Movies We Like
—The skeptical commoner's response to the conflicting testimonies sums up the plight of man in Akira Kurosawa's multilayered film.
A landmark in Asian cinema, 1950's Rashomon thrust director Akira Kurosawa into the spotlight of western audiences and cemented him as a celebrated filmmaker worldwide. Based on two short stories penned by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, In a Grove and Rashomon, the film tells the story (or stories) of a recent rape and murder that took place in the forest. Days after the crime, three bystanders sort through the details and recount the testimonies of the parties involved. Through a series of flashbacks of each witness’s account, the event in question is shown multiple times, each with significant difference in detail. But which is the true story?
The film opens on a torrential rainy day. Large wooden pillars and stone steps are drenched as a deluge spills down from the sky. A wide shot reveals the film's setting: the ominous, tattered Rashomon gate towers alone in the frame, half of its roof jagged and frayed. Beneath its covering, two men, like statues, squat on the stone stoop, their gaze vacantly fixed outward towards the horizon. From their outfits, it is apparent this is not a modern story. In fact, it is the 13th century. "I just don't understand," one mutters to himself in disbelief.
The rain continues to pour. Suddenly from afar, a man scurries through the puddled mud towards the gate. Relentlessly, he hurriedly high-steps to the stone stairs. Once ascended, he turns to see from whence he came as he wrings his drenched hat and wipes the water from his face. His reprieve from the elements is short-lived, interrupted by the muttering man in the center of the gate. The commoner approaches the dazed duo and inquires of them their bemusement. "I've never heard such a strange story," the man replies to the newcomer. His stoic companion, a Buddhist priest, agrees. Having recently returned from the courthouse, both men stood as witnesses to a murder trial. The commoner shrugs at hearing this news. Murder, as a practice, is a widespread occurrence. But the priest remains adamant— not this story. Famine, fire, war, bandits, and plagues are, indeed, commonplace events. This story, however, remains a mystery. With the commoner's interest now fully piqued, the mystery of Rashomon begins to unfold.
When asked for the meaning of Rashomon, Kurosawa would often reply, "It's about a rape." Although his comment was facetious, it also was quite astute. For all its complexity, the film's mystery, plot, quest, etc.is encapsulated by this straightforward story within a story. A noble samurai and his wife are ambushed by a notorious bandit in the forest, who subsequently rapes the woman and kills the husband. The film begins days after this at the Rashomon gate. After a visiting commoner drops in seeking refuge from the rain, he begins to learn (with the audience) what transpired on that fateful day. This actual event is never seen by the audience however, but only portrayed through retellings of the testimonies heard by the two men (one, a woodcutter, the other, a priest) at the judicial trial. It is second and sometimes third-hand information. In each, the audience is shown the variations of accounts with enough differentiation to show that some, if not all, are lying. In this sense, the film is a mystery, but not exactly one meant to be solved. There are four complete versions of the anecdote in all:
1. The bandit's (heard from the bandit, told by the woodcutter and priest).
2. The woman's (heard from the woman, told by the woodcutter and priest).
3. The husband's (heard through a medium, told by the woodcutter and priest).
4. The woodcutter's (told by the woodcutter).
Throughout each story, the audience is forced to scrutinize not just the details of the story, but the two raconteurs as well. As they begin the bandit's account, the film cuts to an outdoor trial where he speaks directly into the camera, at us. Here at the trial, Kurosawa emphatically puts the viewer in the highly entertaining position of juror and judge. In between recounts of the story, the commoner at Rashomon gate acts as our voice as he inquires and explores the issue on our behalf. Ever cynical, he doubts the honesty of the woodcutter and laughs at the obvious inability for the real truth to surface. Meanwhile, the woodcutter and priest emotionally struggle to reconcile the stories not only with each other, but with their belief in the goodness of man. The versions of the story share many familiar traits and details, but differ in creative ways that not only keep the viewer surprised and guessing, but also reveal the self-protective, self-deceiving traits of human nature.
Through the contemplative eyes of the three men at the gate, Kurosawa's intentions for the film are made clear. His preoccupation is not with the nature of truth, but of man. It is not what actually occurred in the forest that matters. That truth can never fully be known. Rather, it is reality that is questioned; man's perception of truth and his ability to know it. From the bandit's account onward, it becomes most apparent that someone is lying. The commoner continues to make several assumptions/accusations of such throughout the film. It is not that men are deliberate liars (although there are certainly instances of this). The issue runs much deeper. The bandit, woman, husband, and woodcutter may or may not know they are lying. Their unique points of view belie their true self-perception, placing them either as hero or victim in the story. In the case of the bandit, he is guilty and admits to killing the husband. He does not contest the charge, but instead seeks to inflate his own ego through his testimony. Later, during the husband's testimony, the deceased speaks through a medium whereby he claims it was his own disdain for his victimized wife that ultimately caused his death. Even from beyond the grave, his conceit is clearly displayed. The woodcutter, a passerby to the event, intentionally withholds certain aspects of the story for dubious and possibly self-incriminating reasons.
Despite this overt deception of the characters however, Kurosawa's central question in all these matters is not if these men are telling the truth, but whether they actually can tell the truth. Throughout his films, Kurosawa explored this idea of self-deception, fascinated by how men view themselves and seek to live into that illusion. Whether it is the self-aggrandizing view of his Shakespearean protagonists (i.e. Ran, Throne of Blood, and Kagemusha) or the blurring of the concept of "good men" (i.e. Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), Kurosawa sought to portray men as how they really are. In the case of Rashomon, the ego's mysterious and dark nature is laid out. The day before principle photography on the film was to begin, Kurosawa was approached by his three assistant directors, entreating him to explain the meaning of the perplexing story. He told them instead to go home and read it one more time carefully. They refused, insisting the director explain it plainly in his own words. Taken aback by their persistence, he relented and gave them this simple explanation:
"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. 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."
Kurosawa's words satisfied two of the three assistant directors (he fired the third one), and the shoot began the next day as scheduled. But the three detractors weren't the only ones uncertain as to the film's meaning. Masaichi Nagata, head of Daiei Studio, admitted after an initial screening that he could barely understand the film. Even during some screenings in Japan, a commentator was hired to talk throughout the film, offering hints as to the plot's explanation. Ironically, Kurosawa had sought to simplify the script. Knowing the depth and complexity of the story, he made sure the script was straightforward and bare, allowing him to focus on the visual aspect of the film.
Having already directed 11 films prior to Rashomon, Kurosawa was already experienced behind the camera. After Rashomon, however, he established a lasting visual style preoccupied with both composition and economy, something he had admired from the silent era. "Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s," he wrote in his 1982 memoir, "I felt we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past." Rashomon would provide Kurosawa the appropriate palette to return to cinematic roots. He relished the chance to experiment with a supremely visual narrative. To prepare, he scoured older silent films studying their form to understand what gave them their visual power. As a result, Rashomon is very much like a silent film in its mise en scène. "The camera," as cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa put it, "has a starring role." From the famous and oft-cited forest entry scene, it becomes evident from the beginning of the film that Rashomon is going to "show" us the story.
Miyagawa's camera follows the woodcutter (played by Takashi Shimura) into the depths of the forest. It is a long, beautiful montage with sweeping and visually stunning camera work, symbolizing the film's entry into the dark unknown thickets of human nature. Throughout the scenes in the forest, one can't help but notice the important role that light plays in the story. Ever cascading down through the trees, it provides a powerful dramatic texture to the film. The shadows of leaves are always present, obscuring the characters' faces and adding mood and depth. Shooting in the middle of the forest meant utilizing natural light to its fullest. At times, crew members were forced to scramble up trees to remove branches in order to bring in more light. For the duration of the shoot, a body-length mirror, stolen from the wardrobe department, was used to reflect the sun onto scenes that needed additional luminescence. In addition to the photography, Kurosawa's camera work had never been more precise or sure than Rashomon. His framing, pacing, and blocking of shots, especially in the forest scenes, underscore (as they did in the silent era) the emotional state of the characters. Centering around the three figures in the forest, Kurosawa was faced with the visual challenge of showing the same story multiple times without losing the audience's interest or understanding. His approach was to film each story as straightforward and unique as if it were the true story. Each, then, is presented as a possible reality.
What Kurosawa cares for is the storyteller's point of view. Kurosawa moves around the characters quite fluidly, cutting in and around this triangle throughout the film. Taking care to preserve a triangular pattern throughout, Kurosawa is ever-mindful of the spatial distance and position between the characters, depending on where their emotional state is. The most interesting constantly changing elements both dramatically and thematically are the characters. The bandit, Tajomaru, (played by then unknown Toshiro Mifune) is defiant and brash at his trial hearing. He laughs and snarls at the camera unpredictably. His story is one of heroism, kinetic action, and macho fortitude. The woman's story by contrast is fearful, desperate, and emotional. The husband's is brooding and resentful. Throughout each, the actors' shifts in composure and tone are highly intriguing. Although more exaggerated for western sensibilities long past the silent era, there are understated nuances that are easy to miss.
The way Tajomaru handles and approaches the wife, or how her gaze moves from sad to swoon to scorn are examples of the actors' more subtle intuitive abilities. During rehearsal, Kurosawa showed his principle actors old footage of wild cats. When a lion appeared on the film, roaming about predatorily, Kurosawa pointed him out to Mifune, encouraging him to embody its characteristics. Mifune took note and his performance in Rashomon is undoubtedly and captivatingly animalistic. Mifune, like many of the film's actors, would continue to work with Kurosawa on several other films (in fact, four of the Seven Samurai star in Rashomon).
Once the theatrical run of Rashomon had ended, Kurosawa moved to do a more modern story. His next film, The Idiot, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel, was met with scathing critical disdain. Seen as a failure, Kurosawa met with the heads of Daiei Studio where he was informed he would not be making another film for them. Deeply saddened, he opted to walk home rather than take the train. During the commute, he resigned himself to being poor again and arrived home feeling depressed. Walking up to the door, his wife suddenly burst out from the house with exuberant shouts of "Congratulations." Rashomon, unbeknownst to Kurosawa, had been entered into the Venice International Film Festival and won the Grand Prix award. An Italian representative had seen the film and requested it for entry into the festival. It went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1952 and put not only Kurosawa, but Asian cinema as a whole on the map. The legendary director would later shrug off the laurels of his breakout film, but it is undeniable that Rashomon, with its depth and beauty, is a landmark film worthy of consideration as a masterpiece.
Rashomon won an honorary Oscar in 1952 for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for an Oscar in 1953 for Best Art Direction Set-Direction Black-and-White (Takashi Matsuyama, H. Matsumoto).