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Memory, Identity and Individual Responsibility in Rashomon and After Life

It is perhaps unusual to deal with Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon (Japan, 1950) and another film in such a short article. However, when I watched Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s After Life (Wandafaru raifu, Japan, 1998), I was immediately struck by the parallels between this film and Rashomon. Both deal with memory, the relativity of all things, and with identity and truth. And although they differ in narrative technique and style and also develop different perspectives on memory, they both adopt a clearly humanistic attitude.

Set in the twelfth century, Rashomon deals with the violent death of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) told from the viewpoint of four people – the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), who is the samurai’s presumed murderer, the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyo), who alleges she was raped by the bandit, the dead samurai himself speaking through a medium (Noriko Honma), and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), who witnessed the crime. The statements that the three other characters gave to a magistrate are recalled by the woodcutter while he and two others – a Buddhist monk (Mihoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) – are seeking shelter from the heavy rain in the ruins of the Rashomon, a city gate in Kyoto. The setting of After Life is a run-down building resembling an old schoolhouse. People who have recently died are transported to this strange place and have three days to decide on a single happy memory to live with for eternity. A further focus is on the employees, who collect the memories, at this unnamed institution. They too are dead but were unable to make their decision, and one of these is Mochizuki (Arata).

Rashomon is a complex entanglement of flashbacks within flashbacks. The woodcutter recounts the interrogations by the magistrate, which are shown in a series of flashbacks, while the statements themselves are recreated in other flashbacks. Each of the characters tells the story from a different perspective, trying to put himself/herself in a good light. Tajomaru is eager to keep his reputation as a strong and dangerous bandit, and in his recollection of the events he defeats the samurai in a fierce duel and seduces the latter’s beautiful wife. The wife’s story is that of a victim but a proud woman from the social class she belongs to. The samurai states via his medium that the bandit had tied him to a tree in the forest but then set him free, disgusted by the wife’s request that he should kill her husband. His wife fled, the bandit abandoned him in the forest, and he committed suicide. The woodcutter reveals to his companions in the Rashomon the lies behind these three statements. However, he is not a reliable source himself, because he told the magistrate that when he reached the scene of the crime, the samurai was already dead. The commoner sees through the woodcutter’s lie and realizes that it was the woodcutter who stole the woman’s precious dagger – the murder weapon and therefore important evidence – which has disappeared from the scene of the crime.

In After Life, the deceased talk to the institution’s employees, who are taking care of them. Not unlike the characters in Rashomon, some of these dead people try to embellish their memories. The prostitute, disappointed by men but longing for love, recalls the time she once spent in an elegant hotel with a man she was in love with. However, she is forced to admit not only that she lied about her age but also that the man never showed up. An elderly man who keeps talking about his sexual escapades finally chooses the wedding of his daughter as the happiest moment in his life. Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), unable to make a choice, is given videotapes on which moments in his life are recorded. Reluctant to choose a memory because he is searching desperately for meaning in his life, Watanabe realizes that his entire existence was no more than average, and he finds inner peace.

In both films, memory is shown as fragmented and subject to manipulation, and it also takes many forms. Some of the characters are haunted by the trauma of war and violence. Others cherish memories from their childhood. A very old woman, apparently suffering from dementia, has even chosen her memory during her lifetime, as one of the employees says.

The medium of film plays an important role in After Life, whose Japanese title, Wandafaru Raifu, is a reference to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (USA, 1946). Cinema is a topic in two dialogues between Watanabe and his wife Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa). Watanabe’s life – just like that of every person in the world – has been recorded on videotape and the memories chosen by the deceased are carefully reconstructed and filmed during their stay in the institution. There are sequences of the planning of the shooting and the shooting itself of several of the memories, and these sequences include typical and therefore very realistic problems of film production such as lack of money and difficulty finding the right accessories. Film is presented as an archive of humanity in which memories are kept alive but are also subject to slight changes, if only for budget reasons. Not unlike Kurosawa, Kore-Eda explores the idea that reality is an illusion, and the way he makes use of the medium in After Life contributes to this exploration. Even the moon that Mochizuki and a colleague look at through a window is a prop.

In Rashomon, Kurosawa does not develop such reflections on filmmaking, but the expressive acting is reminiscent of silent films, a genre that Kurosawa was so fond of. The exquisite black and white photography by Kazuo Miyakawa creates subtle contrasts of light and shade, contributing to the dynamism that permeates Kurosawa’s oeuvre, in particular the films he directed until the late 1960s. Kore-Eda started his career as a documentary filmmaker and worked for television, and After Life, his second feature film, is highly reminiscent of documentary filmmaking – most obviously in sequences when the camera stays close to the characters as if in the middle of the action, and also in the interview scenes with their medium close-ups of the characters facing the camera, as in television reports. 

This documentary style helps to blur the distinction between the supernatural and everyday life, and the film’s firm basis in reality is also supported by frequent references to historical and social contexts. Some of the older deceased recall World War II or the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which destroyed large parts of Tokyo. The concerns of the younger dead are obviously different with, for example, a young girl choosing a visit to Disneyland. The reference to dementia is another clear hint to present-day Japan, a society with a large number of older people.

Kurosawa’s approach to the issues of his time is subtly transported by the images. The twelfth-century – a time of civil war, famine, epidemics and natural catastrophes – is simply a disguised reference to the devastation of World War II and the misery of the immediate post-war years. The ruins of the partially burnt-down city gate recall images of Tokyo after the fire bombings in 1945 and also those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the dropping of atomic bombs, and the interrogations recall the Tokyo Trial of major war criminals. The Tokyo Trial, which ended in 1948, is still today a controversial topic, with its verdicts often criticized as victors’ justice.

What is most important is the way that Kurosawa avoids imposing any kind of “truth”, and he invites the viewers to draw their own conclusions. In the flashbacks showing their statements, the characters are also framed frontally in an almost empty space rather like the stage in a theatre, its linearity and clarity suggesting that some kind of order is being re-established after a crime has been committed. However, by eschewing an objective view, Kurosawa suggests that there is no absolute truth and no absolute morality.

The emptiness of this location contrasts with the scenes shot in the forest and the dramatic effects created by the tangle of branches set against a background of sunlight. Kurosawa’s cinema is pure movement – the movements of the camera and the actors, the sensation of movement created by light and shade or by the torrential rain. The perfect actor for the great filmmaker was Toshiro Mifune, whose vivid facial expressions and intense acting contributed marvellously to Kurosawa’s vision of filmmaking.

After Life is far more static, containing some long-lasting shots and frequent images of an empty corridor or part of the institution’s garden that are reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s style, especially in the films he made in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, the character of 22-year-old Iseya (Yusuke Iseya), a rebellious youth, has similarities with Tajomaru, both being outsiders. The bandit Tajomaru can be seen as the epitome of the young generation of Japanese sacrificed during the war and after defeat in 1945 and Iseya, said to have been unemployed when he died, is perhaps a representative of the young people who suffered most after Japan’s Bubble Economy crashed. However, he does not lack self-confidence, and he is the only one of the deceased who refuses categorically to choose a memory. He even challenges the institution to which he has been transported after his death: “Think your system over.” Yusuke Iseya’s performance in the film is a powerful expression of the restless young man he plays. He gesticulates constantly and seems unable to sit still, yet at other moments his whole body becomes rigid, a clear indication of his resistance to the world around him.

Iseya becomes a new employee in the institution, but he stays away from work and is shown enjoying himself playing in the snow in a wintry garden scene. Mochizuki, also a young man – he died when he was a soldier fighting in World War II – finally chooses a memory after discovering that Watanabe’s late wife Kyoko had been his fiancée. Watching the recording of the memory Kyoko chose after her death five years ago, Mochizuki realizes that he made someone happy in his life. The re-creation of her memory shows Kyoko and Mochizuki, the latter wearing his white navy uniform, in a park in Tokyo. It is also Mochizuki who helps Watanabe to accept his past and be prepared to choose his own memory. Watanabe’s choice is an occasion that  he spent with his wife in the same park, but 50 years later. 

Both Rashomon and After Life emphasize individual responsibility and concern for others. In Rashomon, the woodcutter takes care of the baby abandoned in the ruins of the city gate by its poverty-stricken, desperate parents. In After Life, Iseya sees his refusal to make a choice as his way of assuming responsibility for his own life. He seems to still be immature, and his rebelliousness may seem childish. However, behind it is implicit criticism by the young generation of Japanese society, and his rebelliousness is also a stage in his development into adulthood – the young man being allowed to make his own way via his encounters with the deceased and their memories. 

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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