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Rashomon (1950)

“Rashomon”(1950) ranks at no. 81 on the IMDB top 250 movies.

“Rashomon” (1950) – Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo and Takashi Shimura.

Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon (1950)

Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon” is credited as the film which brought acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to the attention of Western audiences. It won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, has been re-imagined as a Western starring Paul Newman (“The Outrage” in 1964) and received an honorary Academy Award as the most outstanding foreign language film. Indeed, the speculation has always been that this was the film that forced the Academy into creating the Foreign Language film award in the first place.

The story itself is taken from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (“Rashomon” and “In a Grove”) and concerns three men sheltering from the heavy rain under the dilapidated “Rashomon gate” of Kyoto in feudal era Japan.

One of the three, the woodcutter, sits staring blankly into the rain and says:

“I don’t understand it at all. I just don’t understand… I’ve never heard such a strange story.”

Quite what he doesn’t understand is not clear as yet. The second man, a priest, similarly looks baffled and says:

“War, earthquake, winds, fire, famines, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. Bandits descend on us night after night. I’ve seen so many men get killed like insects but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this.”

The third man, a commoner newly arrived in this makeshift shelter, entreats them to share their burden by regaling him with their story. And so, the priest and the woodcutter begin to tell of the strange court case they have just witnessed.

A samurai has been found dead in the woods following his wife’s rape. The notorious, womanising bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) is brought shackled to testify to his guilt. What follows is each participant in these sorry crimes recounting their own subjective, and very different, version of events: Tajomaru the bandit’s first, then the samurai’s wife, then the dead samurai himself (through a startlingly ‘out there’ performance from Noriko Honma as the medium). Finally, the woodcutter himself adds his own testimony as he was the one that first found the body.

Rashomon” is a masterpiece. It has coined a new term, “The Rashomon effect”, as a result which has now passed into our cultural lexicon. What this effect represents is the notion that truth can be something which is not easily grasped or understood because of the subjective nature of people when perceiving events. Each account of the central crime in Kurosawa’s film is believable and shows a different slant on events and the characters of those involved. But they cannot all be true so how then do you ascertain the truth?

This use of this “effect” has gone on to be emulated in countless television shows and films over the years. One modern example would be the film “Vantage Point” (2008) which starred Matthew Fox and Dennis Quaid in a film about an assassination attempt on the U.S. President as told by 6 different character’s vantage points.

For my own part, the opening of “Rashomon” and its cyclical nature thereafter in showing the same event four times reminds me of this old bedtime story:

“It was a dark and stormy night. Three men sat round a campfire and the Captain turned to the mate and said:

“Mate, tell us a story.”

So the mate turned to the Captain and said:

“It was a dark and stormy night. Three men sat round a campfire and the Captain turned to the mate and said:

 Mate, tell us a story….”

As annoying as this BulwerLytton-esque story was (and is), it illustrates how cyclical stories like “Rashomon” and “Vantage Point” are. You end up chasing the truth round and round like a dog chasing its tail. The difference from the above tale and the “Rashomon effect” is that, as in life, every version of the story is not the same. It is filtered and changed by its storyteller (and the influences they each bring to bear) through the simple act of telling it. Even the crew on “Rashomon” asked Kurosawa what the movie was about and Kurosawa reportedly said that “Rashomon” was a reflection of real life. And life does not have clear meanings.

What is more impressive than the story itself is how Kurosawa tells the story. The film is a masterclass in editing, cinematography and directing. The flashback sequence as we follow the woodcutter into the forest for the first time is wonderful. Full of handheld shots and tracking movements, we cut quickly between the woodcutter moving close to the camera then a moment later he is obscured by the undergrowth. This obscuration as we move into the heart of the forest is powerfully symbolic; as we get nearer to the dead samurai’s body we also get further from the truth. The lighting similarly plays a massive symbolic part in the film. The dappled sunlight from the forest canopy dances, illuminates and shades the main characters at significant moments as they battle between good and evil.

The framing and choice of shots, and the fast editing between them, is remarkable too. The messy fight sequences are full of raw energy and make use of powerful POV shots which bring you right into the character’s viewpoint and make you part of the action. Characters are also nearly always in focus whether they are the foreground or the background. This is reminiscent of the same technique used in “Citizen Kane” (1941) years earlier. Kurosawa denied ever having seen Orson Welles’ movie before making “Rashomon” and I, for one, believe him.

However, Kurosawa would often use several cameras to record a scene thereby allowing him the luxury of being able to quickly cut at will between different angles. The camera is rarely still throughout the entire picture; instead it’s always on the move, always hunting out a new angle to tell its story from. The last shot of the woodcutter leaving the Rashomon gate is simply majestic as the camera tracks further and further backwards as he walks away with the figure of the priest in the background always visible, always in focus.

As for the acting, it is sometimes, by modern standards, a little over-the-top. Mifune cackles maniacally throughout while the samurai’s wife cries hysterically throughout. Please note: There is a lot of hysterical laughter and hysterical crying. Having said that Mifune’s role as the big bad bandit required a larger-than-life performance and he certainly delivers in spades. It is exhausting watching the animalistic Mifune, who squints, scratches and cackles his way through the film when he is not racing like a madman through the forest. By way of contrast, the woodcutter (played by Kurosawa regular, the brilliant Takashi Shimura) is a good deal more controlled, understated and naturalistic. Both are equally excellent however.

In fact, it is difficult to find fault with “Rashomon”. Here is a perfectly shot, perfectly executed story with a resonance that has stood the test of time. Perhaps the film could be tightened up in the pacing of a few sequences to suit modern audience’s expectations but at a modest 88 minutes I would rather I adjusted to it and not it to me.

In conclusion, it is clear to me why the Academy may have felt they had to create a new category of award for this film. It’s perfect. Then again, this is only my personal opinion and it is up to you whether you believe me.

IN SHORT: Kurosawa’s masterpiece on the subjectivity of truth. A must see.

Rating:  5 out of 5.

Too damn good by half.

About dustforprints

Part bibliophile, part cinephile, part dream weaver. Hmmn... in short, I like books and movies and I write words about both from time to time.


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