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RASHOMON – Fumio Hayasaka

December 26, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Renowned director Akira Kurosawa found inspiration for his next film from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa – In a Bamboo Grove (1922) and Rashomon (1915). He decided to blend the two narratives and collaborated with Shinobu Hashimoto to adapt a screenplay. Financial backing was secured from the Daiei Film company, Minoru Jingo was assigned production with a very small budget of $250,000, and Kurosawa took the reins to direct. For his cast, Kurosawa brought in Takashi Shimura as Kikori the woodcutter, Minoru Chiaki as Tabi Hõshi the priest, Masayuki Mori as Takehiro the samurai, Machiko Kyõ as the samurai’s wife Masako, and Toshiro Mifune as Tajomaru the bandit.

The film is set in a historic era of Japan where her cities are in ruin, people are starving and in despair, and social chaos is unraveling society itself. The story offers a testament to the subjectivity, elusiveness, and obscuration of truth through the depiction of the murder of a samurai, and the brutal rape of his wife. As a court tries to determine the truth, four witnesses offer mutually contradictory versions of what happened; the bandit-rapist, the wife, the dead samurai speaking through a medium, and the woodcutter who found the body. The film was a seminal event in cinematic history as it introduced the “Rashomon Effect”, a plot device that would be embraced by future film-makers and characterized by contradictory and mutually exclusive perceptions, which obscure truth. The film was a modest commercial success, with poor critical reception in Japan. However it was widely praised internationally for Kurosawa’s directing, cinematography, brilliant acting of the ensemble cast, and narrative structure. The film earned one Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction.

Kurosawa’s natural choice for composer was his trusted collaborator Fumio Hayasaka who had served him well on several films including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), and Scandal (1950). Upon viewing the film Hayasaka immediately perceived the intersection of four different, contradictory and mutually exclusive character stories, each of which required a unique voice, or musical signature. The characters were very different; the assassin-rapist, the slain samurai/medium, the widowed wife and the woodcutter. Hayasaka would have to find the right musical language to support their storytelling and unique individual perspective of the tragic events.

To unify the film’s four vignette narrative, Kurosawa asked Hayasaka to write a Bolero like melody. He did so, but created contrast by altering the solo instrument used to emote the melody in each story. For the Woodcutter’s story the English horn carries the melody, in Tajomaru’s story the clarinet assumes the melody buttressed by a French horn to underscore his inflated feelings of self-importance and aggrandizement as a warrior, and lastly a solo flute delicato with pizzicato celli replacing the taiko drums for the feminine Masako’s story, which offers an iteration of the melody most similar to Ravel’s original. This theme provides the essential thread, which weaves together the film’s tapestry. Hayasaka speaks to the film’s surreal moments with a motif borne by twinkling bells and celeste. The rest of the soundscape offers a cinematographic approach as Hayasaka imparts aural auras to establish mood and setting. For the medium scene, Hayasaka utilized Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō like chanting to create the effect of Takehiro speaking from the afterlife. Dissonance is expressed throughout, juxtaposing human impulses and desires out of harmony with the idyllic forest imagery used in the story. Lastly, the use of Japanese instruments such as taiko drums, the sho (Japanese mouth organ), koto (plucked half-tube zither) and various gongs served to impart oriental sensibilities and provide authenticity to the film’s setting.

Hayasaka’s full score for the film was unavailable to me, and the suites presented on the album did not lend themselves well to supporting my review in film context. Therefore, I will review the music in film scene context, using scene descriptors for titles and film time indices for reference. 00:00 “Main Title” offers a score highlight where Hayasaka masterfully sets the tone of the film. The white script opening credits display against a badly damaged and decaying Rashomon (main city gate) amidst a torrential downpour. Hayasaka offers a textural, non-melodic soundscape, which is foreboding, desolate and stark. Dark chords, eerie and unsettling screeching strings, and ominous drum strikes are joined by a wailing sho and gong strikes. Soon a koto joins a series of unsettling dissonant flute agitato arpeggios. We enter the film proper at 2:28 and see the priest and woodcutter sitting under the gate gazing out into the rain, as a commoner runs to join them. The only sound is that of the relentlessly falling rain. In the unscored scene the woodcutter keeps muttering “I do not understand”, which elicits inquiries from the commoner to the priest. The priest relates that he has never heard a story as horrible as this, and that it may shatter his belief in the soul of man. The woodcutter walks to the commoner and asks if he would hear his story as perhaps, he might understand what happened.

We flashback at 08:24 into “The Woodcutter’s Story”, as he recalls the fateful day. We see him walking through the forest with his axe as the camera reveals the tree leaf canopy above letting sunlight through. He is carried by a steady drum rhythm soon joined at 8:42 by a solo English horn, which emotes a danza esotica over the drum line, reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero melody. After 9:51 the music becomes more and more prominent joined by flute and harsh kindred woodwinds as his journey progresses. Yet at 10:19, the music lurches to a stop, and is replaced by a misterioso borne of the metallic twinkling by bells and celeste as he comes upon a woman’s veiled hat. The musical narrative becomes unsettled and ominous as he continues his journey, again empowered by the Bolero-like danza esotica and drum rhythm until 11:03 when we come to a grim descending stop as he discovers a piece of clothing. He picks it up and resumes his walk, again carried by the Bolero-like danza esotica and drum rhythm until 11:24 when we again grind to a halt when he finds a bundle of rope. Dark, ominous chords sound as he sees a samurai warrior cap, walks to it and then stumbles. Shrill dissonance punctuated by a gong strike supports his shock as he discovers the horrific sight of a murdered man, his grasping arms raised upright in a death throe. Shrill dissonant woodwinds of terror propel his flight away from the grizzly scene.

12:15 “The Woodcutter’s Testimony” reveals him kneeling and giving testimony to the court three days later. Hayasaka sow a foreboding musical narrative, supporting with dark, ominous low register woodwinds. 13:08 “The Priest’s Testimony” reveals him kneeling and giving testimony to the court. Forlorn music enters at 13:22 as he relates meeting the murdered man three days ago. In his flashback we see him walking a country road a meandering clarinet gentile with koto adornment. He stops and steps aside to allow passage of a samurai leading his wife on a horse. A gong strike at 14:04 supports a return to the present at court where he expresses his regret of what happened and the frailty of life. 14:35 “The Policeman’s Testimony” reveals him kneeling with the rope bound bandit Tajomaru sitting next to him. Music enters at 14:57 to support a flashback of the policeman walking along a riverbank carried by a foreboding musical narrative. He discovers a man groaning in pain on the riverbank and runs to him. Woodwinds writing in pain support the man riddled with arrows pushing the policeman away causing him to fall into the water. We return to the present and He testifies that there were seventeen eagle feathered arrows and a bow and that Tajomaru had been thrown from his stolen horse. Tajomaru becomes enraged and shouts that he fell off the horse.

16:18 “Tajomaru’s Testimony” reveals a flashback of sun rays piercing a tear in the cloudscape as we see him riding with abandon supported by screeching strings and propelled by dire horns irato. Returning to the present he testifies that he was riding a horse that suddenly became thirsty. Returning to the flashback he says he drank from a stream supported by an eerie musical ambiance. In court he asserts that a deadly, poisonous snake must have died and poisoned the waters and that is why he fell ill off his horse. At 17:35 he admits to killing the man after he met him and his wife. An ethereal celeste and bells take us back to that day where Tajomaru lays under a tree supported by dark and foreboding low register woodwinds. At 18:01 plodding woodwinds enter over a woodwind sustain, which match the foot falls of the approaching samurai Takehiro and his wife Masako on horseback. We see lust in Tajomaru’s eyes as they come nearer and tension mounts with contrapuntal woodwinds joining the plodding woodwind cadence. Takehiro stops upon seeing Tajomaru who refuses to move supported by repeating phrases by ominous woodwinds. As the wary Takehiro moves on, a breeze sweeps across Tajomaru’s face, supported by ethereal twinkling xylophone, celeste and harp glissandi. He leers as the breeze also lifts her veil and he sees her beautiful face. The plodding motif with contrapuntal woodwinds supports their departure as Tajomaru looks out with lust in his eyes. As they move off the original soundscape of foreboding low register woodwinds resumes as he slowly grabs his sword. Back in court he said he believed the beautiful woman to be a goddess and that he decided to capture her, even if he had to kill the man.

20:56 “Tajomaru Attacks Takehiro” reveals Tajomaru propelled by shrill woodwinds and an aggressive pursuit motif as he runs after the Takehiro and Masako. He catches them and the Takehiro asks him what he wants. Tajomaru slowly circles them, leering at the woman supported by woodwinds sinistri, which elicits the concerned samurai to again demand what he wants. He pulls out his sword, but then offers it to the wary Takehiro as he explains how he found it. He offers to sell it and foreboding woodwinds support the samurai examining it. At 22:58 the scene shifts to rays of sunlight flowing down from the forest canopy supported idyllic woodwinds and strings with harp adornment. We see the woman sitting by a stream. At 23:54 we see the Takehiro’s bow and quiver of arrows on the ground and then shift atop a steady drum and low register piano beat and ominous woodwinds to the sight of Tajomaru leading him up a hill. The Bolero Motif returns with the clarinet replacing the English horn, now joined by a French horn. The motif flows with a serpentine sensibility, which informs us of Tajomaru’s nefarious intentions. At 24:56 a slow building tension commences as the Takehiro is lured deeper and deeper into the forest. At 25:18 Tajomaru stops and says the sword cache is up ahead in the clearing. The samurai passes him and a crescendo of violence surges as Tajomaru strikes, attacking Takehiro from behind. Dire horns support the wrestling fight until 25:41 a violent horn propelled accelerando of madness empowers Tajomaru’s gleeful dash through the forest.

26:00 “Tajomaru Captures Masako” a sinister diminuendo commences as Tajomaru begins a slow and stealthy approach to a small hill where he leers at Masako from behind bushes. The now lurking Bolero Motif reprises, draped with foreboding auras as Tajomaru continues to leer. At 26:52 drums of doom and woodwinds full of terror support her turning with alarm and discovering Tajomaru. Dire horns of doom resound as Tajomaru informs her that her husband has taken ill. She removes her veiled hat to reveal her stunning beauty. Back in court Tajomaru states that her face turned pale with her eyes staring at him. He said it filled him with rage and so dragged her to see her pathetic husband bound to a tree. As they run through the forests an ominous musical narrative by drums bellicoso, dire horns and woodwinds energico propel them. Her hat flies off her head and lodges in a bush. At 28:03 they stop and she sees her husband sitting and bound to a tree stump. A solitary bassoon full of woe supports her looking at her husband. As Tajomaru moves behind him the bassoon sinistri and four note descending phrases by woodwinds full of menace portend his doom. At 28:49 tension builds on pizzicato strings and woodwinds until 28:59 when shrill woodwinds support her dash to obtain her husband’s dagger. She makes several unsuccessful thrusts at Tajomaru supported by ugly dissonance as Tajomaru becomes sexually aroused by her fierceness. Darting woodwinds and a textural maelstrom support her renewed attack and chase of Tajomaru. Yet she fails, becomes exhausted and collapses sobbing on the ground.

30:45 “The Rape” reveals Tajomaru’s attack, where he subdues her and forces a kiss. As they spin the canopy above also spins with a horrific grotesque cacophony replete with a surreal twinkling xylophone, bells and celeste supporting the rape. Back at court Tajomaru gloats that he had her without killing her husband. He declares that he still had no intention of killing the samurai. As Tajomaru departs the woman runs after him and begs him that either he or her husband must die in a duel as two men must not live to know her dishonor. Woodwinds doloroso with dark portentous accents support her plea and pledge to go with the survivor. Strings doloroso, joins with the surreal motif as Tajomaru walks to Takehiro. 33:06 “The Duel” drums of violence and dire horns erupt and propel the duel as Tajomaru cuts him loose. At 34:13 Takehiro is knocked down and Tajomaru begins circling empowered by harsh strings, drum strikes and dire horns as he torments his prey. At 34:45 a crescendo of violence commences with tremolo strings, drum strikes and erupts as the ferocious sword fight resumes. At 35:23 Takehiro falls into a bush, becomes entangled and Tajomaru thrusts his sword to kill him, crowned by drums of violence and dire horns. Back at court he states the kill was done honorably and that Takehiro fought well. He gloats as ominous low register strings juxtapose. He states he has no idea what happened to the woman as she disappeared during the fight. The diabolical string borne narrative continues as he relates that he took possession of the horse and departed, selling the samurai’s sword in town for liquor.

Back at the Rashomon, the commoner relates to the woodcutter that Tajomaru was a known womanizer. The priest then relates that the woman named Masako was found at the temple and that at court she was not fierce, but instead pitiful. At 39:40 we segue into “Masako’s Testimony” a score highlight with impressive use of musical juxtaposition. The scene reveals her weeping at court. The Bolero Motif reprises, this time it is flute borne with pizzicato celli replacing the taiko drums. The motif is sustained during the flashback where Masako relates that Tajomaru mocked them, and then ran away with gleeful laughter. At this point the Bolero Motif becomes more prominent when she states that she untied her husband Takehiro and asked him to kill her so she could die in peace. Yet all she got from him was stony silence and a loathing stare. She begs him not to look at her this way and beat her if his so wishes. She cannot bear his stare, recoils and sobs as the Bolero Motif intensifies. She then rises, runs to get the dagger, severs his rope bindings, and then hands him the dagger, saying “Now kill me!” Yet to her despair he remains motionless with his loathing stare. She backs away and begs him to stop, and then slowly approaches him with the dagger drawn. She repeatedly begs him to stop, to no avail. At 46:56 we return to the court and the Bolero Motif retreats to the background as she states that she must have fainted and when she awoke, she found her husband dead from a dagger stuck in his chest. Afterwards she wandered in the forest and then tried to drown herself in a pond, but failed. Then she asks the court what a helpless woman like her should do?

Back at the Roshomon, the commoner relates that the more he hears, the more confused he gets, saying women use tears to fool men as well as themselves. That why you should always beware of a woman’s story. The priest then states that next came the dead man Takehiro’s story, which he states was told through a medium. The woodcutter moves away, saying the story was lies, yet the priest asserts, dead men do not lie. 51:34 “Takehiro’s Story” opens with the medium summoning the spirit of Takehiro from the afterlife while dancing and shaking a large rattle, her circular movement buttressed by nativist drums and men with bass vocals chanting. For Takehiro’s testimony, Hayasaka supports with the drum rhythm and male bass voice chanting. Speaking through the medium, we flash back at 53:12. Low register strings grave support as Takehiro asserts that Tajomaru asked his wife Masako to depart with him. Low register woodwinds with a tremolo strings agitato join as she prepares to choose. The music becomes ominous as she agrees, but then asks Tajomaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men. A dissonant and angry tempest rages as Takehiro reviles her betrayal. Dark, abyssal bassoon sound as Tajomaru is taken aback by her matrimonial betrayal, grabs her, and offers Takehiro two choices: save her or kill her. Harsh, foreboding horns sound as Takehiro ponders his decision. Hearing this, Masako flees for her life with Tajomaru in pursuit. A forlorn clarinet speaks of Takehiro’s desolation and despair. Masako manages to elude Tajomaru who returns carried by plodding low register woodwinds, to set Takehiro free. Upon release, Tajomaru apologizes, says she got away, and then departs. Woodwinds doloroso and the shimmering surreal motif support as Takehiro says he felt betrayed and humiliated. Aching tremolo strings full of despair and a grieving Bolero Motif enter, creating a molto tragico pathos as he commits suicide with his wife’s dagger, which is felt in court as the medium collapses to the ground. A poignant lamentation follows as the medium states that he lay in darkness until someone approached and gently removed the dagger. His testimony ending grimly in a drum and string furioso.

1:01:54 “The Woodcutter’s Story” This final story is unscored. Back at the Rashomon the woodcutter shouts that the samurai was killed by a sword, not a dagger and that all three versions of the story are false. The commoner coaxes the woodcutter to tell his version of the story and he admits that he witnessed the assault and murder, but decided not to testify as he did not want to get involved. He states that after the assault, Tajomaru fervently begged Masako to marry him. He becomes enraged when she refuses to answer and instead just weeps. Ultimately, she rejects him and instead frees her husband, hoping that he would avenge her and kill Tajomaru. However, Takehiro refuses to fight, declaring to Tajomaru that he will not risk his life for an unworthy whore. Masako mocks both men, calls them cowards, and ridicules their manhood. She shames them into fighting, claiming that real men fight for a woman’s love. The two men fight, but it is a feeble duel and anti-climactic. Ultimately, Tajomaru wins by impaling Takehiro’s after his sword becomes embedded in a tree stump, leaving him defenseless. Afterwards Masako flees and escapes as Tajomaru is injured and too exhausted to pursue.

1:19:18 “Epilogue” reveals a final return to the Rashomon where the three men discover an abandoned, crying baby in a basket. The commoner steals a kimono and amulet from the basket, earning a rebuke from the woodcutter. Yet the commoner replies with a potent rejoinder – that the reason the woodcutter chose not to testify is that he stole the pearl inlay dagger. As he departs, the commoner mockingly declares that all men are motivated by self-interest. As the priest soothes the baby, the rainstorm subsides and the woodcutter asks that he turnover the child; saying that he already has six of his own and will raise it. This request serves to restore the priest’s faith in humanity, and at 1:27:12 music enters atop strings solenne, and we gain solace as the priest hands over the child. We conclude with a grand oriental flourish with the woodcutter departing as the rain stops, as the clouds part, revealing a refulgent sun full of hope.

The only physical album of the score for Rashomon was released by Varese Sarabande in 1984 and presents Hayasaka’s music as a 17-minute suite, alongside an additional 25-minute suite of music from his 1954 score Seven Samurai. The audio quality is excellent and the performance of the National Symphony Orchestra is superb. Legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon is considered iconic, in that it created a film story-telling technique call the “Rashomon Effect”. It is defined as story-telling in which an event in the film’s narrative is presented with contradictory descriptions and interpretations from the people involved in the event. Kurosawa realized that his film, presented as a series of vignettes of the same story, which each told from a different perspective, required a musical narrative that would link and unify his story-telling. To that end, he instructed Hayasaka to compose a “Bolero-like” melody to accomplish this. In my judgement, Hayasaka succeeded on all counts, masterfully unifying Kurosawa’s masterpiece with a well-conceived and executed musical narrative. He did pay homage to Maurice Ravel’s dance-like melody from Bolero, but offered a different solo instrument and orchestration for each of the different character perspectives; English horn and drums, clarinet buttressed by a French horn, and lastly a solo flute delicato with pizzicato celli replacing the taiko, which offers an iteration of the melody most similar to Ravel’s original. His use of classical Japanese instruments such as the sho, koto, taiko drums and gongs imparted the requisite cultural sensibilities, as well a brutal, stark and often shrill dissonance to speak to the story’s brutal narrative. Yet just when you feel you have lost faith in humanity, the film concludes splendidly with refulgent hope as Hayasaka’s music, Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography and Kurosawa’s vision achieve a sublime cinematic confluence. Folks, “Rashomon” is a masterpiece in Hayasaka’s canon largely responsible for ensuring Kurosawa achieved his cinematic vision. I highly recommend watching the film, and purchasing this exceptional album.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the exquisite third symphonic suite, which supports Masako’s version of the story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eha81yPr7Ns

Buy the Rashomon and The Seven Samurai Suites soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Seven Samurai (Suite) (25:33)
  • Rashomon (Suite) (17:28)

Running Time: 43 minutes 01 minutes

Varese Sarabande VCD 47271 (1950/1984)

Music composed and conducted by Fumio Hayasaka. Score produced by Fumio Hayasaka. Album produced by Richard Kraft and Tom Null.

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