I just don’t understand,’ mutters a woodcutter (Takashi Shimizu), and he shelters under the half-ruined eaves of the Rashomon gate with a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a passer-by (Kichijiru Ueda). The woodcutter has just returned from a trial by the local magistrate into a rape and murder. There he heard testimony from the accused – the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) – as well as the victim of the assault (Machiko Kyo) and, via a medium, the victim of the murder (Masayuki Mori). The problem is that these three different versions of events don’t add up. Two of them have to be untrue, however all three seems improbably enough that it is possible – indeed likely – that they are all untrue. ‘I just don’t understand,’ mutters the woodcutter again. The audience would likely agree.
Rashomon is one of the most significant feature films of all time. It is significant on three counts. Firstly it was the film that broke Akira Kurosawa out to an international audience, giving him a strong reputation as a creative artist and auteur that he never fully received in his own country. Secondly it was the first Japanese film to receive mainstream international attention at all; it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an honorary Academy Award the following year. Finally it introduces the idea of an unreliable narrator to narrative cinema. That is possibly its greatest achievement of all.
Here’s the thing: cinema is a realist art form. In many respects it is the closest medium to real life: human actors perform stories that can be shot photographically in real-world locations. For the first half-century of motion pictures there was an understandable expectation that what the viewer would see on the screen was what was actually happening in the story. Along comes Rashomon, and suddenly that expectation is no longer guaranteed. We see what appears to be an objective account of a story, but then we are immediately presented with an alternative and conflicting account. By the film’s conclusion we have ultimately seen four conflicting accounts of the murder of the samurai and the rape of his wife, and the film ends without its audience ever being told who – if anybody – actually told the truth. That’s a startling jump from what the audience had come to expect from a movie. It’s a revolutionary progression. It is so ground-breaking in fact that ‘the Rashomon effect’ is a term now used to refer to similar conflicting sequences in other movies: Hero, The Usual Suspects, Courage Under Fire and many others. It has even inspired a Simpsons joke: ‘You liked Rashomon,’ claims Marge, to which Homer grumpily replies ‘That’s not how I remember it!’
The film is deliberately performed in a heightened, slightly exaggerated fashion. There is a strong theatrical aesthetic in play. When the various witnesses address the magistrate in flashbacks they do it by direct address. We never see the magistrate because Kurosawa has cast us in the role. We hear the contrasting testimonies, and it is up to us to decide who is telling the truth and who is telling lies. It is a striking technique that both adds to the theatrical nature of the film and draws us closer into the story.
The film benefits from a small and very strong cast. Toshiro Mifune is uncharacteristically playful and energetic as the arrogant bandit Tajomaru. Masayuki Mori gives his murdered samurai a very still, dignified persona in most sequences. Machiko Kyo gives the most varied performance of the three, since her character is presented so differently in each of the four tellings. Mori and Kyo work well together – it’s not a surprise they would reunite some years later in Kenji Mizoguchi’s excellent romantic tragedy The Empress Yang Kwei-Fei. Takashi Shimizu plays the woodcutter with a weary sadness and regret. He is in effect our viewpoint character, and the bulk of the story we only learn via his flashbacks to the trial.
There is outstanding work undertaken behind the camera as well. It is, by the standards of 1950 Japan, an incredibly fast-cut movie, and this ups the pace of what is by its construction a rather repetitive story. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa does some very innovative work here as well, most famously his shots of the sun through the treetops as the woodcutter first enters the forest. That is only one example of his talent, but there are plenty of others. A sword duel late into the film is particularly well staged and shot, with the blind panic of the two participants expressed via superb choreography, tight editing and well-planned shots.
One of the less obvious achievements of this film is that it is so utterly different from the 10 films that Kurosawa directed before it. He had been invited to direct a film for the Daiei Film Company, which offered him broad creative control but only a limited budget. He chose to combine and adapt two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (“Rashomon” and “In a Grove”) with a small company of actors and a comparatively small crew. This choice – and the low budget – gives Rashomon a very intimate, personal feel. The only other film in Kurosawa’s career to the point that feels in any way similar is The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. By coincidence or design it was also his only other jidaigeki (Edo period historical drama) to date.
The irony is that Rashomon was widely dismissed by Japanese audiences and generally disliked by critics. It was only when an Italian film distributor with a contract with Daiei elected to submit Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival that it received any kind of positive attention. Its popularity in other countries exploded, including a wide release in both subtitled and dubbed versions in the USA. The Japanese government disapproved of its submission to Venice – where it won the Golden Lion I referenced earlier – and actually attempted to convince the festival to screen one of Yasujiro Ozu’s films instead. It is likely to the benefit of all Japanese filmmakers that the festival ignored the suggestion. The popularity of Rashomon brought Japanese cinema to the world, and was soon followed by Gate of Hell, Seven Samurai and countless other works. It’s a significant work for Kurosawa, sure, but it also pushed Japanese film forward into the world to an extent never experienced before or since.