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Bodies of Water, Bodies of Text: The Permeable Frame in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

Section One: An Axis of Organization

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) begins in the rain. It begins at the Rashomon Gate, which, through a series of establishing shots, Kurosawa and his cinematographer (Kazuo Miyagawa) describe as a stage-like frame of soaked ruins. For several minutes, each shot lingers on curtains of torrential rain; raindrops drench the gate, cascade down roof tiles and stairs, and swell puddles until the ground looks like a shallow pond. The ruined gate would once have been the southern mouth of Heian-kyō, a city now called Kyoto. It would once have cleaved the space between interior and exterior, belonging to neither as it did so—a thing apart—a parergon, to borrow language from Jacques Derrida. In The Truth in Painting, Derrida describes the parergon as “neither work (ergon) nor outside the work (hors d’oeuvre), neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work. It is no longer merely around the work” (Truth 9). But now this parergal border—this frame, at once a wall and conduit—grows more permeable by the moment, and the citythat it once rendered now dissolves back into some archaic hors d’oeuvre.

In her essay, “Light and Darkness in Rashomon,” Keiko McDonald produces a reading of Rashomon “from the vantage point of symbolism” in acknowledgement of the fact that “Rashomon is pervaded by a dialectic of symbols of light and darkness” (McDonald 120). These symbols are (among others) the rain and sun, the gloom of a dark forest and the blazing, impressionistic sunlight that dominates the police station. They are positive and binary: difference codified into a local cinematic language—a legible framework capable of delivering insights into human nature, which is, in McDonald’s view, the film’s central problem. It is through these symbols that McDonald ultimately derives a sense of permanence in Rashomon: the gargoyle and signboard in the film’s opening scene remain intact—obvious religious symbols that have survived the gate and that, through their persistence, imply that “religion has not been completely destroyed but in fact, holds out a potential for restoration of order” (121).

In a similar vein, George Linden contrasts Kurosawa’s Rashomon with the Ryunosuke Akutagawa texts upon which it is based, insisting in “Five Views of Rashomon” that Kurosawa actually rejects Akutagawa’s tendency to “question everything,” choosing, instead, to depict a level of stability and permanence that Linden describes as follows:

Kurosawa does not express total anarchy and despair. On the contrary, through the framing story of the woodcutter, commoner, and priest, Kurosawa affirms man’s ability to survive and remake his existence. Thus Nihilism, the principled affirmation of non-existence, is replaced by Transcendentalism, the affirmation of the totalistic integrity of reality (Linden 395).

If it is true that, as David Medine writes, many of Kurosawa’s films address “fundamental questions regarding the nature of truth and reality,” often through the lens of law and legal discourse, then Linden’s assertion that Rashomon affirms the integrity of reality must recommend a reading in which truth exists, even if it will not be known (Medine 55).

Much of the extant scholarship on Rashomon, therefore, might be characterized asattending to that spectacular indeterminacy—that tantalizing glide of facts—for which the film is primarily known. The selection of facts, narratives, voices, and possibilities that arise over the course of the film is engrossing precisely because it is an unsettled body—a divided self—the turbid collision of so many currents. And scholars have responded, generally, by engaging with the component parts of this body (with signposts, the narrative frame, with binary symbols of light and dark) as discrete units, which has meant attending always, directly or indirectly, to the film’s acts of selection (in other words: what details comprise the film). This tendency has, arguably, guided scholars away from the most vital engine of generation in Rashomon: the overlap of frames. They have, to borrow Roman Jakobson’s terminology, emphasized the “axis of selection” at the steep cost neglecting the “axis of combination.”

In the work of Roman Jakobson, the axis of selection is the process by which a speaker, writer, or poet chooses certain words from a set of related words, called an equivalence set. In Rashomon scholarship, this process has entailed an exclusive emphasis on detail; or, in other words, a prevalent hermeneutic approach that has privileged positive details over the arrangement thereof. In “Linguistics and Poetics” Jakobson argues that, “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination,” which is to say that the process of combination is, itself, imbued with the potential for equivalence; in Rashomon, combination might perhaps constitute significant—or in this case, even primary—hermeneutical importance (358). Rashomon’s several nested narratives—its relentless overlying of frames—all function like line breaks or stanzas in a poem, and the meanings that arise in these fertile intersections are like the vitally equivocal meanings that arise through enjambment. An approach to the film that does not consider the impact of formal framing upon content (parergon upon ergon) is, therefore, an approach that severs the living connective tissue between component parts—that severs, even, some measure of the parts themselves. A productive view of the film’s generative textual instability, then, is only ultimately achievable if the function of combination is given its due regard.

Heian-kyō, the capital city, lies in ruins behind a ruined gate: the seat of imperial power, reduced to a dead backdrop—impotent—a tangle of charred boards and submerged statues, sits empty. To borrow from W.B. Yeats, it is clear from the outset that, in Rashomon, “things fall apart,” that “the center cannot hold,” and that (per the Woodcutter, the Commoner, and The Priest’s conversation about the region’s lawlessness), “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (“The Second Coming”). This anarchy and its attendant anxiety will appear (even more explicitly) in the framed narrative at the heart of the film: a rape and murder retold four times, each time by a different witness, so that no locus of perspective can possibly act as a stable center capable of selecting true details. The seat of focal power, reduced to a tangle of conflicting reports and shifting biases, sits empty as well.

Bodies of Water, Bodies of Text: The Permeable Frame in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon
David Schwartz (John Carroll University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: The Priest and Woodcutter shelter below the gate.

In the absence of a stable center, Rashomon organizes its ergon according to the pressures of myriad, shifting, overlapping, and intersecting parerga—the collisions and layering of which produce new meanings as these abundant frames combine and recombine details in much the same way that clouds, lakes, and rivers recombine a single set of molecules into myriad forms. The cloud that pours itself out over Rashomon Gate is the puddle that swells beneath it; the ergon is reconfigured under the pressure of a new parergon.So, the film’s characters grapple with the anxiety of instability (or equivocation, or, better yet, play), and generally regard it as a problem to be solved. The viewer should embrace this play: it is a circulatory system, just as the hydrological cycle is a circulatory system, and by putting a finger on it, the viewer might feel the pulse of discourse within Rashomon.

Like the various levels of a frame narrative, the sky and ocean are not wholly distinct; the hydrological cycle courses through them like a threaded needle, tugging—pulling—warping the borders of two conceptual spaces bisected by a horizon, then hurls the ocean down again, inland, saltless, as if land were a genre incapable of carrying on without alien invasion, penetration, saturation, and, ultimately, fertilization. Rain is an incursion. Rain imposes itself upon land—the formless on form—the wet on dry, becoming, itself, wet and then dry again. Genres intersect here: sky and ground, day and night, ocean and land, clean and dirty, death by drowning, the waters of life, and so on. In Rashomon, the outermost narrative frame is, therefore, engendered by a weather event that extravagantly unsettles, escapes, and confuses the primary conceptual frames through which humans see their surroundings.

The frame is conceptual. The conceptual frame is the gated wall, encircling ideas as disparate as a character, city, story, or cloud. Like clouds that break into rain and become puddles, the ergon of each character transforms from scene to scene, their parergal bodies working toward new ends, in service of a new focal voice, with each successive witness account. The idea of Masako, the samurai’s wife, shifts and warps with each conception—the name of her character is like a gated wall: the population within changes, the city itself changes, and then at last even the wall, like the borders of a lake or cloud, must change.

In Rashomon, human bodies are frames for language—the four stories—four fictive realities, inhabit the mouths of their speakers as well as the bodies of characters and, in turn, the bodies of actors. Kikori, the Woodcutter, conjures Tajōmaru with his language—a bandit, barely human, seized by fits of laughter and scratching. Tajōmaru, in turn, conjures Masako Kanazawa, a samurai’s wife, and praises her noble ferocity. These characters, spoken into existence, behave as they are described to behave: Masako—a body, face, role, costume—is not Masako the person but Masako the sum of Tajōmaru’s words. In subsequent flashbacks, she is fierce, pathetic, murderous, scornful, and so on. Four women share this body. Each character hosts characters: Takehiro’s eyes belong to at least four men, and the medium’s eyes belong to Takehiro. The body is a permeable, transitory frame; the character is rife with valences—valences that reach from the ergon (the flashbacks) to the outermost narrative frame, where the woodcutter, priest, and commoner shelter under Rashomon gate and frame words in bodies just as the film itself frames words in bodies, mise-en-scène, sound, and camera work.

To transpose a musical phrase is to retain its movement but change its character. To play—a game, an instrument, a part (jouer and spiel similarly perform this versatile role)—might be to act upon, to embody, to participate, et cetera. Kurosawa and, before him, Akutagawa, transposes the story of Takehiro’s murder as he plays it, centering the permeability of its interpretive frame the way a key change achieves its effect through difference. The murder moves from body to body, mouth to mouth. To transpose is to traverse the circle of fifths. To transpose is to traverse the Hermeneutischer Zirkel and, in so doing, to watch the interplay of whole and part. One could most readily transpose a painting by changing its frame. And yet, in the midst of such transpositions—such alterations to the character of the framed object—the ergon retains its basic movement, the “musical phrases” of which it is comprised. Takehiro is always the murdered samurai, though he is in some accounts aloof and in others pathetic. Masako is always the samurai’s wife, though she is in some accounts treacherous and in others noble. Their basic movements, like the basic movements of water or a musical phrase, retain some recognizable essence even as they shift.

The woodcutter’s body houses several selves, each imposed upon—each transposed to a new place or status. His acquaintance the priest, similarly, is also his killer, his victim, and wife—his body is a frame able to contain bodies—parts, like the parts of the ruined gate in the opening sequence, and display them as a frame displays artwork. The woodcutter and priest offer themselves up to these roles, allowing the commoner to encounter events disembodied from their time, place, acting agents, authors, and witnesses. In this collision, the narrative frames protecting each account warp the human frames that give them voice: the priest and woodcutter are traumatized by their own stories, unable to bear the weight of the various types of workthey have taken on and similarly unable to protect the stories, which become diluted—become abstractions—as they are subsumed into each speaker’s body and biases. 

Landmasses frame the oceans and describe their borders with cliffs, beaches, embankments, inlets, deltas, and so on. It is no surprise that images of rain frame Rashomon. Images of water in its many bodies—clouds, the puddles at Rashomon, the brook alongside which Masako kneels, the Katsura River—demonstrate the interchangeability of such formal frames as the coalescent body of a cloud or the possessed body of a Shinto medium. Each biological body in Rashomon is coalescent. The Shinto medium, through whom the dead Takehiro purportedly speaks, makes explicit what is latent in each body on screen: the body, the sky, the low points of the earth contain, expel, and filter like the court walls filter. Each human body is penetrated, and warped by the weight of its ergon: the witness account or perspective it brings to bear upon another warping frame, the narrative itself.   

Section Two: Acts of the Frame

The frame is literary. The literary frame is a locus of perspective. If the following image, which appears at the beginning of Rashomon is a framing device, then it is also a point at which the viewer’s perspective is imposed upon—is guided along a beveled edge toward some interiority, toward the framed object.

Bodies of Water, Bodies of Text: The Permeable Frame in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon
David Schwartz (John Carroll University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Sign at the Rashomon gate.

But what is this shot framing? Concretely, the kanji for “Rashomon,” with the middle character altered from 城 to 生 (pronounced “sheeng”). This is similarly true in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Rashomon,” wherein he might have altered the character to anticipate the rebirth of his protagonist, as 生 can also be used as the verb phrase “to give birth.” The shot displays a framed text soaked in water; Kurosawa’s Rashomon, similarly, is a framed text soaked in water. The shot is a frame, a thematic parergon framing the ergon of the film—birth, soaking, decay, permeation, warping—the form of the word “Rashomon” warps as the kanji warps—directing the viewer’s attention toward warped signifiers in anticipation of the unreliable, nested, alienated, and incommensurable narratives at the core of the film’s ergon. The question “what is this shot framing?” is over-answerable, an instance of that equivocation which Jacques Derrida terms “play.” Here I mean play between functions of the shot, between the various frames, and even between the contents of those frames.

Just as the Rashomon signboard slowly dissolves in wood rot and the overlap of its multiple meanings, so too do other frames and bodies. The rainstorm soaks a carved statue, a label, a sign, a gate: each broken—each dissolving or obscured. The literary frame directs the viewer toward the dissolving frames of discrete witness accounts, each bleeding into the others as they stack one by one, chronologically, becoming increasingly warped framed objects, and then increasingly less framed altogether. The literary frame confirms, shot by shot, that no body is inviolable. Non-biological bodies such as the gate, Kyoto, the sign, and so on are disassembled—dissolved, rejoining their matter to new frames: water to the sea or sky, carbon to the atmosphere, Heian-kyō to the impending Kyoto, the city that will grow on top of it—a city that will have no Rashomon gate but, rather, a small stone marking where the gate once stood, and city limits far wider than those of ancient Heian-kyō. Human bodies, likewise, are violable by rape, murder, and narrative—fully objectifiable, they are habitable spaces.

Dissolution, such as the dissolution of a frame or the decomposition of a body, marriage, or memory, should not surprise us: this is how water falls. Individual drops flash into intelligibility, and, in their overabundance or in chronological remove from their raindrop form, disappear back into the groundwater. Parts of the ruined gate, similarly, rot in puddles and burn in the firepits of damp and shivering men—intelligible as signifiers for an instant before succumbing to entropy, either social or material. The cascade of facts, sensations, biases, and so on is too complex—too large, too full of contradictions—to grasp in its totality; it washes the subject—the samurai’s murder washes over the woodcutter and priest who can only mutter “I don’t understand… I just don’t understand” (3:10). Of course, they have not understood: the crime cannot be reduced enough to fit inside the narrow confines of a verdict, judgment, or any other such framing device.

The court is outdoors: on a plot of land enclosed by walls, by permeable borders through which people, accounts, and judgements pass. The function of the court as an agent is to escape its physical frame, to be penetrated, to filter, to diffuse. The frame converts testimonies into actionable dogmata, which are not facts but attain the role of facts through compromise. In this sense, the courtyard furnishes grounds for compromise: a locus of negotiation between competing narratives that results in their ultimate synthesis—a reductive synthesis wherein the narrative becomes detached from its author (the witness) and usurps the place of fact, shedding its overt biases by shedding its author. The subjective frame dissolves in the hermeneutic frame. The court’s inherent need to synthesize (its very function is predicated upon this need) dissolves the subjective frame of each testimony in order to produce a verdict without contradictions. The court, the men, the viewer—each seeks a truth that can fit, cohesively, within the confines of “verdict” or “fact,” those conceptual frames so capable of safeguarding ideologies and the comforts derived therefrom.

The possible rape and ostensible murder at the center of Rashomon resist reduction, however, and the conflicting witness accounts cannot be synthesized into a single, sanctioned narrative—a narrative that might assume the role of a transcendental axis of combination. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Jacques Derrida indicts the concept of just such a transcendental axis (a center that does not play) presenting, instead, a more vital conception of both the center and of free play. “Vital” because they are not inert, these living concepts like living texts exert pressures and encompass flux as a matter of their being. Derrida defines the Structuralist center as “the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible” (“Structure, Sign, and Play” 2). In a frame narrative, there is no such point; instead, the active center might be the ergon at the heart of the work and free play might occur most potently in the equivocal space of the border between ergon and parergon—the parergon, the narrative frame, the limiting mechanism which, a center itself, simultaneously closes off free play and opens it up. An example of the equivocating center, Rashomon repeatedly destabilizes its own ergon through radical equivocation, through play, through a central over-answering of the fundamental question “what happens?” This overabundance engenders a narrative anxiety that, ultimately, cannot be resolved. It must be swallowed whole, either in good faith or in bad.

Thus, the ideological framing role normally performed by the court is, here, impossible. And the viewer receives this impossibility through the men at Rashomon gate (who endure and relay the anxiety of an unstable center) and through Kurosawa himself, who pointedly reorders the witness accounts, differing markedly from Akutagawa’s text. While Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” encourages skepticism just as Kurosawa’s Rashomon does, Kurosawa further destabilizes the illusion of resolution or catharsis that some readers might experience at the end of Akutagawa’s story. Tajomaru, the bandit, is the last character to speak in the Akutagawa text; his section, “Tajomaru’s Confession,” concludes the entire story with the words “That’s all my confession. I know that my head will be hung in chains anyway, so put me down for the maximum penalty” (Akutagawa 9). While Tajomaru delivers a similar line in the Kurosawa film, he does so just before three other accounts contradict him. In the film version, the woodcutter speaks last and only does so after being caught in a lie. The order in which Kurosawa depicts each witness account and depicts the ultimate account outside of the court (through the narrative frame) might be interpreted as a rejection of the ideological framing mechanisms that the court represents.

Of course, the court walls are not the only element of that sequence’s mise-en-scène that indicates decentering, play, and the permeability of frames. Near the beginning of this sequence, a policeman boasts that he has caught the bandit Tajomaru “by the banks of the Katsura,” a river that stretches from Osaka to ancient Kyoto, where the Rashomon gate is located (15:02). And while the policeman recounts his story, Tajomaru sits next to him, staring up at a white cloud—water vapor coalesced into a cumulonimbus, which is a rain cloud—a cloud that might reasonably be one of those pouring itself out over the Rashomon gate in the film’s outermost narrative frame. Three men seek shelter from this or such a cloud, and then seek shelter from the implications of the crime for which Tajomaru is on trial. And if this cloud does, in fact, fall on Rashomon, it will have gone up from Osaka just as Tajomaru did, seeming to follow him and expend itself in the same space where the weight of the central murder expends itself.1

Bodies of Water, Bodies of Text: The Permeable Frame in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon
David Schwartz (John Carroll University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Tajomaru stares at a cloud.

As the policeman tells his story, the film’s visual track jumps here to the Katsura: its jagged bank bisects the screen, a line between land and water—a line the policeman crosses at 15:11, traces at 15:21, and actualizes as a material presence at 15:27 by falling backward, over the bank, into the river and becoming soaked—his dryness replaced with wetness as the idea of crossing gives way to the event of crossing2 and the conceptual line assumes physical consequence.

Tajomaru’s crimes escape the narrative frame in which they occur—the innermost narrative frame, the forest or flashback sequences—and they escape the limitations of direct cause and effect. “A man was murdered,” the woodcutter tells the commoner, who replies “Just one? So what? On top of this gate, you’ll find at least five or six unclaimed bodies” (5:19-36). The murder is not, itself, sufficient cause for the psychological distress the priest and woodcutter experience, nor is the ostensible rape. Rather, it is the effects of these crimes, the implications of their irreducibly equivocal details—implications that bleed through frames and reverberate off the walls of ideological, theological, and epistemological systems—which engender distress. The crimes escape each frame they inhabit, assuming new frames, reconstituting the same matter into new forms like liquid water becoming water vapor and raining down again to rot wood, kill crops, and drown the soil in displaced patches of ocean that will not be confined to any one space or form.

Section Three: Language Frames

Just as the body and stage (or location) are frames, so too is language. Each frame is potent, and each warps as it works. So, too, does language. Language is a bearer of ideology comprised of discrete units of meaning whose borders are permeable. Languages are, similarly, frames with permeable borders. Thus, the word is a unit of meaning, as is the body, as is the frame. Each arranges and excludes, as memories arrange and exclude. To forget the word is to lose the particular configuration of meaning housed therein. To rebuild Kyoto or an event is to dissolve old borders in new borders. The new frame reconstitutes, deforms—it warps again. The reinventive acts of the frame, and therefore of language, do not hazard the frame’s protective function but might, instead, render truth by driving the ergon to a crisis of transposition. (By “crisis of transposition,” I mean that, by repeatedly recontextualizing or defamiliarizing elements of the framed narrative, it might become increasingly possible to comprehend the generic intent, qualities, and implications of those elements.) The frame is, after all, a locus of perspective.

Working toward an understanding of the generic interests outlined above, in “Passe-Partout,” the first chapter of The Truth in Painting, Derrida plays loosely with the concept of speech acts termed “performative” or “constative”—termed thus to emphasize function, to direct expectations, to pin down truth claims and articulate what values they should render. The speech act describes or creates, it pays or withholds—indebts itself with promises—and it can generate new truths. And the connective lines that string such qualities into useful groups, groups to which terms such as “performative” can be applied, are lines that also demarcate genre. Like other frames, the genre of a speech act is permeable—it equivocates, falters, warps—and, in so doing, converses with the frames above and below it. Rashomon employs genre in just this way: as a frame—as but one frame, working in conjunction with visual, narrative, and thematic frames,3 all capable of concealing or revealing truths through their intersections. Among these, genre is preeminent, just as the camera is eminent above such on-screen frames as the Rashomon gate. Camera-like, genre works to layer—to suggest the speaker’s motives—to establish a particular relationship between the viewer and the language at work on screen. Through genre’s lens, utterances become lies, stories, greetings, and bargains in the same way that subjects, in view of the camera, are subsumed into close ups, establish shots, two-shots, and cutaways.

Each witness who gives an account does so under the cover of his or her respective biases and wants (“wants” bearing the dual meaning of absence and desire). The woodcutter tells two stories, the first of which conceals his culpability in stealing the pearl sheathed dagger, and the second of which appears to seek his absolution. Tajomaru proclaims that he and Takehiro “crossed swords twenty-three times,” a detail also included in the Akutagawa text, and he characterizes Masako as “fierce” (35:44, 36:31). This, of course, is a performative speech intended to aggrandize the bandit and, even in conviction, bolster his personal legend. Masako dwells on her suicide attempts, apparently endeavoring to absolve her shame. And, while the Shinto medium’s motives are more opaque, (as are the priest’s), it seems unlikely that she (or, perhaps, Takehiro) are capable of giving an account without, in some way, warping the narrative with covert bias. Without accounting for the self-serving, performative genre frames encasing each of these speech acts, it will be impossible to meet them on equal ground—not as a subordinate, taken in and used, but as an interpreter whose perspective melds with the perspective of the speaking character across speech genres.   

Of course, the framing mechanisms at play within language are often much more fundamental—exist on planes more basic—than genre. In his Cours de linguistique générale, Ferdinand de Saussure employs the term langue to represent the system of rules, meanings, structures, and usages within a language system. The grammar of the langue protects meaning just as other frames do. For example, to say it is raining, German speakers say es regnet, French speakers say il pleut, and English speakers say “it’s raining,” each, in turn, excising the subject and substituting a phantom in its place. Who or what is raining? “It.” Perhaps the cloud rains. Perhaps the ocean rains, the sky rains, or the rain rains. “It” is a pronominal frame capable of housing any or none of the aforementioned nouns; “it” can be hollow. This frame does not bear weight. And the rain is grammatically inextricable from its defining act: to be rain is to be falling. The subject is not a pronoun but a signifier signifying nothing.

To say it is raining, the Japanese say ame ga futteiru ne, which translates as “rain is falling down” followed by a phatic “right?” (this is the function of ne). Rain is the active agent, performing the verb, falling earthward as a body comprised of bodies. And there is a difference between ame and mizu—rain and water—that allows for the grammatical existence of unfallen rain.And yet, even though the concept of rain is not grammatically reliant upon the concept of falling, the phrase ame ga ne is considered insufficient. It is not enough to say “rain” or “rain is.” A Japanese speaker will include futteiru, joining the discrete concept of rain to the discrete act of falling to a phatic ne in order to communicate the incidence of a weather event.

The grammatical difference between the aforementioned European expressions and their Japanese counterpart emphasizes the role of la langue as a frame body, just as potent as the frame body of an actor—an actor such as Toshiro Mifune, who plays Tajomaru and could not have played Masako due to the framing effects of his maleness, which would have transformed the role into a new Masako, incommensurable with the original. Frame bodies—the actor’s body, the language, certainframes of the visual track—are thus not merely non-synonymous but anti-synonymous, violently rejecting translation and, when forced to undergo it, diluted—abridged—stripped of valences, transformed from a subject to an object just as artifacts in a foreign museum are no longer subjects but objects now, caught within the subjective gravity of a new and overwhelmingly ideological frame. The phrase “Rain is falling down, right?” works in English as an artifact; stripped of valences, clinical, a strange defamiliarization with little connotative power.

Bodies of Water, Bodies of Text: The Permeable Frame in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon
David Schwartz (John Carroll University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Tajomaru and Masako.

To translate is, therefore, to move an ergon between parerga and incur the warping, the distortion, inherent to such a change. Rashomon is not only a work in translation from Japanese to English, but a work in translation from prose to film—from screenplay to actor—from character to narrative—from film to thought as it traverses, again and again, the hermeneutic circle. If frame bodies such as a language systemdo, indeed, respond violently to translation, then Rashomon is a film whose signs and frames glide on and through violence to a tantalizing, prismatic effect. In the brutal dissolution of frames and frame bodies, there is a prismatic and liberating rejection of any sole axis of combination that might otherwise limit the free play of this film’s myriad, equivocal truth claims. “It rains.” “Rain is falling down, right?” Difference is an engine of generation, and, throughout Rashomon, even the film’s constant (non-different) use of the same actors to convey contradictory stories serves to underscore the differences in the voices of each story’s respective narrator. And so this translation is violent—violent like childbirth—like the translation of parental DNA into a new, distinct person.

Section Four: Closing Truths

The frame is a locus of perspective, and the frame body of parole, which de Saussure considers the use of langue (in other words, a speech act),is, similarly, a locus of perspective. Both Rashomon and “In a Grove” recount a murder. I have called it “Takehiro’s murder,” describing in terms of the murdered party: Takehiro, the samurai. This is a conventional phrase. It is not uncommon. Yet it functions just as evasively as the phrase “it’s raining” does. The act of murder does not belong to Takehiro—it is not his murder, but a murder in which he is the victim. Takehiro is concretized so that the mysteries in the sentence—the points of equivocation in the murder sequences—act upon him in their play, remove the active subject, and replace it with an object who is not only imposed upon, but subsumed into the linguistic expression of his death. However, this phrase, “Takehiro’s murder,” does not appear at any point in either text, nor do Akutagawa and Kurosawa use the phrase “Masako’s rape.” Both texts, instead, contain the phrases “murdered man” and “was murdered,” effectively reinserting the active subject into the grammatical frame. Takehiro is not self-sufficient in his murder—there is, though unnamed, another party implied by the phrasing. This is an essential distinction; it contains the mystery of the event without allowing that mystery itself to appear self-contained—the containment itself, the parole frame, is a locus of perspective pointing to the presence of other frames.

A final note regarding truth: Paul Cézanne, as quoted by Derrida, says: “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you” (The Truth in Painting 2). Cézanne’s proclamation, according to Derrida, is performative—it promises, acknowledges a debt—rather than constative. Imposed onto Rashomon or “In a Grove,” such a proclamation would insist that the film or story will (as in, is willing to) render truth, not that it renders truth. The viewer would participate in good faith, then, believing that the film is operating in careful observance of a debt it has both acknowledged and described: a rendering (an image) of truth.

Of course, Rashomon actually promises, by virtue of its form, to conceal as many or more truths than it reveals. The Truth in Painting, again, provides us with a useful passepartout (or master key) by which we can access even this, a work which conceals: ultimately, the rock against which Derrida rests is equivocation—play—and this is a rock against which Rashomon can also be said to rest. In the framed witness accounts, there is play and there is inter-play; among the texts “In a Grove,” “Rashomon,” and Rashomon, there is play and inter-play. Between active agents and appropriated bodies in the film, there is, again, nearly overwhelming interplay. It is only by centering the myriad ways in which these frames combine, intersect, and dissolve within one another, that one can begin to access the manifold layers of signification at play within this film.


1  Explaining his derangement to the High Police Commissioner, Tajomaru says, “Around Osaka, I drank from a spring. There must have been a dead poisonous snake upstream” (16:33). Osaka is at the south end of the Katsura. In Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” the Policeman claims that he found Tajomaru not on the banks of the Katsura, but “on the bridge at Awataguchi” (4), which is in modern Otsu (the site of ancient Kyoto), a city at the north end of the Katsura. Tajomaru, therefore, must have followed the Katsura North from Osaka to Kyoto. But in Kurosawa’s film, he does not make it all the way.

2  The protagonist of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashomon” first crosses ethical lines through his ideas—he conceives of himself as a thief—then, later, physically crosses them and becomes a thief.

3  Examples of thematic frames include, but are not limited to, the following: the tanto’s pearl sheath, the Rashomon gate, the court walls, penetration, triangles, threes, rain, water, and so on.

Works Cited

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. “In a Grove.” Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Translated by Jay Rubin. Penguin Books, 2007: 464-614.

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. “Rashomon.” Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Translated by Jay Rubin. Penguin Books, 2007: 361-459.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. Edited by R. Macksey and E. Donato, 1970: 247-272.

Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Linden, George. “Five Views of Rashomon.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 56, no. 4, 1973: 393–411.

McDonald, Keiko I. “Light and Darkness in ‘Rashomon.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982: 120–29.

Medine, David. “Law and Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, 1992: 55–60.

Rashomon. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. The Criterion Collection, 1950. Kanopy. Web. 3 May. 2021.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, London: Macmillan, 1965: 210-211.

Works Consulted

Boyd, David. “‘Rashomon’: From Akutagawa to Kurosawa.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 3, 1987: 155–158.

Feleppa, Robert. “Black Rain: Reflections on Hiroshima and Nuclear War in Japanese Film.” CrossCurrents, vol. 54, no. 1, Wiley, 2004: 106–19.

George Barbarow. “Rashomon and the Fifth Witness.” The Hudson Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1952: 420–22.

Goebel, Rolf. “Heidegger’s Media Critique: Film, Western Metaphysics, and the Figure of Japanese Aesthetics.” KulturPoetik, vol. 19, no. 2, 2019: 257-275.

Maxfield, James F. “‘The Earth Is Burning’: Kurosawa’s ‘Record of a Living Being.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 2, 1998: 130–35.