by Daniel Suddes
Rashomon. 1950. Directed by: Akira Kurosawa Screenplay by: Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto. Based upon the stories “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove” written by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa. Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori. Oscar Count: 0 (Nominated for Best Art Direction – Black and White).
In any “greatest films” list, director Akira Kurosawa will likely have multiple entries. And with good reason – he was the filmmaker who acted as a sort of ambassador to two nations, and in fact is the reason that there ever existed a “foreign” section in any film rental place. Rashomon was the film that introduced audiences to world cinema. The fact that it came from a country still recovering from World War II makes it all the more impressive. It is also one of the few films that has entered the vernacular as a way to describe something. When someone says “like Rashomon” they are describing a situation that has multiple interpretations, but really does not have any “truth” that can be agreed upon.
That is an impressive accomplishment. But such a distinction may make for a piece of trivia rather than an actually good film. If another film had managed to do what this one did, it would be regarded as a footnote. But that’s the thing – none of Rashomon’s countless imitators have come close to matching the film’s influence or quality. Those films (such as Courage Under Fire and Vantage Point) all only manage to seem like a pale imitation that still insist a truth can be reached. Rashomon still stands out because of its ability to actually examine, rather than just acknowledge, how biases and perspectives can prevent human beings from ever discovering the “real truth.”
The plot and set up could have come from a straightforward noir (indeed, Kurosawa made one such film – High and Low). A man has discovered the body of a samurai. A well-known bandit has been accused of the murder. In order to figure out what happened, a trial is called for, in which the bandit, the samurai’s widow, the samurai himself (whose spirit is being channeled through a medium) and that woodcutter who discovered the body all attempt to explain what happened. Each give wildly differing version of events and point the finger at different people.
“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves” says one character about the situation.
Normally, such films are constructed on a single timeline. Indeed, the fact that different people are seeing the same events almost becomes irrelevant. Viewers may receive extra lines of dialogue and focus on different things, but in the end there is always a single truth that must be arrived at. Indeed, these multiple interpretations end up feeling more like a gimmick than a way to tell a story. That is not the case with Rashomon, which has caused frustration against the uninitiated. By the end of the film, no one is any wiser in regards to how the samurai came to be killed, and who is ultimately responsible. Even the characters admit that this whole story represents something very dark about human nature, and how, as Plato suggested, we only can see a small part of the world, the shadows on the cave wall.
The usual cast of Kurosawa players is on hand for this film. Toshiro Mifune steals the show once again, as the bandit Tajomaru. Takashi Shimura, who would later star inSeven Samurai and Ikiru is also on hand to give a contemplative look at the situation. Most of the other actors seem to be borrowing heavily from kabuki theatre performances. Very rarely are they silent or still – each of them constantly moves and shouts. Masako is probably the most interesting character in the film. The widow’s eyebrows have been painted on (which Kurosawa would do again in Ran) giving her the constant look of shock and pain. Of course, depending on who is telling that story, Masko is the villain or at least a character who is not deserving of sympathy.
But Rashomon’s strength is not in how it transformed Kurosawa’s career (although this impact on his work was to be pronounced). The film reaches far wider than that.Rashomon remains one of the most influential foreign language films ever crafted, which has been used not just in films, but in novels, television, and philosophy. It is also a vastly entertaining film that is as open to interpretation by the audiences. Finally, Rashomon is the film that opened up one of the most impressive filmographies ever. It has oft been redone, but never equaled.
Did You Know?: The cast often went to Kurosawa during filming, asking for an interpretation. Kurosawa would only explain that Rashomon is “a reflection of life, which is not always clear.”