Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Rashomon is a historical crime drama film released in 1950, and it is based on a short story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, the film depicts a tragic murder of a samurai in a forest and a number of conflicting accounts as to what happened. The film stars Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura and Kichijiro Ueda. The film gives rise to the phrase 'rashomon effect' in which a situation is told via conflicting or subjective perspectives. Winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, the film brought Kurosawa international recognition and introduced Japanese cinema to the world. It also won an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (before the category became a separate award) and is widely considered one of the best movies ever made. It has also inspired a number of remakes in the years since, although none have ever received the same level of adoration or respect.
What's It About?
In the late 12th century, a monk and a woodsman are seeking shelter from a tremendous storm within the ruined remains of the Rashomon city gate. As they are ruminating on a recent experience, they are joined by a commoner who has been caught in the rain. The priest and the woodsman begin to tell the commoner their story about an apparent murder in the woods of a samurai and the brutal rape of the man's wife by the notorious bandit Tajomaru. However, the true events are not understood as the story is told from three different perspectives.
Tajomaru, apprehended by the police for the crime as well as others, recalls how he lured the samurai and his wife into the woods before tying the man up and assaulting his wife in front of him. After the woman begs the two men to fight for her honour, Tajomaru claims to have released the man and beat him in fair combat. The woman then claims that Tajomaru left after he had raped her and she begged her husband for forgiveness, only to be met by his cold, vengeful gaze before she fainted and accidentally killed him in the process. Stranger still, a medium claims to speak on behalf of the murdered samurai and claims that he killed himself in shame for failing to protect his wife. But who is telling the truth and what part does the woodsman play in all of this?
What's to Like?
Rashomon is a tricky film to describe without giving too much away and given how removed it is from cinema these days, it's going to be fairly niche unless you are a film studies student or serious Japanophile like myself. But the film's importance cannot be understated - from its narrative complexities and non-linear storyline to its sheer quality and impact on Japanese cinema in particular. The film uses a noir-ish approach to lighting and shade as well as using natural sunlight which was uncommon at the time. And instead of being a straight-up murder mystery (in truth, the story doesn't actually matter that much), the film offers up so much more. Things get properly spooky when the medium turns up, channelling the voice of the murdered samurai to tell his side of the story and I loved the opening scenes at the ruined gate to the city with rain thumping down into the ground. Reminded me a lot of another Kurosawa classic, Yojimbo.
What matters here is actually the nature of truth and how it can be subjective and manipulated. Each version of the story differs in slight but significant ways, demonstrating that all of us have our own motives or agendas when it comes to the truth. The film doesn't provide all the answers because it shouldn't need to - what matters is how it makes you think. Remember that this film, dealing with concepts such as the nature of reality and truth, is more than seventy years old and looking at it through the lenses of today, it feels years ahead of its time. At no point did I feel my attention wandering and the performances, while possibly considered melodramatic these day, are captivating and powerful. Mifune's character, for example, runs the range between excitable bandit to scorned romantic (illustrating why Kurosawa used him in his films so often) while Mori is unforgettable as the wronged woman. Even if black-and-white films in a foreign language aren't your thing, I'd suggest giving this one a go.
- Although often cited as the film that caused the Academy to create a separate Best Foreign Language category, Rashomon was not the first film to win an honorary award for this. That honour goes to 1948's Monsieur Vincent, a French film following the life of 17th century priest and charity worker Vincent de Paul. The Best Foreign Language Film category wasn't officially created as a competitive award until 1956 and is now known as the Best International Feature Film award.
- Much of the film's look is due to cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, a long-time collaborator with Kurosawa who worked alongside him on later films Yojimbo and Kagemusha. Miyagawa, who opted to reflect the sunlight using a full-length mirror from the studio, kept and preserved the Rashomon sign seen in the film until his death in 1999.
- Kurosawa often shot scenes for this film using multiple cameras at once, something that was unusual for the time. Not only did this make editing the film much easier (something Kurosawa did himself) but it also improved continuity. It also meant that the film was made up of 407 different shots - more than double the amount for a film of this length at the time.
What's Not to Like?
Viewers expecting a resolution to the film's central mystery may find themselves a little disappointed. After all, we in the West are conditioned into expecting these things but not every film can offer one. What Rashomon does is make us question whether there is such a thing as absolute truth and whether what we see is actually reality. Without making you realise it, the film poses the sort of questions that The Matrix does in more obvious ways and at the risk of getting political, these sort of questions are even more relevant today than they have ever been in light of the rise of 'fake news' and COVID misinformation. After all, if we can't trust our own eyes and ears then who can we trust?
As I mentioned before, audiences unused to Japanese cinema may be unfamiliar with the more expressionist performances of the cast. The actors aren't as over-the-top as their German counterparts (think the wide-eyed, jazz-handed performances in things like Metropolis or The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari) but in a film all about symbolism and metaphor, I can't criticise this too much. Even without trying to read between the lines, the film is a delight to watch. It's fascinating to see a director so synonymous with Japanese cinema using more Western techniques when directing, a curious but effective blend of styles. It may lack the scale and scope of some of Kurosawa's epics but Rashomon remains an essential watch, even after all this time.
Should I Watch It?
A film with a multitude of hidden depths, Rashomon is a gripping and engaging film that challenges convention and audience expectation. Directed by a man discovering a rich vein of form (see below), Kurosawa's period drama is just as impressive today as it was when it burst onto the scene. It's tense, gripping and inventive - trust me, this is not just one for film study students. This might not be an epic picture but it has an epic story and has much to say about the various themes it touches on.
Great For: Japanophiles, film scholars and students, Kurosawa's career
Not So Great For: black and white snobs, subtitle strugglers, action film fans
What Else Should I Watch?
Kurosawa's career took off in a big way after the success of Rashomon with the likes of Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne Of Blood and The Hidden Fortress all being released over the next decade. He became the face of Japanese cinema to the rest of the world, despite the critical acclaim of other directors like Yasujirô Ozu. His legacy and reputation among other filmmakers has long been assured with directors like Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick and Werner Herzog all hailing Kurosawa as an absolute master of his craft and one of the best in the business.
The 1950's saw the emergence of another master director hitting peak form in the rotund form of Alfred Hitchcock although he had already been making films for many years beforehand. From Strangers On A Train and Dial M For Murder to Rear Window and Vertigo, Hitchcock's Fifties culminated in possibly his darkest film - the original slasher Psycho in 1960 - which took everything he knew about suspense and dialled it to the highest possible level. Not only are Hitchcock films essential viewing for most fans of cinema, they remain excellent films in their own right although Hitchcock's own reputation as a bully and a tyrant don't exactly paint him in the best light.
Kikori, the woodcutter
Tabi Hoshi, the priest
Tajomaru, the bandit
The samurai's wife
Miko, the medium
Houben, the policeman
Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto*
Release Date (UK)
20th March, 1952
12A (2010 re-rating)
Crime, Drama, Mystery
Honorary Award (Best foreign language film)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Set Direction (Black And White)
© 2022 Benjamin Cox