tell his tale and a past-time close-up of a lady’s hat hanging on a bush in the forest that first alerts the Woodcutter to something amiss. As narrative, the sequence is irrelevant—the flashback could start on the shot of the hanging hat. As cinema, it’s more than a little fascinating.
In ten of the twelve shots in which he appears, the Woodcutter moves in a single screen direction: in 2, 4, 5, and 9 he moves left-to-right; in 13 and 15 he moves right-to-left; in 3 and 16 he moves toward the camera; and in 8 and 14 he moves away from the camera. In the more-complicated 11, he moves first left-to-right and then right-to-left; and in 6 he moves first left-to-right, then toward the camera, and finally away from the camera. In sum, the Woodcutter moves left-to-right in six shots, right-to-left in three shots, toward the camera in three shots, and away from the camera in three shots. Although the Woodcutter’s toward-away movements are scattered throughout the sequence, his left-right movements are precisely divided by 11, which shows the change of direction. Before 11, the Woodcutter walks only to the right; after 11, only to the left.
Is the Woodcutter traveling in a circle, becoming trapped in the lies he is telling? Do the screen directions translate to map-directions, showing a Woodcutter (and filmmaker) caught between East and West or making the conscious decision to turn from one to the other? Or, if we assume that the Woodcutter’s journey is along a straight line, does the Woodcutter (01:10 – 00:38 = 00:32) actually end his journey somewhere in shot 5, by the tall tree?
Personally, I’m most interested in the reasons for the sequence’s lack of symmetry: why does the Woodcutter spend more time and more shots moving left-to-right than right-to-left? As I read the sequence, the scene, and the film—with its forcefully circular narrative, Bolero-like music, and often-circling camera—an even split would have been more appropriate. Unless, of course, the shape of things is not a circle but a spiral, which, although it may not arrive at a point of absolute truth, at least arrives at a point from which it is possible to see the many competing untruths that we’ve passed along our spiral way. Maybe the ultimate point is not to prove truth unknown but to make its various interpretations understandable.
Then again, if the shape of the film and this sequence was a spiral, the lengths of its shots should decrease over time—which is not the case: two of the longest shots in the sequence are 11 and 13, and the first shot is shorter than the last.
Another aspect of the sequence worth mentioning is the motion not of the Woodcutter but of the camera. The most famous camera movement is the “S” shape carved by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa in 11, but the camera seldom rests during the sixteen shots. In fact, only 6 is from a fixed position; and, as if to make up for that, the fixed camera weaves so many different angles that the Woodcutter—the focus of the shot—is eventually seen from three directions. Of the remaining fifteen shots, thirteen are pure one-directional tracking shots: in 2, 4, and 9 to the right; in 13 and 15 to the left; in 1, 3, 12 and 16 backward; and in 7, 8, 10 and 14 forward. The camera, therefore, tracks the same number of times backward as forward, and once more to the right than to the left. Following the pattern of the Woodcutter’s movements, the left-direction and right-direction tracking shots are divided by 11.
The odd-shot-out in this analysis is 5, which is comprised of a single downward tilt—from the branches, along the trunk, to the roots of a big old tree. Not only is this the only tilt (or pan) in the sequence, but it is also the only shot in which the movement of the camera is perpendicular to that of the Woodcutter. On the flipside, as if to reinforce the camera momentum that abounds in the rest of the sequence, the shot begins with the camera already in its downward motion and ends before it comes to rest at the foot of the tree. To my eyes, this is the shot that most stands out in the sequence, with its focus on a tree rather than the Woodcutter (who appears, but in the background and only for about half the shot) emphasized by the downward motion of the camera tearing at the otherwise nearly-seamless continuity of the other fifteen shots. In a way, it’s a like that suspicious, unnecessary detail that tips you off when someone’s lying—a comparison that works given the context of the film, but that’s a stretch even when analyzing one. I’m not sure why 5 (and, for that matter, 6, the only shot in which the camera doesn’t change position) are included in the sequence.
The Woodcutter isn’t the only subject highlighted in the sequence, however; and the camera’s movements aren’t only in relation to him. What intrigued some critics in the 1950s and many critics in subsequent years is the film’s attention to light—or, in more ambient terms: its impressionism. Both of these aspects are on display in the Woodcutter sequence, which contains one shot (2) of light playing on the blade of the Woodcutter’s axe and devotes four shots (1, 7, 10, and 12) entirely to the textures and other visual qualities of trees passing against the sky.
In 7 and 10, the trees are the focus, as an upward-looking camera captures their contrasting leaves and branches moving against clear skies. In 1 and 12, the camera movement is similar, but the trees are instead composed as a single, dark mass and the focus becomes the sun, shining and flashing through them. All four shots are equally irrelevant to the mini-narrative of the sequence except as they establish the mood under which we’re introduced to the story-within-the-story. As subjective shots they’re justified by their inclusion in a flashback, and we can imagine the Woodcutter, in present-time, narrating his story in such a way: “It was a beautiful day. I was walking through the woods. The sun filtered in through the trees. I came onto a clearing and crossed a wooden bridge. When I looked up, the branches looked magnificent against the cool blue of the sky. I wanted to stop and rest, but I had to keep walking…”
We cannot, however, ascribe these shots to the subjectivity of the past-time Woodcutter—the one walking through the woods. Because we never see this Woodcutter looking up, the shots have to be the creations of the present-time Woodcutter narrating the story. Why he would choose to fill his narrative with these observations is an intriguing question, but, before delving into it, we should note that the shots also serve a more-practical function within the film: they differentiate the muddy, rainy day during which the framing story takes place at the Rashomon gate from the bulk of the sunny flashback sequences. At the risk of taking too much magic out of the film, sunny days also make for quicker / cheaper filmmaking.
Back inside the head of the present-time Woodcutter, we come upon a conundrum: why, when telling a deceitful story about gloomy events while stuck at an old gate in wet weather, either mention the warm sun and pretty leaves or make them up? Since we later find out, in other flashbacks, that the weather was actually nice, let’s concentrate on the first of these questions. I come up with two reasons: the Woodcutter is padding his story with details to seem truthful when, in fact, he’s juggling the facts to keep himself from seeming a thief; or he’s buttering up his audience, the Priest and the Peasant, by mixing the pleasant with the unpleasant. The entire sequence could be an attempt by the Woodcutter to put his two listeners into a happier, warmer mood so that they’re more likely to believe what he’s about to tell them.
But that’s all usually lumped together under “impressionism” when discussing Rashomon. One last quality of the Woodcutter sequence that makes for good thinking is its relationship with another art movement: Cubism.
Cubists were interested in showing a subject from every, or at least many as possible, angles; and believed that by doing so they would capture all, or at least more than anyone else, of that subject’s essence. The notion was that the more approaches you took to understanding one thing (the more ways you looked at it, the more directions you saw it from) the greater your understanding of that one thing would be. In Rashomon, and within the Woodcutter sequence, Kurosawa attempts a similar experiment—but with [opposite?] results. In the film as a whole, for example, we’re presented with four “sides” of a single violent confrontation. And, in the Woodcutter sequence, we’re presented with five sides of the Woodcutter: in 2, 4, 5, and 9 we see him from the right; in 13 and 15 from the left; in 3 and 16 from the front; in 8 and 14 from the back; in 11 from the right and the left; and in 6 from the right and from below. We also see the Woodcutter from several distances: from long-shot (5), through medium-shot (13), to close-up (3). The only rule in the sequence is that, like with the Woodcutter’s motion and Miyagawa’s camera movement, 11 becomes a right-left transition, before which we see only the Woodcutter’s right side and after which we see only his left.
Whether all these angles and distances help us understand the Woodcutter better than if we had seen him from one angle and one distance throughout the whole sequence is difficult to determine, but the question is better-pondered when applied to the film’s overall structure: do the film’s four versions of one event help us understand that event—do they lead to an arrival at truth? Although the critical consensus is that one of the main themes in Rashomon is the impossibility at arriving at this truth (or the non-existence of such ultimate truth, altogether), I think we should be wary about coming to that conclusion. Certainly, we never arrive at one version of the story we know is correct, but with two important qualifiers. First, we only have four “angles” from which to piece-together the truth; our picture is incomplete. Even in the Woodcutter sequence, for instance, we never see the Woodcutter from above. Had we been given the chance to see things from another (or another [or another]) angle, perhaps that truth would have finally been revealed. Second, even if the truth would have eluded us, we would still have a greater understanding of what happened than if we had heard only one story, which we would have simply accepted as truth. Only because the four stories don’t jibe do we know about the existence of any lies in the first place. In terms of the Woodcutter sequence: only because we have seen the Woodcutter from below do we wonder what he looks like from above.
So, is Rashomon a Cubist film, an Impressionist film, is it circular or a spiral, what is the exact nature of its flashbacks, what does it say about Truth?
Whatever we want, obviously.