I’m writing today about my second favourite Akira Kurosawa film. My all time favourite film from Kurosawa is Ikiru. Coming in a close second though is Rashomon. This is a film that I never get tired of watching.
Rashomon is a film that you can have a great deal of fun analysing and discussing. It is so expertly put together and it looks stunning from a visual perspective too. The cast are also all at their very best playing characters who are all very hard to forget.
Long before films like The Innocents, L’ Avventura, and Picnic At Hanging Rock left us to decide for ourselves the truth of what we had just watched. Long before Quentin Tarantino played around with making films in a non linear style. Long before this type of filmmaking was even appreciated by film audiences and critics, there was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
Kurosawa directed the film. He also wrote the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto. The film is based upon the short story, In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
Several Japanese studios turned this film down. Eventually Kurosawa was allowed to make it at Daiei Studios. He chose legendary cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa to work on the film. Miyagawa would go on to work on a lot of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. He would also work with Ozu, and would work again with Kurosawa on Yojimbo and Kagemusha. His work on this film is among his very best.
Anyone who watches this film will usually be full of praise for the photography. I especially love the photography in the sequence with the medium. I also love the shot of the wife in the forest,through the trees behind her there is a patch of light shining through that makes the trees behind her look like a cross.
This film tells the same event from the different perspectives of the three characters involved within it, and also from the perspective of a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed some of it. We as the viewer are then left to decide which depiction (if any of them are to believed at all)is actually the truth.
I love the approach Kurosawa took with this film. It makes us think about whether or not we should take the characters memories to be facts. It makes you even wonder if you can trust what the camera is showing you. The film also makes you question everything you are seeing and hearing and leaves you to makeup your own mind about the characters and their experiences.
I even wonder if there is actually any proof to show that the entire story we are following is actually real. After all, everything we see begins with a story uttered by the woodcutter, but is he just making the whole thing up? Or is he simply telling a folktale or ghost story to help himself and the other two men pass the time? Are the flashbacks a reality in the film, or nothing more than an intriguing fantasy or story?
I also have a theory that the film is making us the judge and jury of the film. The courtroom sequence is like no court you’ve ever seen. The witnesses give their testimony directly to the camera (therefore directly to us). We serve as the judge, the lawyers, the members of the public in the gallery etc. This court sequence is also a memory (or fabrication)from the mind of the woodcutter, it is not presented to us in the typical way such a scene would have been had it been depicting a reality on the screen. Kurosawa is showing us from the beginning that we are to make up our own minds about what is going on here.
The film also toys with our perceptions of people. For example if you believe the bandit raped the wife and killed the husband, then something in you must look at him and see him as a rough, despicable stereotype capable of that act to accept that story. If you believe that the woman was a victim, then you accept her story because you don’t believe her capable of lying about it. If you believe that the woman made the bandit kill the husband, then you believe that you shouldn’t take things at face value, instead you should look a little deeper at everyone involved. The film is also showing us that no two people will ever see the same event in exactly the same way, everyone has such different perceptions of something they witness.
It’s like the film is showing us that everyone is more complicated inside than they might appear on the outside. Life is full of good and bad. Life is full of events that often happen without a reason. People can end up doing unexpected things. Life is shocking, weird and very frightening at times, yet there is always good around if you look for it.
The non linear style of the film and story was very new to audiences at the time. Some people found it (and still find it)infuriating that they didn’t get obvious and easy answers to what exactly happened in that forest. If done correctly (as in this case)such infuriating films can often end up being brilliant and thought provoking.
This film was responsible for bringing Japanese cinema to the attention of Western audiences. The film won an award at The Venice Film Festival, and it also won an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Kurosawa’s name was to become well known in the west once this film arrived there.
Soon the names of other directors like Mizoguchi and Ozu would be as well known and respected as Kurosawa’s outside of Japan. Western filmmakers would even travel to Japan to shoot films on location there.
The film is set in eleventh century Japan. The film begins with three men; one is a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one is a Priest (Minoru Chiaki), and the other is a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The men are taking shelter from a rainstorm under the decaying Rashomon Gate. This structure was a real giant gate(more of a building than the type of gate we would know of today) to a walled city, which was built during the Heian Period.
By the 12th century this gate had fallen into ruin, and it had become a place for people to leave corpses, unwanted babies, and for thieves to use as a hideout. Nothing remains of the gate today, apart from a marker commemorating it on the site where the gate once stood. When the film was being made the gate had long since gone, so Kurosawa had a full scale replica built on the studios outdoor set.
While they wait out the storm, the woodcutter tells the other two men the story of a murder. He claims to have found the body of a murdered man (Masayuki Mori)in the woods. A bandit was later captured and arrested for the crime. We then see in flashback the different versions of the events that led to the murder of the dead man.
The first depicts the bandit (Toshiro Mifune)forcing himself upon the dead man’s wife (Machiko Kyo). At first she resists him, but then she gives herself to him, and then convinces him to kill her husband (who the bandit has tied up, thereby forcing him to watch what the bandit was doing to his wife).
The second shows the wife get raped. After the attack her husband wants nothing to do with her. She passes out from the shock of what has happened. When she wakes up her husband is dead.
The third version is conveyed by a medium who contacts the dead man. He claims that his wife was raped, but that she then asked the bandit to kill him. The man claims he felt great shame and took his own life in a ritual suicide.
The woodcutter’s version of events has the wife being raped, but then the wife encourages the two men to fight one another. During this fight her husband is then killed.
An event at the end of the film restores our faith in humanity. It also restores the faith of the woodcutter, priest, and the commoner.
Some people think the acting in this is a bit over the top. I think Japanese cinema is all about emotions, and in making the viewer really feel those emotions. Sometimes some actors performances can come across as being heightened, but I don’t see that as being a bad thing.
Mifune’s performance can certainly be seen as being quite theatrical in this. Mifune was often a very intense and physical actor, and he really used his body and gestures quite a bit during scenes. He steals every second of screen time in this film. Be it with his facial expressions, his body language, his laughter, or his constant swatting and squashing of flies.
Machiko Kyo is much more subtle and natural in her performance. Her performance is all in the eyes. When she is on screen she has your attention and she makes you feel what her character is going through.
Masayuki Mori is also quite subtle in his performance. He conveys how watchful and alert his character is very well. I also really like how defeated, depressed, and beaten he becomes in his version of events where he walks off into the forest.
The rest of the cast are all solid. I find Japanese actors to be more emotional and expressive than many from other countries. I think that this emotional quality and intensity works well for the film to be honest. Mifune, Shimura and Kyo would all bgo on to become actors well known outside of Japan thanks to their performances in this film.
My favourite scenes are the following. The sequence with the medium, where she gets in touch with the spirt of the husband. The wife giving her version of events at court. The bandit pushing through some branches to get to the wife. The opening sequence with the three men at the Rashomon gate. The wife watching her husband and the bandit duel. The woodcutter finding the body in the woods.
What do you think of this film?