Akira Kurosawa stated that one day before shooting the film Rashomon, three assistant directors came to see him at an inn that he was staying at. It turned out that the three assistants found the script of Rashomon baffling and wanted Kurosawa to explain it to them. "Please read it again more carefully," Kurosawa told them. "If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible." They didn't leave and insisted they read it carefully, and still didn't understand it. What the assistants didn't understand about the screenplay was that all four of the eyewitness accounts were correct; just correct in the eyes of the person telling it. Rashomon is a film that depicts the rape of a woman and the murder of her samurai husband through the widely differing accounts of four eyewitnesses. Rashomon was the first Japanese film that became a huge international hit all around the world especially here in the west. The film won numerous awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It also was the first foreign film that set box office records and made people who never would have given a second glance at a film with subtitles, now a second look. Rashomon and it's non-linear storyline was revolutionary in the way films were conceived, as its screenplay contained four separate testimonies that did not match each other and in the end there was no 'final' correct version of what really happened. It was also the first film to use flashbacks that might or might not be the truth on what really happened within those flashbacks.
When an audience is usually provided with a flashback, we automatically assume this flashback that is given to use reflects the truth. But all it reflects is a point of view, a point of view which could easily be inaccurate, misinterpreted, skewed, and lied about. Smart films realize this, and less ambitious films unfortunately do not, with many unintelligent films using flashbacks as a lazy technique to give the audience information. Rashomon was one of the first films to supply first-person eyewitness accounts that were radically different from one another; with one eyewitness even channeled through the grave by a psychic medium. But what made Rashomon even more revolutionary and shocking was that no version was the truth, and every version was. Kurosawa states in his autobiography, "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing." Rashomon and its unorthodox style influenced several other films throughout the years including The Usual Suspects, Run Lola Run and Hero directed by Yimou Zhang. In all films before this audiences were used to flashbacks or dream sequences that reflected the truth. This film reflects that the truth is correct through the point of view of the person telling it; but isn't necessarily the truth itself. After this film's release people referred to this concept as the 'Rashomon effect', and once a phrase like that becomes universal you know the film accomplished something.
The film opens on a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the Rashomon gate to stay dry in a downpour. A commoner joins them and overhears the woodcutter say, "I just don't understand. I've never heard such a strange story." The commoner is curious on what would he means by that.
"Hear me out. Maybe you can tell me what it all means. I don't understand any of those three." the woodcutter says to him. "It was three days ago. I went into the mountains to get wood..." as the woodcutter tells how he claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest.
Upon discovering the body, he says, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities. The priest tells the commoner that he saw the samurai and the woman traveling the same day before the murder happened. The woodcutter and priest were then summoned to testify in court where they both gave their testimony to a high police commissioner.
In each shot of the witnesses giving their testimony you don't see the police commissioner or hear his questions being asked to them. All you see are the eye witnesses giving their answers and in the backround you can see the other witnesses waiting their turn to testify.
The woodcutter says to the police commissioner, "I was the one who first found the body." The woodcutter says he saw a woman's hat on a branch, a cap of a samurai he walked on and a cut up piece a rope and a shiny amulet case by the body. T
he priest then testifies saying , "I met the murdered man before his death. It was three days ago in the afternoon, on the road from Sekiyama to Yamashina." He says how the woman wore a veil so the priest couldn't see her face. The police commissioner then brings in the bandit named Tajomaru who is accused of rape of the woman and the murder of the man.
The policeman who captured the bandit starts telling his story to the commissioner. "It was two days ago at dusk, by the banks of the Katsura..." The officer describes how he found Tajomaru with 17 arrows by the horse of the samurai he killed and how he found Tajomaru to be injured and in pain after falling off his horse. After the policeman's story Tajomaru starts to laugh at the policeman saying, "I fell off the horse? You fool!" Tajomaru decides to tell his version on why he was in pain.
He says how he was around Osaka and decided to stop and get off his horse and get a drink. He then says how he suddenly got sick from the water and because of stomach pains fell to the ground in agony; in which where the policeman finally found him. Tajomaru then admits to killing the samurai and finally tells the story on how he came upon the both of them.
THE BANDIT'S STORY:
He begins on how he ran into the samurai and the wife one day while the both of them rode by. Once he saw the lady, Tajomaru believed he saw a goddess. He then decided to want to capture her hopefully without killing the samurai. Tajomaru claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered.
Tajormaru takes the samurai up the mountains to the grove and toys with the samurai when pulling out his sword like he's about to draw for battle. When the samurai's back is turned Tajormaru attacks him and quickly ties him up to a tree near a grove.
He laughs hysterically as he heads back down to the woman waiting by her horse for her husband to return. Tajormaru tells the woman her husbands sick. When Tajormaru sees the worried expression on the woman's face; jealousy consumes Tajormaru and he now hates the samurai. When running through the woods to find her husband the woman's hat gets caught in a tree. When she finally sees her husband not sick but tied up she knows she has been tricked and tries to stab Tajormaru with her dagger and Tajormaru is impressed by her fierceness.
He plays with her as she tries to attack him and eventually she breaks down and cries. He suddenly grabs her and starts to kiss her; and eventually she stops resisting and gives herself to him; causing her to drop the dagger. Tajormaru tells the judge, "And so I had succeeded in having her without killing her husband. I still had no intention of killing him."
He continues his story by describing how the woman now filled with shame for sleeping with the bandit says to both men, "to have my shame known to two men is worse than dying. I will go with the survivor." She then begs Tajormaru to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from guilt. Tajomaru honorably accepts and sets the samurai free and the two duel out with one another. In Tajomaru's recollection they fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajomaru was the victor.
Tajomaru says to the commissioner, "So I had to kill him, but I wanted to do it honorably. He fought very well. We crossed swords 23 times. No one had ever crossed swords with me more than 20 times." At the end of his story the commissioner asks him about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai's wife: he says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.
Back at the Rashomon gate after the telling of the woodcutter's story the commoner asks what happened to the woman. The priest says that she showed up at the courthouse later on and was hiding in the temple when the police found her. "It's a lie. It's all a lie. Tajomaru's story and the woman's." says the woodcutter. The commoner laughs and says "it's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."
The priest says, "But it's because men are weak that they lie, even to themselves." The commoner says, "I don't care if it's a lie...as long as it's entertaining. What story did the woman come up with?" The priest says it's much different then Tajomaru's story; so different that her face didn't even show the fierceness Tajomaru described. "She was so docile, she was almost pitiful," the priest describes.
The samurai's wife tells a different version of events to the court. She says that Tajomaru left after raping her. She begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly. The wife then cuts her husband loose and orders him to kill her but he just stares at her and she breaks down crying. "kill me, but don't look at me like that!"
She pleads for her husband to kill her so she can die in peace. Her husband continued to stare at her with a look of loathing and hate. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with her dagger in hand. She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts and fled.
After her version the commoner really is confused saying "women use their tears to fool everyone. So you have to be aware of the women's story." The priest says, "When you hear the dead man's story...." The commoner is shocked by the priests statement.
"He's dead...How can he tell his story?" the commoner asks. The priest tells him that a medium came to the trial and told his story, but the woodcutter doesn't believe that story either. The commoner now wants to hear the dead samurai's story finding the unfolding of this mystery quite intriguing.
THE SAMURAI'S STORY:
The court then hears the story of the deceased samurai, told through a medium. After a dancing ritual the medium begins to speak as the dead samurai saying, "After the bandit attacked my wife, he tried to console her..." The medium describes how cunning the bandit was telling the woman to leave her husband and go with him. She accepts and coldly asks Tajomaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men.
"Please kill him," she keeps telling Tajormaru. Tajormaru is disgusted by what she is asking and throws her to the ground. Tajormaru then asks the tied up samurai what he should do with his wife. "Kill her or let her go?" He asks him. "For these words alone," the dead samurai recounted, "I was ready to pardon his crime."
The wife then suddenly gets up and runs off while Tajormaru takes off after her but not before letting the samurai go. While alone the samurai starts to cry because of his wife's betrayal and seeing his wifes dagger on the ground; decides to kill himself and yet later when found, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.
After the mediums story the woodcutter yells, "There was no dagger! He was killed by a sword!" The commoner asks the woodcutter that he must have seen the whole thing if he is so sure on what really happened.
The woodcutter finally admits that he witnessed the whole thing, but didn't tell the courts because he didn't want to get too involved. The commoner can care less if he didn't tell the court or if justice was done, but he is interested in learning the truth and for the woodcutter to tell him his view of events.
THE WOODCUTTER'S SECOND VERSION:
After the woodcutter found the woman's hat in the branches he saw a woman crying and the samurai tied up. He says how he then hid and watched Tajomaru beg the woman to be his wife. "If you say no I'll have no choice but to kill you." he tells her. She runs up to her husband and cuts his ropes having the two men duel it out instead.
The samurai tells Tajomaru to hold it and says, "I refuse to risk my life for such a woman. I don't want this shameless whore. You can have her." He then tells his wife, "You've been with two men. Why don't you kill yourself?" The samurai's wife starts weeping and Tajomaru also decides to leave her while telling the husband that women are weak by nature.
In the middle of weeping the wife starts laughing hysterically and then says to the both of them, "It's you who are weak. If you are my husband, why don't you kill this man? Then you can tell me to kill myself. That's a real man....You're not a real man either. When I heard you were Tajomaru, I stopped crying. I was sick of this tiresome daily farce. I thought, 'Tajomaru might get me out of this.' But you were just as petty as my husband. Just remember: A woman loves a man who loves passionately. A man has to make a woman his by his sword."
The wife then manipulates these two men into fighting one another because of their male pride. The wife hides her face in fear once they raise swords; and the men, too, are visibly fearful as they begin fighting. They begin a duel that is much more pitiful than Tajomaru's account had made it sound earlier, and in the end Tajomaru ultimately wins through a stroke of luck.
After some hesitation he killed the samurai, who begged for his life on the ground, and the wife flees in horror. Tajomaru could not catch her, but took the samurai's sword and left the scene limping.
At the conclusion of the film after the woodcutter's version of what he saw, the commoner laughs saying, "so... that's the real story?" sounding somewhat disappointed by the truth. The commoner then asks the priest out of all three stories which one is most believable? At the temple, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion by the sound of a crying baby. They find a baby abandoned in a basket, and the commoner steals a kimono and an amulet that have been left for the baby.
The woodcutter approaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, saying, "The amulet on the kimono. It was left to protect the baby!" The commoner explains to him that if you're not selfish in this world you will die. The woodcutter says, "Damn it. Everyone is selfish and dishonest. The bandit, the woman, the man...and you! " The commoner says, "And you aren't? That's funny. You may have fooled the court, but not me. So...what did you do with the dagger? The valuable one with the pearl inlay that Tajomaru was talking about? A bandit calling another a bandit...Now that's selfish."
Having deduced that the woodcutter in fact stole the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocks him; now knowing why the woodcutter didn't want to tell the authorities the whole story. This simple revelation recasts the woodcutter's story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a new light. The commoner then leaves Rashomon, claiming to the priest that men are motivated only by self-interest and these deceptions and lies shake the priest's faith in humanity.
He is brought back to his senses when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in the priest's arms telling him that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own children. The priest is suspicious at first because of the thief and liar the commoner exposed the woodcutter to be. But the woodcutter explains saying, "It's inevitable to be suspicious of others on a day like this. I'm the one who should be ashamed. I don't understand my own soul."
The priest understands that the woodcutter wants to makeup for his past sins by taking the baby in and says, "Thanks to you, I think I can keep my faith in man," and hands him the baby. The last shot of the film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby in his arms just as the rain stops and the clouds open revealing the sun in contrast to the beginning where it was overcast and dreary.
Kurosawa had a big admiration for silent films and modern art, and it can be seen in the film's minimalist sets. Kurosawa felt that sound cinema multiplies the complexity of a film saying, "Cinematic sound is never merely accompaniment, never merely what the sound machine caught while you took the scene. Real sound does not merely add to the images, it multiplies it." Regarding Rashomon, Kurosawa said, "I like silent pictures and I always have… I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember in this way: one of techniques of modern art is simplification, and that I must therefore simplify this film."
Accordingly, there are only three settings in the film: The Rashomon gate, the woods and the courtyard. The gate and the courtyard are very simply constructed and the woodland is real. This is partly due to the low-budget that Kurosawa got from Daiei. The cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, contributed an enormous amount of ideas and support. For example, in one sequence, there is a series of single close-ups of the bandit, then the wife, and then the husband, which then repeats to emphasize the triangular relationship between them.
When Kurosawa shot Rashomon, the actors and the staff lived together, a system Kurosawa found beneficial. He recalls "We were a very small group and it was as though I was directing Rashomon every minute of the day and night. At times like this, you can talk everything over and get very close indeed."
The use of contrasting shots is another example of techniques in Rashomon. According to Donald Richie, "the length of time of the shots of the wife and of the bandit are the same when the bandit is barbarically crazy and the wife is hysterically crazy." The acting in several of Kurosawa's early films seem very highly emotional and abstract. Kurosawa wasen't looking for realism within the acting but was going more for the style similar to silent films where the actors use their faces, eyes and gestures to express their emotions.
Like most of Kurosawa's early black and white films The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo; Rashomon's cinematography was shot directly into the sun for several of its scenes. In the shots of the actors, Kurosawa wanted to use natural light, but it was too weak; so they solved the problem by using a mirror to reflect the natural light. The result is to make the strong sunlight look as though it has traveled through the branches, hitting the actors. The rain in the film had to be tinted with black ink because camera lenses could not capture rain made with pure water.
Robert Altman compliments Kurosawa's use of dappled light throughout the film, which gives the characters and settings in several of Kurosawa's early black and white films a beautiful profound power. In his essay Rashomon, Tadao Sato suggests that the film unusually uses sunlight to symbolize evil and sin in the film, arguing that the wife gives in to the bandit's desires when she sees the sun. However, Professor Keiko I. McDonald opposes Sato's idea in her essay "The Dialectic of Light and Darkness in Kurosawa’s Rashomon". McDonald says the film conventionally uses light to symbolize "good" or "reason" and darkness to symbolize "bad" or "impulse". She interprets the scene mentioned by Sato differently, pointing out that the wife gives herself to the bandit when the sun slowly fades out.
McDonald also reveals that Kurosawa was waiting for a big cloud to appear over Rashomon gate to shoot the final scene in which the woodcutter takes the abandoned baby home and Kurosawa wanted to show that there might be another dark rain any time soon, even though the sky is clear at this moment. Unfortunately, the final scene appears optimistic because it was too sunny and clear to produce the effects of an overcast sky.
Stanley Kauffman writes in The Impact of Rashomon that Kurosawa often shot a scene with several cameras at the same time, so that he could "cut the film freely and splice together the pieces which have caught the action forcefully, as if flying from one piece to another." Despite this, he also used short shots edited together that trick the audience into seeing one shot. Donald Richie says in his essay that "there are 407 separate shots in the body of the film ... This is more than twice the number in the usual film, and yet these shots never call attention to themselves".
The film depicts the rape of a woman and the murder of her samurai husband through the widely differing accounts of four witnesses, including the bandit/rapist, the wife, the dead man (speaking through a medium), and lastly the woodcutter, the one witness that seems the most objective and least biased. The stories are mutually contradictory and not even the final version can be seen as unmotivated by factors of ego and face. Even the actors kept approaching Kurosawa during the filmmaking wanting to know the truth, which he claimed was not the point of the film as he intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth.
Later film and TV uses of the 'Rashomon effect' focus on revealing "the truth" in a now conventional satisfactory technique that presents the final version of a story as the truth, an approach that only ignores the true meaning and power of Kurosawa's film. Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. James F. Davidson's article "Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashomon" in the December 1954 issue of the Antioch Review, is an early analysis of the World War II defeat elements. Another allegorical interpretation of the film is mentioned briefly in a 1995 article "Japan: An Ambivalent Nation, an Ambivalent Cinema" by David M. Desser. Here, the film is seen as an allegory of the atomic bomb and Japanese defeat. It also briefly mentions James Goodwin's view on the influence of post-war events on the film.
Symbolism runs rampant throughout the film and much has been written on the subject. Bucking tradition, Miyagawa directly filmed the sun through the leaves of the trees, as if to show the light of truth becoming obscured. The gatehouse that we continually return to as the 'home' location for the storytelling serves as a visual metaphor for a gateway into the story, and the fact that the three men at the gate gradually tear it down and burn it as the stories are told is a further comment on the nature of the truth of what they are telling.
Rashomon was produced by Kurosawa's long time partner Daiei and his studio, and it was the biggest moneymaker yet. When it received positive responses in the West, Japanese critics were baffled; some decided that it was only admired there because it was 'exotic,' others thought that it succeeded because it was more 'Western' than most Japanese films.
In a collection of interpretations of Rashomon, Donald Richie writes that "the confines of 'Japanese' thought could not contain the director, who thereby joined the world at large". He also quotes Kurosawa criticizing the way the Japanese are, by saying, "Japanese think too little of our own Japanese things".
Rashomon was screened at the Venice film festival and won both the Italian Critics Award and the Golden Lion award in which introduced Japanese films to western audiences, including western directors. It also introduced Kurosawa's films and techniques, such as shooting directly into the sun and using mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the actor's faces.
When Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon (1950), he was a forty-year-old director working near the beginning of a career that would last fifty years, produce some of the greatest films ever made, and exert a tremendous and lasting influence on filmmaking throughout the world. Rashomon emerged from the journeyman period in his career after he temporarily left Toho, the studio where he’d begun and where he would ultimately make most of his films. During these years, 1949 to 1951, he made movies for Shochiku, Shintoho, and Daiei. Daiei was somewhat reluctant to fund Rashomon, finding the project to be too unconventional and fearing that it would be difficult for audiences to understand. Those fears proved to be groundless—the picture was one of Daiei’s best moneymakers in 1950.
But the film is unconventional, even radical in design, and these attributes only helped to skyrocket it to international fame at a time when art cinema was emerging as a powerful force on the film circuit. With great reluctance, Daiei permitted the film to be submitted for overseas festival competition. Winning first prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1951, Rashomon announced Kurosawa’s talents, and the treasures of Japanese cinema, to the world at large. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Rashomon, based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set during a time of social crisis—in this case, the eleventh century in Japan, a period that Kurosawa uses to reveal the extremities of human behavior. As the picture opens, three characters seek shelter from a driving rainstorm (it never sprinklesin a Kurosawa film!) beneath the ruined Rashomon gate that guards the southern entrance to the imperial capital city of Kyoto. As they wait for the storm to pass, the priest (Minoru Chiaki), the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) discuss a recent and scandalous crime—a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) was raped in the forest, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed by either murder or suicide, and a thief named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested.
When Rashomon played in Venice and then went into international distribution, it stunned audiences. No one had ever seen a film quite like this one. For one thing, its daring, nonlinear approach to narrative shows the details of the crime as they are related, through the flashbacks of those involved. Kurosawa gives us four versions of the same series of events, through the eyes of the woodcutter, the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the husband, each retelling markedly different from the others. Kurosawa’s visionary approach would have enormous cinematic and cultural influence. He bequeathed to world cinema and television a striking narrative device—countless movies and television shows have remade Rashomon by incorporating the contradictory flashbacks of unreliable narrators.
But Rashomon is that rare film that has transcended its own status as film, influencing not just the moving image but the culture at large. Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony.
Furthermore, the film’s nonlinear narrative marked it as a decisively modernist work, and as a part of the burgeoning world art cinema that was transforming the medium in the 1950s. With Rashomon and his subsequent movies, Kurosawa came to rank among the leading international figures of that cinema, in the company of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Satyajit Ray. Like their work, Rashomon was more than just commercial entertainment. It was a film of ideas, made by a serious artist, and with a sophisticated aesthetic design.
For it wasn’t only the film’s modernist narrative that impressed audiences and made it a classic. It was also the tremendous visual skill and power that Kurosawa brought to the screen. Like all his best works, Rashomon is a remarkably sensual film. Nobody has ever filmed forests like Kurosawa. Shooting directly into the sun to make the camera lens flare, probing the filaments of shadows in trees and glades, rendering dense thickets as poetic metaphors for the laws of desire and karma that entrap human beings, and, above all, executing hypnotic camera movements across the uneven forest floor, Kurosawa created in Rashomon the most flamboyant and insistently visual film that anyone had seen in decades. All of the critics who reviewed this picture when it first appeared felt compelled to remark upon the beauty of the director’s imagery.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and re-create the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus, the cinematography (by the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa) and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Fumio Hayasaka’s score carry the action. One of the best such sequences is the long series of moving camera shots that follow the woodcutter into the forest, before he finds the evidence of the crime. These shots, in Kurosawa’s words, lead the viewer “into a world where the human heart loses its way.” Only Kurosawa at his boldest would create such a kinesthetic sequence, in which movement itself—of the camera, the character, and the forest’s foliage—becomes the very point and subject of the scene. Mesmeric, exciting, fluid, and graceful, these are among the greatest moving camera shots in the history of cinema.
Style for Kurosawa is not an empty flourish. The bravura designs of his films are always carefully motivated—this is why he is a great filmmaker. As in all of his outstanding films, in Rashomon Kurosawa is responding to his world as an artist and moralist. The Second World War had devastated Japan. In its aftermath, he embarked— with moral urgency and great artistic ambition—on a series of films (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946; Drunken Angel, 1948; Stray Dog, 1949) that illuminated the despair and confusion of the period and offered narratives of personal heroism as models for social recovery, seeking, in his art, to produce a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.
The heroism and desire for restoration that these stories embodied, however, had to struggle with a dark opposite. What if the world could not be changed because people themselves are weak and easily corrupted? Kurosawa’s films have a tragic dimension that is rooted in his at times pessimistic reflections on human nature, and Rashomon was the first work in which he allowed that pessimism its full expression. Haunted by the human propensity to lie and deceive, Kurosawa fashioned a tale in which the ego, duplicity, and vanity of the characters make a hell out of the world and make truth a difficult thing to find. Whose account of the crime is reliable? Whose is correct? One cannot tell—all are distorted in ways that flatter their narrators.
This is truly a hellish vision—the world dissolves into nothingness as the illusions of the ego strut like shadows on a shifting landscape. Such a dark portrait was too much even for Kurosawa (at this point in his career, at least, but not in 1985, when he made Ran). Thus, at the last moment, he pulls back from the darkness he has revealed. The woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby, and as he walks off with the child, the rainstorm lifts (Takashi Shimura always supplies the moral center in Kurosawa’s films of the forties and early fifties).
Compassionate action transforms the world—this was Kurosawa’s heroic ideal. Is it enough, however? Each viewer of Rashomon must 9 decide whether this abrupt turnabout at the film’s end is a convincing solution to the moral and epistemological dilemmas that Kurosawa has so powerfully portrayed.
But whatever one decides about the film’s conclusion, Rashomon is the real thing—a genuine classic. Its greatness is palpable and undeniable. Kurosawa’s nonlinear narrative and sensual, kinesthetic style helped to change the face of world cinema. And astonishingly, Kurosawa was still a young filmmaker—so many treasures were yet to come.
Rashomon is considered such a groundbreaking film, but it's not just because of it's radical narrative techniques on flashbacks and reality that make it unique, it's the themes on lies and the truth which make this film fascinating. Akira Kurosawa gave the three assistant directors of Daiei a simple explanation on the story when they kept saying the script was too baffling, finally explaining to them: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings, the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave, even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can't understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it."
Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest director's in the world. He has created so many masterpieces of film along the likes of other masters like Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock that it's nearly impossible to pick a favorite of his. Akira Kurosawa is mostly known for his samurai films which became very popular here in the west, which was because of his love of John Ford westerns growing up as a young boy. Kurosawa once wrote in his memoirs, “there is one person, I feel, I would like to resemble as I grow old: The late American film director John Ford.” When he created his groundbreaking masterpiece The Seven Samurai which told a story on about a bunch of farmers being attacked by bandits and who decide to hire seven different samurai's to protect them; it not only now is considered one of the greatest films ever made but it broke new ground when it came to action adventure films and created a genre of its own about a group of men getting together to complete a mission and destroy an enemy.
Kurosawa's other samurai films like Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress were taken on the stories of William Shakespeare and were also very influential for director's like Sergio Leone and George Lucas who had gotten many of their story ideas from many of Kurosawa's films. Kurosawa also created films outside the samurai genre like the noir crime film The Drunken Angel and The Bad Sleep Well which was based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. He also created one of the greatest police procedural thriller's with High and Low, about a rich businessman who is being terrorized by a kidnapper. Red Beard was a film about a town doctor who trains a young intern at a local hospital in 19th century Japan and Kurosawa's most underrated film was Dersu Uzala which told a story about a Russian explorer who befriends a local hunter throughout several years of his life. Ikiru is one of the most spiritual and life-affirming films I have ever scene, as it tells the story about a man who knows he has less than six months to live, and yet he finally sees the importance he can bring to himself and other people. When Kurosawa created what many believe to be his final swan song Ran which is based on the story of King Lear and was Kurosawa's goodbye to the samurai genre; he was in his late 70's and half blind when shooting the film.
The cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa evokes such extraordinary shots of shading, shadows and lighting, as it's been said that Kurosawa used a mirror to reflect the natural life, making it travel and pierce through the branches and trees hitting the actors. The contrast in the film is extremely important as the artistry of the blacks and whites are used to capture the wetness of the rain, it's obscure shade, and the ray beam of the sun. In the woodcutter's opening journey into the woods, this scene is brilliantly silent which creates a hypnotic, eerie and naturalistic power to the film, taking it to another realm of reality. The acting in Rashomon and in many of Kurosawa's films are greatly exaggerated as Kurosawa is clearly not looking for realism. Unlike the films of Yasujiru Ozu, the acting in many of Kurosawa's samurai films are extremely over dramatized, and the level of emotion and the way they express their facial features are much more similar to the films of the silent era. Like the films made in the silent era, most artists weren't looking for subtle realism, and instead the actor's carried the weight and power of their performance by using their face, gestures and eyes to express what they were feeling and thinking.
Rashomon is considered one of the greatest films in the world as it is # 9 on the Directors' Top Ten Poll in 2002 Sight & Sound magazine, it's on film critic Roger Ebert's 'Great Movies' list and # 22 on Empire magazine's The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema in 2010. People always mix lies with the truth and I believe all four witnesses do exactly that. The bandit with his arrogance probably lied about the wife being seduced by his charms and falling passionately in love with him; and also hyping up the sword fight with the samurai; making it sound more exciting and thrilling then it probably was. The reason I believe the bandit lied about all those things was because the bandit has an ego and won't admit he was rejected by a woman; or that he's not as dangerous as he makes himself out to be. The wife probably lied about her fainting or passing out because she didn't want to admit she probably egged the two men on to fight for the death to save her own life. And even the samurai probably lied through the words of the medium on his respectable suicide probably out of honor of the samurai tradition; of not fighting for a woman who now wasn't considered a respectable wife. (Or the medium could be a fake too; and is also lying.)
A lot of people have come up with their own theory on which story they believed was the truth or at least 'closest' to the truth. Most people believe it was the woodcutter's final story when finally confessing to the commoner that he actually witnessed the whole thing. Seeing this a third time now I came to my own conclusion that the woodcutter's story is the least believable. For instance, he had to be hiding farther back and out of sight to not have been seen by the others and because of this his visibility and hearing on what really happened is questionable. Not only must his visibility and hearing be questionable but so are his motives in telling the whole truth. He didn't tell the whole story to the authorities because he knew when stealing the dagger he would have been questioned on it; so what makes you think his second version he told to the commoner isn't anymore questionable? I always had this interesting theory that maybe Tajomaru left the samurai tied up to go recapture his wife and while the samurai was alone; the woodcutter came out and stole the dagger for profit; but not before killing the samurai so he wouldn't talk. But when really thinking out that theory logically it doesn't really hold up with everyone else's stories; but it's still fun to always ponder. Some of the best works of art are the ambiguous ones, the ones that contain several different interpretations, because I believe the real fun of art is asking the questions, because giving the answers can be a form of defeat. Rashomon is one of Akira Kurosawa's best films and also one of his most creative because it tells a story that's explores the questions of why human's lie then trying to answer or reveal a solution to what really happened to the dead samurai. Film cameras have been known to record the truth, and so we usually believe what we see. Rashomon tells us to question everything, and that anything can be manipulated and fabricated to have people accept what they are seeing or hearing is the literal truth. (The media and the news springs to mind.) In many ways we are all like the commoner in the film; and can care less about the exact truth as long as the lies in the story we are hearing are entertaining. The genius of Rashomon is that all the witnesses testimonies are both true and false, and right and wrong. It is true that each interpretation that is told is completely accurate to the witness that is telling it. And yet at the same time it is false because most people liars, like Kurosawa states in his autobiography, "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing."According to a national study 91% of people lie on an everyday basis; which is very frightening. People lie for several reasons whether it's ego, self-esteem, or something even more diabolical which is to gain advantage over another person or a situation. It's human nature to lie, and Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece is one of the greatest films to express that.