Regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Rashōmon is an iconic production that marked Japan’s entrance to the world stage of filmmaking back in the 1950s, signalling both its prowess and innovation in Japanese cinema.
Akira Kurosawa’s Jidaigeki film is set in eighth century Japan, when various characters came together at the titled location that is the city gate into Kyoto, and recounted through flashbacks a tragedy that happened in their hometown, each version as contradicting as the other.
In terms of technique and aesthetics, Rashōmon is considered one of the most influential films of all time, having bagged accolades at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards. The term “Rashomon effect” was also coined because of the film, which describes an event when contravening interpretations or descriptions from different individuals contribute to the notorious unreliability of eyewitnesses.
Local theatre company The Actors Studio first premiered the stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film in 2003, before another encore run 10 years later. This year, to mark its 30 extraordinary years in the local theatre scene, The Actors Studio is restaging Rashōmon for the third time, with stage actor Lee Swee Keong reprising his role as The Priest, under the directorship of Joe Hasham.
How did the production first come about?
Joe: It dates back to 1974 when Faridah Merican [who plays The Judge] acted in a Malay version of Rashōmon, in which she portrayed the wife. In 2003, when she asked me to adapt the film into a play, we did the production together, with Faridah as the director, and I the artistic director and writer. The play was performed at numerous venues between 2003 and 2004, winning a bag full of awards for the production along the way. We did a modernised version of Rashōmon in 2013, but for our 30th anniversary this year, we’d like to revisit it, going back to the traditional presentation of the 1950s film.
Why the return to the traditional setting this time around, after the two preceding productions?
Joe : The modernised one, as satisfying as it was, and as successful as it was, it did not ring true to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s In a Grove, [the 1922 short story Rashōmon was based on], which was steeped deeply in the traditional. We want to revisit the traditional aspect of the story, and we want to stay true to the history and the actual story.
“You want to leave the audience with a question in mind when they leave the theatre: who is telling the truth?”
How will this current production bring something new to the story?
Lee: We have two Japanese actors joining us this time around; back in 2003, it was an all Malaysian cast. I am an actor, who is very sensitive to the body language, and there are things when it comes to the body language that one cannot teach or learn about. Like how the body language of a Malay wearing a sarong, it’s a sort of “flavour” that cannot be imitated. Having Japanese actors playing the main roles for a play of Japanese origin, it brings another sense of realism to things.
Joe: What I am delighted about is that we are presenting Rashōmon this time around in three different languages: Japanese, English and Mandarin – with surtitles, of course. So, that is very exciting. Besides the addition of another character not originally in the short story, who only speaks in rhyming couplets, I’d have to say the authenticity of the story that plays out onstage. As Lee mentioned about the protagonist actors we have this time round who are Japanese, I think that contributes to the factor of truthfulness to the play.
How challenging was it, bringing this script to life?
Joe: Rashōmon is not an easy play to mount, because you want to leave the audience with a question in mind when they leave the theatre: who is telling the truth? It is a game of deception, with the four different perspectives of the same story, and it is about relaying the drama without giving the game away. Another challenge would have to be ensuring the dynamics of the play are there: the cohesion of the music, the physical action, the dialogue, the movement as well as the costumes… we depend on all these dynamics, it’s about bringing them together without any one of them taking precedent over the other.
What do you think is the message behind the story of Rashōmon?
Lee: It is about humanity. It is about the characters telling their truths, while each claiming theirs is the truth, when at the end of the day, what is really the truth? It questions what is really true, and whether people are trustworthy or not.
Joe: The audience will take away something different, depending on how they each as individuals digest the play. It is also about the reliability of someone’s perspective, your own, or the one where you believe what you want to believe. It relates to life itself, and anyone can relate to it, but presented in a rather bizarre fashion.
Rashōmon by The Actors Studio will take place at KLPac from February 29 to March 8, 2020. Tickets are available for purchase here.