An Appreciation – Rashomon
Rashomon (1950) has left such an indelible cultural impact that its very name has taken a life of its own. The film was made early in the career of director Akira Kurosawa, introducing him and Japanese cinema to the world stage. It has been referenced by generations of admirers, to the point that any work that incorporates a flashback/unreliable narrator structure will ultimately be compared to it. Courage Under Fire (1996), The Usual Suspects (1995), and The Last Duel (2021) are just a few of the countless examples of its enduring power. It revealed the ways in which people view the world and how they project their biases into what “reality” is. What is reality? What is memory? What happens when the memories of one person contradict those of another?
The structure, themes, and style has become more relevant as the decades pass. Kurosawa (along with co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto, adapting the stories of Ryûnosuke Akutagawa) combined Japanese traditions with Western influences to create a true original. The story of a rape and murder deep in the forests of 11th century Japan would seem like an open and shut case, except each of the four testimonies give conflicting information. How does one determine the truth when so many have different versions of it? We see this conundrum every day – in trials, criminal investigations, even the arts. When a crime is captured on camera, there will no doubt be differing interpretations of it. A singular event perceived differently by multiple witnesses has become known as the “Rashomon Effect.” Online videos have gone viral depicting corruption, police brutality, to the color of a dress, yet rarely does society come to a collective agreement over them. This also applies to the arts – movies, songs, paintings, books, etc. A piece of art may move one person, anger others, or have no effect at all. Kurosawa had this insight decades ago, yet his work has rippled through time.
The film feels fresh and alive because it never allows us to set our feet on the ground. It is always throwing us for a loop, constantly playing with time and point of view. Normally, when we see something depicted on screen, our instinct is to accept it at face value. Kurosawa and his team do away with this by making everything unreliable. There are various explanations, but no resolution. Questions are presented but not answered. The editing (by Kurosawa) jumps all over the place, creating a non-linear narrative. Although this appears to be tangible world, Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography and Fumio Hayasaka’s music create a dreamlike aesthetic. We see it from the opening shot of the Rashomon Gates of Kyoto, half destroyed and soaked under heavy rain. An extended sequence has the camera diving deep into the thick brush, with the sun obscured by branches and leaves. This causes shadows to be cast on faces and bodies, amplifying the sense of dread.
The basic outline is the same: A bandit (Toshirô Mifune), a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyô) encounter each other in the woods. The wife is raped, the husband murdered, and the bandit apprehended by authorities. Although the overarching points are the same, the details are different. The testimonies change the circumstances of the crime, with each participant taking credit for the murder. How can this be? To make matters more complicated, the story is framed from the point of view of a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) at the Rashomon gates. The two recall the trial and testimonies to a commoner (Kichijirô Ueda). The specifics of the crime become vague through each layer. Not only are we unable to ascertain if the participants are telling the truth, we are not sure if the priest or woodcutter’s descriptions are accurate either. The information is hampered by each person remembering it. They each downplay their guilt and amplify their honor. As a character points out, “It’s human to lie…Maybe goodness is just make-believe.”
The fact that each participant claims they committed the murder creates a puzzle that wraps around itself. For the bandit, he brags about taking the wife and killing the husband. In both the flashback and interrogation, he acts with bravado and confidence, proclaiming that he toyed with the husband during their fight and seducing the wife with his charms. He confesses that he never wanted to kill the husband, but that the wife forced him to do it. Toshirô Mifune – a constant collaborator with Kurosawa – is a blast of energy. He struts and gestures with boldness and grandiosity, but never feels like a caricature. He plays the bandit like a silent era performer, where his expressions and body language say more about him than his words. Mifune is one of the all-time great actors. His performance here (as well as other films, like Seven Samurai, 1954) would become the prototype of the swaggering anti-hero. He lays the foundation for the likes of Han Solo, The Man with No Name, and Jack Sparrow, to name a few.
Although much has been said and written about the narrative structure, Kurosawa also touched on modernist themes of gender dynamics. Machiko Kyô’s work as the wife paints the character as a victim of misogyny. Through her testimony, we learn that the husband reacted to the rape coldly and without empathy. Where the wife turned to him for comfort and reassurance, he responded with loathing, as though he blamed her for letting the assault happen. His reaction throws the wife into an emotional tailspin, to where she asks him to kill her to relieve the shame. Notice the way the camera follows Kyô back and forth as her character faces the husband. The scene is dramatic and emotional, with the wife covering her face with her hands in horror movie fashion. The wife confesses she killed the husband for his lack of compassion. Her flashback was an early big screen examination of victim shaming – how people (notably women) are routinely questioned or reprimanded for their own abuse.