This article comes from the Criterion website and was written by Stephen Price, dated March 26, 2002. This is a movie I finally saw this past week. I highly recommend it…
When Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon, he was a forty-year-old director working near the beginning of a career that would last for 50 years, produce some of the greatest films ever made, and exert a tremendous and lasting influence on filmmaking throughout the world. Rashomon emerged from a journeyman period in Kurosawa’s career, when, from 1949 to 1951, he severed ties with Toho, the studio where he began and where he would make most of his films. During these years, he made films for Shochiku, Shin Toho, and Daiei. Daiei was somewhat reluctant to fund Rashomon, finding the proposed film to be too unconventional and feared that it would be difficult for audiences to understand. The fears were groundless––the picture was one of Daiei’s best moneymakers in 1950.
The film is unconventional, even radical in design, but these attributes only helped to skyrocket it to overseas fame at a time when art cinema was emerging as a powerful force on the international film circuits. With great reluctance, Daiei submitted the film to overseas festival competition. Winning first prize at the prestigious 1951 Venice Film Festival, 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––pestilence, fires, civil war––in 11th century Japan, a period Kurosawa uses to reveal the extremities of human behavior. As the film opens, three characters seek shelter from a driving rainstorm (it never sprinkles in a Kurosawa film!) beneath the ruined Rashomon gate that guards the southern entrance to the court capital. 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 as a result of either murder or suicide, and a thief named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was arrested for the crime.
When the film played at the Venice Festival and went into international distribution thereafter, it stunned its audiences. No one had ever seen a film quite like this one. For one thing, its daring, nonlinear approach to narrative showed the details of the crime as they are related through the flashbacks of witnesses or participants. Kurosawa shows four versions of the crime, as related by the woodcutter, the woman, Tajomaru, and the spirit of the husband. Thus, the narrative continually retraces the same series of events, four times over. Each retelling, however, is different from the others, and Kurosawa’s visionary approach would have enormous cinematic and cultural influence as he bequeathed to world cinema and television a striking narrative device––multiple flashbacks of a key event that fail to conform to one another. Countless movies and television shows have remade Rashomon by incorporating the contradictory flashbacks of unreliable narrators.
But the film has influenced more than just cinema. It has had a huge impact on modern culture. Rashomon is that rare film which has transcended its own status as film. Rashomon has entered the common parlance of everyday culture 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 first-hand witnesses of crime confront them with contradictory testimony.
Furthermore, the film’s nonlinear narrative decisively marked it as a 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 films, Kurosawa came to rank among the leading international figures of the art 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 with a sophisticated aesthetic design.
But it wasn’t only the film’s modernist narrative that impressed audiences and helped make it a classic. It was also the tremendous visual skill and power that Kurosawa brought to the screen. Like 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 glade and clearing, rendering dense thickets as poetic metaphors for the laws of desire and karma that entrap human beings, and, above all, fashioning sensuous and 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 visual beauty of Kurosawa’s imagery.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and recreate the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus, the cinematography (by the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa) and the 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. Hypnotic, 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 is the case with all his outstanding films, in Rashomon Kurosawa is responding to his world as 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, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog), illuminating the despair and confusion of the period with narratives of personal heroism that offered models for social recovery. The heroes of these films were to be role models for the postwar generation, as Kurosawa sought, in his art, to produce a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.
The heroism and the ambitions for social recovery that these films embody, however, had to struggle with a dark opposite. What if the world cannot 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 the nature of human being, and Rashomon is the first work in which he allowed that pessimism its full expression. Haunted by the human propensity to lie and deceive, Kurosawa, here, fashions 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 the narrators.
This is truly a hellish vision––the world dissolves into nothingness as the illusions of the ego strut as shadows on a shifting landscape. Such a dark portrait was too much even for Kurosawa (at this point in his career, but not later, when he made Ran). Thus, at the last moment, he pulls back from the darkness he has revealed. The woodcutter (played by Takashi Shimura, who supplies the moral center in Kurosawa’s films of the ‘40s and early ‘50s) decides to adopt an abandoned baby, and as he walks off with this child, the rainstorm lifts. Compassionate action transforms the world––this was Kurosawa’s heroic ideal. Is it enough, however? Each viewer of Rashomon must 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 of world cinema. The film’s greatness is palpable and undeniable. Kurosawa’s nonlinear narrative and sensual, kinesthetic style helped to change the face of cinema. And astonishingly, Kurosawa was still a young filmmaker––so many treasures were yet to come.