The German filmmaker Werner Herzog said that Rashomon is the closest to “perfect” a film can get. However when first released most Japanese critics called the film a failure: It failed in “visualizing the style of the original stories,” was “too complicated,” “too monotonous,” and contained “too much cursing.” No surprise. No filmmaker is without honour except in his country is valid in this case. Rashomon can be said to have introduced Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audiences, and is one among the 100 best films. The film’s concept has influenced an extensive variety of subsequent works notably in the 1964 western movie The Outrage, which starred Paul Newman, Claire Bloom and Edward G. Robinson. Much has been written of its allegorical and symbolic content to which I shall come back anon.
The film is based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (“Rashomon” provides the setting, while “In a Grove” provides the characters and plot. “In a Grove” predates the film adaptation by 28 years).
It opens with a priest, a woodcutter, and a peasant taking refuge from a downpour beneath a ruined gate in 12th-century Japan. The priest and the woodcutter, each looking stricken, discuss the trial of a notorious bandit for rape and murder. As the retelling of the trial unfolds, the participants in the crime — the bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the rape victim (Machiko Kyo), and the murdered man (Masayuki Mori) — tell their plausible though completely incompatible versions of the story. In the bandit’s version, he and the man wage a spirited duel after the rape, resulting in the man’s death. In the woman’s testimony, she is spurned by her husband after being raped. Hysterical with grief, she kills him. In the man’s version, speaking through the lips of a medium, the bandit beseeches the woman after the rape to go away with him. She insists that the bandit kill her husband first, which angers the bandit. He spurns her and leaves. The man kills himself. Seized with guilt, the woodcutter admits to the shocked priest and the commoner that he too witnessed the crime. His version is equally feasible, although his veracity is questioned when it is revealed that he stole a dagger from the crime scene. Just as all seems bleak and hopeless, a baby appears behind the gate. The commoner seizes the moment and steals the child’s clothes, while the woodcutter redeems himself and humanity in the eyes of the troubled priest, by adopting the infant.(ack: Jonathan Crow)
The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and also received an Academy Honorary Award (the Best Foreign Language Film award before 1956) at the 25th Academy Awards
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Minoru Jingo
Written by Akira Kurosawa
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (short stories)
Starring Toshirō Mifune
Daisuke Katō (policeman)
Music by Fumio Hayasaka
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Editing by Akira Kurosawa
Distributed by Daiei (Japan)
Release date(s) Aug 25, 1950 (Japan)
Dec 26, 1951 (USA)
Running time 88 mins
The film was produced by Daiei. The head of the company didn’t understand what the film was about, and the company was reluctant to support the film so they gave the director only a small budget, roughly $5,000 USD. However, despite their doubts, the company gave the film a two-week premiere, twice as long as usual.
In a collection of interpretations of Rashomon, Donald Richie quotes Kurosawa criticizing the way the “Japanese think too little of our own [Japanese] things.”
According to documentaries on Kurosawa and Rashomon, Japanese audiences were shocked at two places in the film. The first occurred when the medium speaks using the dead man’s voice and words. The other shocking scene occurs when the woman begs her assailant to kill her husband and safeguard her own honor. That level of blatant self-preservation was not previously depicted in Japanese films.
The film pioneered several cinematographic techniques, such as shooting directly into the sun and using mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the actor’s faces. In the shots of the actors, Kurosawa wanted to use natural light, but it was too weak; the problem was solved by using a mirror to reflect the natural light. The result is to make the strong sunlight look dappled and toned down: does it signify truth toned down from different viewpoints?) The rain in the film had to be tinted with black ink because camera lenses couldn’t capture rain made with pure water.
The film is also notable as an instance in which the camera “acts” or plays an active and important role in the story or its symbolism.
From the horse’s mouth:
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.”
Kurosawa’s admiration for silent film and modern art can be seen in the film’s minimalist sets. Accordingly, there are only three settings in the film: Rashōmon gate, the woods and the courtyard. The gate and the courtyard are very simply constructed and the woodland is real. This may be partly due to budget constraints.
“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.” Kurosawa
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.
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.
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; 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.”
Allegorical and symbolic content
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. An allegorical interpretation of the film is mentioned briefly in a 1995 article “Japan: An Ambivalent Nation, an Ambivalent Cinema” by David M. Desser.
Symbolism runs rampant throughout the film and much has been written on the subject. Miyagawa stated in an interview that the forest setting was symbolic of the mystery shrouding the actual details of the dramatic events. Even the commoner plays a significant symbolic role, nearly as important as the principal characters, as the representative of the common man who has to look to self-interest above all competing considerations.
Influence on philosophy
The political scientist Graham Allison claimed to have used Rashomon as a starting point for his magnum opus, Essence of Decision, in which he told the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from three different theoretical viewpoints (ack: wikipedia)
Gate of Hell (1953, Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Four Times That Night (1972, Mario Bava)
Atanarjuat the Fast Runner (2001, Zacharias Kunuk)
La Commare Secca (1962, Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Samurai Trilogy (1954, Hiroshi Inagaki)
The Woman in Question (1950, Anthony Asquith)
Aswesuma (2001, Bennett Rathnayake)
Hero (2002, Zhang Yimou)
Reflections on a Crime (1994, Marco Black, Jon Purdy)
Movies with the Same Personnel
The Bad Sleep Well (1960, Akira Kurosawa)
High and Low (1962, Akira Kurosawa)
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
The Lower Depths (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
The Hidden Fortress (1958, Akira Kurosawa)
Drunken Angel (1948, Akira Kurosawa)
Other Related Movies
is featured in: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999, Jim Jarmusch)
is related to: Iron Maze (1991, Hiroaki Yoshida)
Kurosawa (2001, Adam Low)
Faithless (1998, Raul Sanchez Inglis)
The X-Files: Bad Blood (1998, Cliff Bole)
One Night at McCool’s (2001, Harald Zwart)
Vantage Point (2008, Pete Travis)
Courage Under Fire (1996, Edward Zwick)
A Moment of Innocence (1996, Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
influenced: Wrong Number (2001, Richard Middleton)
has been remade as: The Outrage (1964, Martin Ritt)