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Rashomon

Rashomon

By Arpad Lukacs • December 16th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
RASHOMON (MOVIE)
Daiei Film

Original release: August 25th, 1950
Running time: 88 minutes

Country of origin Japan
Original language Japanese

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto,

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Ky?

Rashomon

Every once in a while, the way I encounter a great cinematic classic reminds me that I’m part of a generation that receives much information about the past emerging from a modern world. I first heard about the famous black and white Akira Kurosawa classic Rashomon when I watched an episode of The X-Files that fascinated me. The delightfully weird episode titled Jose Chung’s From Outer Space introduced me to the storytelling device known as the “Rashomon Effect” that was first used in Kurosawa’s film in 1950. What really amazed me was how – in spite of the many odd things that occurred in this episode – it felt so realistic in the way it showed that truth can be elusive; perspective is deceptive and sometimes the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. Not long after, I was off to watch Rashomon to see where the fascinating narrative mechanism came from.

What’s most intriguing about the Rashomon Effect on screen is its visualising of the imagination or perceived reality of characters in the story. The only aspect of Kurosawa’s Rashomon that we can believe to be objective and factual is a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) taking shelter from the heavy rain while discussing a murder and its aftermath. All else in the film is subjective and as different versions of the same events are shown; subjective also becomes contradictory. The crime in question is the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Ky?) by Tajomaru, a notorious bandit (Toshiro Mifune). The subsequent trial where the woodcutter and the priest are present is the place where truth begins to elude the judge who is kept off-screen throughout and his voice is never heard. Kurosawa gives us the judge’s perspective; which is a difficult place to be as the trial itself is fundamentally subjective; merely recounted by the priest and the woodcutter.
Rashomon

Looking for objective truth in this maze of subjectivity is the genius of Rashomon that holds us from beginning to end. The bandit tells his version of events first; and although we’re tempted to distrust this strangely unpleasant criminal, his willingness to admit to committing the murder makes his story somewhat plausible. However, like many rapists do, he claims his victim, the samurai’s wife “enjoyed” being subjected to rape. Therefore we look forward to hearing the ‘truth’ from the wife, but her testimony also turns out to be a fishy account of the events. She’s inexplicably masochistic, mildly implicating herself in the murder and by now we’re puzzled by a mysterious dagger that disappeared in the aftermath.

Kurosawa at this point makes it clear that truth may never be known by bringing a medium to the court who ‘channels’ the dead samurai’s testimony. All hope seems to be lost in finding out what really happened until it’s revealed that the woodcutter also witnessed the murder – but he too, has something to hide.

There are a number of classics in the history of cinema that I think should be recommended to a younger generation above others. “It has it all” is a phrase normally used to describe films with a variety of traits to appeal to a wide range of moviegoers – and this is really true for Rashomon. It has that esoteric and Rashomonthoughtful contemplation about perspective and the nature of reality with occasionally asking if self-deception can be genuinely real or we can only try to deceive others. But a gender studies approach is no less valid in a story where the female character is prey to one and possession to another. The bandit’s somewhat “Mizoguchi-esque” obsession is visualised as a form of worship that unsurprisingly turns violent not long after. The woman’s role is modified as new versions of the events are told, and Slavoj Žižek notes the way “male authority is weakened step by step, and feminine desire is asserted” as the story progresses.

The visuals masterfully underpin content in so many ways that I feel reluctant to just pick one or two things to mention as all else would be just as significant and exceptional. The bandit’s perception of a beautiful woman elevates her to an angelic figure with Kurosawa’s often-praised use of light that effortlessly shames the use of CGI of most films made today. The scene of the crime where so much is uncertain is the chaotic jungle with frequent use of disorienting camera work and editing that’s in high contrast with the scene of the trial where there is strict visual order with parallel lines and clean surfaces. As the trial progresses and a medium is called upon, Kurosawa changes the direction of light and begins to move the static camera from one place to another to emphasise the unreliable nature of this unusual testimony – or perhaps to confirm the supernatural presence of an ‘Onryo’.

SOURCES:

  • Žižek, Slavoj The Parallax View (2009), MIT Press

I could go on about the things that have kept and will keep the film enthusiasts busy analysing Rashomon, but the reason I think this film should be highly recommended to newcomers – much like I was – to the world of cinema classics is its ability to work academic content into an entertaining and visually stunning film. This is what I mean when I say “it has it all”, and as often as this phrase is used to describe films, it’s actually a quality that’s rarely applicable in such literal way.

Comparing the visuals favourably to the CGI extravaganza we so often see nowadays is not some snobbish disapproval of modern special effects – it’s a comment on Kurosawa’s skills to make an incredibly beautiful film. The crime and the subsequent contradictory accounts add up to a suspenseful story that keeps both academics and casual viewers interested throughout. The combination of these various factors coming together in just one film makes a unique composite; an unmissable, classic that must be on the ‘to watch’ list of everyone who occasionally sits down to stare at moving images in a frame.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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