Analysing the Portrayal of Violence in Mad Max and Rashomon

In Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and George Miller’s Mad Max it is undeniable that violence is a key and extremely prevalent theme. The different ways in which violence is portrayed, however, is crucial to the plot, the narrative, the characters and, most importantly, the success of both of these films.

Rashomon

In Rashomon, Kurosawa uses lighting selectively to create an atmosphere of danger and to suggest or imply violence. Shadows are placed on the bandit’s face, immediately presenting him in a darkened light and, therefore, identifying him as the ‘bad guy’ and thus, the character most likely to be violent. Furthermore, the film is set in a dense forest. As a result, the steady beams of sunlight flicker and are disrupted by the trees, thus creating shadows that move continually over the faces of the characters. This renders “dense thickets as poetic metaphors…that entrap human beings”[1]. This disrupted image distorts the audience’s view of the characters, and therefore forbids an objective view being cast. In addition, this sets the violent moments of the film out of the audience’s view, casting some moments in shadow or blinding the audience with the glare of sunlight. The full extent of the violence, therefore, is unknown. This unknown is left to the imagination of the audience member. This is most apparent in, the bandit, Tajomaru’s version of events. During his rape of Masago, the camera scans to the sky creating a deliberate glare and dream-like feel to the scene. “Shooting directly into the sun to make the camera lens flare”1 and “probing the filaments of shadows in glade and clearing”1 roots this violent act in a fantasy world, out of reality and into the imagination of the audience. They, as a result, are left to decide the fate of Masago using their expectations, thoughts, dreams and fantasies, making the viewers of the film voyeurs. Kurosawa is commenting on the unconscious desires of his characters but is also allowing his audience’s unconscious desires to be satisfied through the mystery of violence.  By portraying violence in this way, the audience is as much a part of the film’s jury as the judge, or the other characters, in their ultimate quest for truth.

Kurosawa’s films have often been compared with the silent movies of the early twentieth century; Rashomon is no exception. Kurosawa has been described as “consciously attempting to recover and recreate the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking”[2]. Many scenes are “composed as silent sequences of pure film”2 in which the action is reliant upon ambient sound, music, facial expressions and body language. This alters the portrayal of violence in the film, in comparison with a typical horror or violent action movie. In the woodcutter’s long marching scene, it is the minor-key music that generates a dangerous military atmosphere and creates the expectation of violence. Sounds are coordinated with the actions of characters, just as in a silent movie, so that when this music is repeated, violence is not only expected, but is essential to the upkeep of the films “aesthetic glory”2. Camera angle and shooting is also important in the portrayal of violence and is fundamental to continuing the silent movie effect. In the bandit’s version of events, he murders Takehiro, the samurai. In this scene, there is reliance upon body language and an emphasis on facial expression, typical of the silent movie melodramatic acting style. During the murder, the camera zooms in on the bandit’s face to show his psychological reaction. This intensifies the audience’s experience of the violence. Furthermore, the camera angle forces the audience into the samurai’s position so they experience, through their imagination, what the samurai is experiencing. 

 Mad Max

In Mad Max, Miller articulates the destruction of civilization through the portrayal of violence. It is significant at the beginning of the film that a rural-urban distinction allows for distance and separation between violence and peace – for instance, the innocent child and families found in the town areas and the Night Rider and motorcycle gangs found on the rural highways. However, the motorcycle gang cross this divide, infecting the civilization of the town with violence, death and destruction; no longer contained by boundaries. A cyclic feeling is emphasised by the significant use of cars and motorcycles. As the film progresses, this cyclic feeling begins to parallel the developing pattern of violence as the motorcycle gang encroach more and more upon the urban, the civilized and society. Max and his family try to escape the failing justice system, and the violence that lies hand in hand with the motorcycle gang, by travelling around the country. Dissolve shots are used between these scenes to imply that a significant amount of time and distance has passed. However, the motorcycle gang eventually manage to find them and invade the most rural setting so far, the farm. The rural-urban distinction is, therefore, lost along with the violence-peace distinction. Place names are no longer used and boundaries blur into one another, highlighting the loss of civilization and dominance of violence, death and destruction. In this way, Miller portrays violence through the manipulation of landscape, scenery and the traditional ‘road movie’ concept.

Miller uses the psychological decline of Max, from hero to mad man, to portray violence in the film. At the end of the film, there are powerful moments of inversion as Max begins to display actions and moral reasoning similar to those of the motorcycle gang. The Australian Gothic genre is described as having narratives that “transplant their protagonists to create unease and alienation.”[3] Max is transplanted from his world of stability and justice to insanity and violence. Mirroring of relationships can be found all the way through the film with similarities seen between Max’s relationship with his son and the Toecutter’s relationship with Johnny the boy. Max’s violent murder of Johnny the boy at the end of the film can be seen not only as a true act of revenge, but also as Max’s final fall into madness, the overthrow of justice and the destruction of civilization.

Rashomon is described as having a “daring, nonlinear approach to narrative”[4]. The continual use of flashbacks means that “the narrative continually retraces the same series of events, four times over”. This unique narrative style causes the audience to focus on the multiple versions and interpretations of one violent event; the rape of a woman and murder of a samurai. The violence and violent acts, therefore, become the narrative; they are the story, the reason by which we judge the characters and the focus of our viewing. The cast is small and the flashbacks are many, so the characters’ personalities are developed and questioned more intensely than in a conventional film setup. As a result, the psychological turmoil of the characters is examined in depth, binding the audience to their angst. This means the experience of violence is heightened for both the characters and the audience.

In both Mad Max and Rashomon differences can be seen in the treatment of men and women, particularly in relation to violence. In Rashomon, the women, Masago, admits, in her version of events, to killing her husband. The camera dwells on her face for a long period of time before the killing and there are many close-up shots. This focuses the audience’s attention on Masago’s inner turmoil. Her mind goes through many different stages of thought as she decides how to react to the intense look of disgust she receives from her husband. Violence, in this scene, is portrayed as Masago’s only option of empowerment after she has been disgraced by Tajomaru, the bandit. Freudian psychology identified the unconscious mind as extremely important in the repression of sexual desires that would usually be seen as culturally or socially unacceptable. Freud himself believed women were inferior and that femininity was failed masculinity. As a result, in the psychosexual stages of development, women develop penis envy. Masago demands sexual authority, gender equality and satisfies penis envy, by killing her husband with a dagger – a phallic symbol of male sexual power. The weapons seen in Rashomon are often highlighted through bright lighting. Sunlight on the woodcutter’s axe and the samurai’s sword, for instance, glimmers and shimmers off of the metal. This beautifies and glorifies them, in turn, beautifying and glorifying the violence that they cause. So, when Masago kills her husband with a dagger, it is the ultimate act of glory, dominance and power. This struggle for power is further emphasised through the use of lighting and colour. Masago is presented beautifully in white clothing and with a white veil as a symbol of purity. This, therefore, emphasises the brutality of the bandit’s rape; that something so pure is so cruelly violated. Furthermore, before Masago kills Takehiro, her husband, shadows appear more and more on her face. Her pure white face is distorted by dark lighting and shadow as her innocent exterior is tainted by her desire for power and violence. In this way, violence is portrayed through gender conventions and as a result of the psychological desire for sexual power.

In Mad Max, it is through the emasculation of male characters that Miller portrays violence and the corruption of a justice system. The police force have an almost hyper-masculine appearance at the start of the film; black leather, muscles, cars, explosions etc. The cars, particularly, are significant as physical symbols of a way in which men can assert their masculinity; large engines, speed, long exhausts and power. But this image, including Max’s, is broken down through continual violence and the film becomes subversive in its attitudes to masculinity. The masculine character of Fifi Macaffee, for example, is seen later in the film watering plants with romantic music playing in the background. This is highly contradictory of the gender stereotypes that are seen originally in the film. For instance, the masculinity of the police force is exemplified in the chase of the Night Rider. Max takes control of the situation and reduces the, once stereotypically masculine and “fuel-injected”[5], Night Rider to tears showing his loss of power. However, as the film develops and the motorcycle gang’s violence increases, Max’s masculinity, and that of the police force, is destroyed. The motorcycle gang do not use guns as weapons as much as they use chains, ropes, axes etc. The phallic implications found in using these long objects as weapons shows that, through violence, the motorcycle gang can demand sexual power. Violence, therefore, is presented as the only way in which Max can gain back his masculinity and take ultimate revenge on the criminals. The original heroism conventions are, now, ambiguous and corrupt. Max has experienced heroism and was able to gain masculinity and power through that, but, now, he is forced to resort to violence. Violence is, therefore, portrayed through a polarised view of the power struggle between good and evil, hero and villain, acceptance and revenge.


[1] Peter Lehman and William Lehr, ‘Jurassic Park and Rashomon’, in Thinking about movies, (USA: Blackwell, 2003), p.27-50.

[2] Stephen Prince, ‘Rashomon’, The Criterion Collection, <http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=138&eid=212&section=essay&page=1&gt; [accessed 18 January 2008].

[3] Jonathon Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, (Manchester, Manchester University Press: 2000), p.24-25.

[4] Stephen Prince, ‘Rashomon’, The Criterion Collection, <http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=138&eid=212&section=essay&page=1&gt; [accessed 18 January 2008].

[5] Mad Max, Dir. George Miller, Kennedy Miller Productions, 1979

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The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo

Yojimbo (1961)

In this article I will concentrate on the traditional Japanese style that the film retains amd the stylistic influence the western genre had on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. However it should be noted like Stray Dog the Film Noir genre influenced Yojimbo and the film directly alludes to The Glass Key (1942) – particularly the capture and torture scene. A close-analysis of the links between Yojimbo, The Glass Key, and Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest would require a large study in itself.

 

The introduction to the protagonist contains a homage to the wide-open vistas of director John Ford’s westerns. Kurosawa was reputed to be an avid fan of Ford’s use of open spaces as well as his framing device of filming through windows and door frames in a town or domestic scene. Kurosawa uses the panoramic to highlight how lost the protagonist is in the wilderness, and how isolated he is from domesticity and home. As the protagonist is drinking water we see a domestic scene filmed in the style of Ford. Like Ethan in The Searchers our nameless protagonist can only peer into domesticity, symbolised by us seeing him through a door frame.

 

Another aspect of the western that Yojimbo alludes to is the shoot-out or face-off. The formal style of the western influences Kurosawa as the shoot-out is a way of communicating the crucible of emotions that come before violent action. The style of the shoot-out communicates both the spatial environment but also the intense emotional drama that is about to unfold. The shoot-out is also a romantic way of capturing combat. Recent historical evidence shows that most fighting in the American west were ambushes or ‘bushwhacks’. To be shot in the back was more common than being shot facing one’s enemy. With the medicine available at the time it is understandable, however in light of these facts it is evident that the romantic vision of the gunfight was used both as a tool in which he creates suspense and spectacle but also to imbue violent, cruel individuals with a sense of honour and respectability.

 

Yojimbo is a film that both refers to the Japanese genre of ‘Jidai-geki’ a historical genre which ‘primarily refers to films set in the latter part of the Tokugawa era, from the early 1600’s to 1867’ and to the similar western genre.1 Jidai-geki films tend to ‘centre on swordsmen of fictional, legendary, or actual historical origin’ much like the western genre centres around a gunfighter and just like the westerns’ centrepiece of the violent ‘shoot-out and saloon fight’ the Jidai-geki has a comparative centrepiece of ‘violent, realistic sword fighting scenes’.2 In Yojimbo‘s narrative Kurosawa continuously alludes to the archetype Jidai-geki characters. Yojimbo‘s protagonist is the classical masterless samurai or Ronin. A. J. Anderson explains that the Ronin having ‘lost the lords to whom they owed hereditary allegiance… wander from place to place, seeking refuge, employment, or revenge’.3 The central conflict of Yojimbo‘s protagonist is also traditionally Jidai-geki in style. Rather than the central conflict springing from the more traditional external moral conflict between good and bad forces, such as found in many westerns, Yojimbo‘s protagonist’s central conflict is internal rather than external. A conflict between what he wants and what he feels he must do; a conflict between duty or honour and personal gain or desires. When we first meet the central protagonist he wonders aimlessly and throws a stick in the air in order to gain direction. His stay in the town is dictated by satisfying personal desires like hunger and gaining personal wealth. However the longer he stays the more he feels a personal honour and duty in cleaning up the town by forcing the two ‘gambler’ gangs to destroy each other. He stays to help the towns people who aren’t involved in the two gang’s conflict. The narrative moves along first as he attempts to settle an internal battle between his desires and duty, and then to the consequences of his decision. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo follows the Jidai-geki genre narrative structure precisely. Kurosawa uses this traditional Japanese genre because he wishes to analyse contemporary Japan and its changing position concerning personal gain and social duty. This social analysis through genre is exactly like the dialogue America has with its past and present through the western. As Douglas Pye explained, the western is a ‘ confluence of romantic narrative and archetypal imagery modified and localized by recent… experience ‘.4 Essentially the western, and Jidai-geki, is a mixture of a romanticised past, generic characters and imagery which is constantly being re-evaluated with each passing generation of films and film-makers. The construction of character and central conflicts in the western and Jidai-geki are both national in character and hold significant divergences from each other, however they both serve the same function, one of social critique and historical romanticising.

 

1 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), pp. 1-21 p. 1.

2 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, p. 2.

3 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, p. 3.

4 Douglas Pye, ‘The Western (Genre And Movies)’ in Barry Keith Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999), pp. 187-202 p. 192.

The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog

This article continues on from my earlier post: The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. I have decided to produce a full range of reviews and analysis’s of non-Hollywood film. As the title indicates I will start with the brilliant Stray Dog.

 

Stray Dog (1949)

 

Akira Kurosawa’s film contains both allusions to and major differences from Hollywood cinema. One major divergence is the disturbance of graphical clarity. A common aspect of the continuity editing system graphical clarity ensures that the mediating nature of film and the camera are allowed to remain hidden and unacknowledged. Kurosawa’s Stray Dog disrupts clear graphical construction in a scene by filming through a beaded doorway, therefore creating a disrupted and blocked view of the film’s two main protagonists. In the continuity editing system ‘the camera remains relatively unobtrusive, seldom drawing attention to its mediating presence.’ (1) to facilitate this unobtrusive camera style directors’ choose clear and unobstructed views of action which won’t draw attention to the fact that we are watching a film. Even if a director chooses an obstructed view we tend to be given a subjective position, one that does not bring attention to the fact that the screens’ images are mediated through a cameraman. If we are given an obstructed view we are given a reason behind the blocked view. The collection of conventions concerning graphical clarity are contradicted in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. Because we are viewing the action through a beaded doorway we notice our disadvantaged position; we notice how hindered and disrupted our view is and we are offered no reason why we should view from this particular angle. We become conscious of the mediating force that is cinematography. Kurosawa uses this to remind us of the conventions of cinema. Kurosawa uses the technique to disturb our position of knowledge by inferring that all we can perceive is that which the camera, and director, wishes to. Our experience is defined by the mediating force in the same way the characters are defined by what they see. Kurosawa seems to be highlighting this because experience and subjective perception is important in the narrative of Det. Murakawi, both as he learns from the sage Det. Sato and in the revelation of his own similar experiences to the antagonist Shinjiro Yusa; the man with Murakawi’s gun committing the crimes that rack Murakawi with guilt.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog alludes to the Hollywood cinematic forms of Film Noir and the Gangster Film. In one scene a villain, Honda, is called to a front gate of a Baseball stadium by a tannoy system. As he walks down a flight of stairs the screen composition changes and the lighting produces a dark Noir-like affect. Honda, dressed similar to many an archetypal gangster, enters the scene in a normal naturalistic light, however the further he descends down the stairs the further Akira Kurosawa intensifies the sharp contrasting tones producing a chiaroscuro-style scene. Honda wears a white linen pin-stripe suit, as he becomes aware he may be walking into a trap the Camera reverses position and shows only a black silhouette of Honda enveloped by the darkness; his fate is sealed, his relationship with the gun-girl leads to the police locating him, just like many gangster films and film Noirs Honda’s cool command and apparent invincibility is breached through a contaminated relationship with a woman. Honda is a small homage to the doomed antagonist/protagonist of the Noir and gangster films of Hollywood.

 

The skilful use of lighting in this scene is also an allusion to German Expressionism and the stark contrast between subject and surroundings symbolised by Honda’s change from white linen suit to dark silhouette is a typical chiaroscuro technique found in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920). Paul Schrader notes that a common trait of Film Noir is the use of ‘Shadow effects [which are] unlike the famous Warner Brother’s lighting of the thirties in which the central character was accentuated by a heavy shadow; in Film Noir the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow.’ (2) Kurosawa is using this exact technique in the scene with Honda, he is defining Honda’s character and fate as one in the shadows.

 

Another allusion to Film Noir stylistics is the use of water. Film Noir is noted for an ‘attachment to water. The empty Noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain… and the rainfall always seems to increase in proportion to the drama.’ (3) As the film moves to a conclusion rain starts to pelt down relentlessly, The rain increases as the potential confrontation between Murakami and the desperate thief Shinjuro Yusa becomes more and more likely and it is in fact the rain, and the mud that sprays onto Yusa’s trousers as he flees after shooting Sato, that allows the confrontation and eventual capture of Yusa.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog both alludes to Hollywood cinematic genres and contains major divergences from the Continuity System. In this aspect Akira creates a film that contains both national elements of note and internationally recognizable symbols and allusions and therefore Akira has created a brilliant film.

 

1. Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, (2003), p. 312.

 

2. Paul Schrader,’Notes On Film Noir’ in Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999) pp. 213-226 p. 219.

 

3. Paul Schrader, ‘Notes On Film Noir’, p. 220.

Thought Process

Yesterday i was thinking about a past post concerning film noir while I was watching Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949). In it I explored the nature of character and characterization in The Matlese Falcon (1941). This morning I received a very interesting comment from Tony D’Ambra, the man behind the rather good Film Noir.net, concerning a few points he wished to pull up. One major point he made was his belief that The Maltese Falcon‘s Sam Spade was a true film noir P.I.  On further contemplation I believe that I should inlight of my own post concerning the nature of genre make a short note on the Film in-question. Although I believe that Sam Spade lacks that spiral into death or dishonour that a femme fatal brings it is true that I was concentrating too much on that precise element of film noir (it happens to be one of the most fruitful elements of film noir due to the ability of the critic to analyse it from several different angles) for my analysis of The Matlese Falcon. As I mentioned in my post concerning the nature of genre, all genre’s are family-resemblance concepts and therefore certain elements can be missing or excluded from a film because an element is not definitivly included in all.