In my essay, I want to talk about the historical content of the film and book “Rashomon”. Events take place at the end of the Heian period but the time period of the author should also be taken into account.
The short story Rashomon was first published in 1915, which was a time of great transition for Japan. Japan had just entered WW1 in 1914 and declared war on Germany which propelled Japan into a headlong meeting with the Western world. Up to this point, Japanese customs and culture were incredibly preserved and would now face new demands on their cultural identity. This was a time when tradition met modernization which is something Japan still struggles with. Let alone this was a time of war which manipulated their economy and government, and took a heavy toll on their people. This is paralleled in Akutagawas’ stories and Kurosawas’ respective film that takes place at the end of the 12th century.
This was also a state of transition where the Heian period was fading into the Kamakura period and leadership was changing. Two great clans, the Minamoto and the Taira had been at war leading to Japan being very militaristic. A shogun, military governor, was eventually promoted to power and could control the emperor and whose power was reinforced by the development of the samurai. They established a new warrior class in charge of small territories with strict honour codes. This time period can be seen in both the stories and the film with the husband, a samurai, being killed by a lawless bandit who was probably affected by the war in some way and also by the samurai servant in the story In a Grove.
In both the time period of the author and the time period of the story, Japan is facing cultural change and the threat of destruction. The Rashomon gate itself is a physical representation of the decline of Kyoto where Japanese civilization and culture is morally and physically decaying. The film however, shares a glimpse of hope for the future where there’s supposed to be corpses in the beginning and yet a baby appears by the end of the film. This could be representative of life continuing after the atrocity of the story and the death and devastation surrounding them at the gate.
Japan was trying to reclaim its cultural identity in the face of tragedy and change. The stories and the film capture this struggle with a heinous crime and the fragments it left behind in the self-preserving memory of the witnesses.
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