A cinematic masterpiece about the nature of truth, by one of cinema’s greatest film directors
Through reading about and watching classic films, this blog aims to expose the reader to vital aspects of cinema such as genres, movie stars, directors, technical achievements, artistic leaps, and other facets that have shaped movies. No true knowledge of cinema would be complete without exposure to the work of one of its most creative and outstanding directors, Akira Kurosawa, and this week’s film “Rashomon” provides an exemplary showcase of his cinematic gifts and contributions.
"Rashomon's" unconventional storytelling, visual beauty, and technical ingenuity had audiences and filmmakers around the world take notice, and it put Kurosawa and Japanese cinema on the world map. Winner of a multitude of awards (including the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and an Honorary Foreign Language Film Academy Award (before that category even existed), this film continuously appears on many greatest film lists, including as the 4th Greatest Foreign-Language Film of All-Time in a BBC Culture critics poll, the 10th Greatest Film of All-Time by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, and the 7th Greatest Japanese Film of All-Time by Japan's famed Cinema Junpo magazine. I was blown away the first time I saw this extraordinary film and can honestly say it remains spellbindingly fresh, relevant, and gripping every time I watch it. In the book "Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin", the acclaimed German film director Herzog summed it up nicely: "I have always wondered how Kurosawa made something as good as 'Rashomon', the equilibrium and flow are perfect, and he uses space in such a well-balanced way. It is one of the best films ever made”.
"Rashomon” takes place in the Heian era (sometime between the eight and twelfth centuries) in Kyoto, Japan, and begins as we find two despondent men, a woodcutter and a priest, taking cover from the rain in the dilapidated Rashomon city gate. The woodcutter speaks first, repeating “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand” – which in a strange way will serve as the theme of the movie. A commoner suddenly arrives also taking shelter from the downpour, and the woodcutter repeats “I don’t understand”. The commoner asks him to elaborate, and the woodcutter and priest reveal they have both seen and heard a strange, unsettlingly story which they begin to describe. It took place in the woods three days ago and involved a bandit, a samurai and his wife, a death, and a rape.The woodcutter and priest both subsequently testified in court as witnesses and also heard the testimonies of the bandit, the wife, and the samurai.
What makes “Rashomon” riveting entertainment is that every recollection of what happened in the woods offers a different, plausible version of events, which each teller believes to be true. We are shown each version in a separate flashback, and Kurosawa brilliantly changes his camerawork and sets a different tone each time to reflect the teller's distinct perception of what happened. Even the personas of the characters involved change with each telling, underscoring how we each interpret things differently. All of this make the film’s 88 minutes a haunting questioning about the nature of reality and truth. The film even birthed the term “Rashomon effect”, which is defined by Dictionary.com as "an instance when the same event is described in significantly different (often contradictory) ways by different people who were involved”.
We are shown the events from each character’s perspective as we watch them give testimony in a courthouse garden. Kurosawa never shows (or lets us hear) the judges and as the characters look directly at us from time to time while pleading their case. We are the judge, making us question what people will do or say out of desperation, if pure goodness exists, and how selfish and merciless of humankind can be. Because it unfolds through a series of flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks), "Rashomon's" narrative was shockingly new, and because it works so well, it expanded the cinematic possibilities of how to tell a story. Nowadays we see nonlinear storytelling often, but none capture the artistry, profundity, or visual poetry found in “Rashomon”.
The meanings behind Kurosawa's work have been analyzed and pondered ad nauseam, for it is chockfull of visual elements that reinforce the story and its themes while invoking emotion. Instead of adding another interpretation, I will point out some general ways in which Kurosawa uses moviemaking to help tell his story, so as to shed a bit of light on how much artistry can be put into a seemingly simple film. Since “Rashomon” centers around the uneasy association of three individuals linked by force, opposition, and desire, Kurosawa subtly reinforces this tension by using threes. There are three people involved in the crimes and three discussing them. He continually fills the frame with various changing triangles through his placements of characters within the frame. There are also only three locations in the film: the Rashomon gate; the court garden; and the forest.
With so many conflicting accounts of the same event, “Rashomon” is also a film about disparity. To emphasize this, Kurosawa populates the film with contrasting elements, whether it be literal (showing different action taking place in the same exact location), visual and emotional (such as juxtaposing the sun with the rain), or more abstract (like having horrific events take place in a dreamlike forest). He sets the woodcutter, priest, and commoner in the rain, which along with the decaying building, symbolize a deteriorated state of humanity. The bright sun symbolizes hope, and the shadows (created by leaves and clouds blocking the sun) are where life’s ambiguities play out. The beauty of this film is that Kurosawa creates such an engrossing world that you need not be aware of any of these things to enjoy this riveting film, and generally any analysis or thoughts about it arise after the film has ended.
Kurosawa was heavily influenced by silent films and “Rashomon” relies on visuals to tell its story. Even the film’s many flashbacks are shown practically without narration. The film’s most famous example of visual storytelling is its first flashback, when the woodcutter recounts finding a dead body in the woods. Without dialogue (only music and sound), we follow the woodcutter into the forest, and for nearly four minutes Kurosawa uses an artful mix of long shots, close-ups, a camera that moves behind, in front, across, and alongside the woodcutter, shots through lush leaves, and even some of the sun peeking through trees and clouds (this film is often noted as being the first to directly film the sun).
While creating a tangible sense of being deep in a dense forest, building tension, and setting up the character of the woodcutter, this sequence also gives us a first glimpse of the crime scene in a beautifully provocative manner. And because the woodcutter is shown from every imaginable angle, one could argue that Kurosawa is foreshadowing that we will be seeing all events in the film from many points of view. This scene alone is filmmaking at its breathtaking best. Unlike the other two locations seen in the film (which were sets), the forest was real. A few trees were cut down to gain sunlight, branches were moved to create shadows exactly as desired, and mirrors were used to direct light onto actor’s faces.
Released in Japan in 1950, "Rashomon" won two Japanese film awards and did well at the box-office. Japan didn't consider it festival-worthy outside of Japan, but the film found its way to the 1951 Venice Film Festival where it won both the Italian Critics Award and the Golden Lion (the festival's top prize). This notoriety led to a release in the US during the last few days of 1951, where it was Awarded an Honorary Oscar as the most outstanding foreign language film of 1951. The following year it was nominated for a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Academy Award (for Takashi Matsuyama and H. Motsumoto). “Rashomon” brought Kurosawa international acclaim. The film's success and his unique approach to filmmaking put the world’s attention on what was previously unknown Japanese cinema. As a result, other Japanese filmmakers began to gain international recognition, including Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu.
The youngest of eight children, many events in the early life of Tokyo-born Akira Kurosawa forever impacted his life and career. At six years old, his former army officer father encouraged him to watch and learn from movies. Also at a young age, he began to draw, study calligraphy and Kendo swordsmanship. At thirteen, his older brother took him to see the aftermath of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, insisting he confront his fears by looking at the destruction and dead bodies. And while in his early twenties, Kurosawa’s closest brother committed suicide. The creativity, aesthetics, and no-nonsense look at life in his films can easily be traced to all of these events. When he was twenty five years old, Kurosawa joined Photo Chemical Laboratories film studio where he worked as an assistant director, and additionally began dabbling in almost all aspects of filmmaking including lighting, editing, dubbing, rehearsals, location scouting, and screenwriting (and he wrote or co-write all the films he directed). Promoted to director in 1943, his first directed feature film was the successful "Sanshiro Sugata". "Ichiban utsukushiku” ("The Most Beautiful") followed in 1944, starring actress Yōko Yaguchi, who married Kurosawa the following year. He became famous in Japan with "Yoidore tenshi" ("Drunken Angel") in 1948. "Rashomon" was his twelfth film, and he adapted it from two short stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke which he changed and embellished. Now an internationally acclaimed, award-winning director, shortly after, Kurosawa directed two more films widely considered to be among the greatest ever made, "Ikiru" in 1952, and his greatest masterpiece (alongside “Rashomon”), 1954’s "Seven Samurai".
Kurosawa directed thirty films over the course of five decades. He became known for his Japanese adaptations of European literary classics such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s "The Idiot" ("Hakuchi"), Williams Shakespeare’s "Macbeth" ("Throne of Blood"), ”King Lear" ("Ran"), and Maxim Gorky’s "The Lower Depths" (“Donzoko"). Kurosawa’s other acclaimed works include "Yojimbo", "Dersu Uzala", "Tengoku to jigoku"("High and Low"), and "Kagemusha". The last film he directed was "Mâdadayo" in 1993. In addition to directing, Kurosawa wrote over eighty screenplays (which includes the films he directed). He remained married to Yaguch until her death in 1985.
Kurosawa's personal style combined Western ideologies (and often stories) with Japanese themes, culture, and art. Because he excelled at having a dramatic, panoramic feel, he was often talked about as being Japan’s John Ford. His work has influenced countless films, and his films have been remade around the world (including "Rashomon", which was remade by Martin Ritt as the 1964 American Western, "The Outrage", starring Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, and Claire Bloom). His inventive filmmaking techniques include the wipe (a transition in which the screen "wipes" from one scene to another), the axial cut (a series of jump cuts moving closer or farther to a subject), and the cut-on-motion (where you'll see someone running and cut to another person continuing the same motion). He also films his subjects from many angles, often breaking the conventional 180º axis of action rule. You can find all of these Kurosawa trademarks in "Rashomon".
Kurosawa was named the 3rd Greatest film director of all-time by film directors in a 2002 Sight and Sound poll, and just a sampling of the varied directors who have listed him as inspiration include Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Satyajit Ray, Roman Polanski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman, Werner Herzog, Bernardo Bertolucci, and director John Milius who credits the films of Kurosawa with having him fall in love with cinema. In 1990, Kurosawa was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for "accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world". His countless honors and awards also include two BAFTA Awards, two National Board of Review Awards (including one for "Rashomon"), seven Venice Film Festival Awards, and life achievement awards from the Japanese Academy, the Blue Ribbon Awards, the British Film Institute, the Directors Guild of America, the Moscow International Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Akira Kurosawa is among my favorite directors and I relish his movies. They are works of art.
A large part of why “Rashomon” is so compelling is because we believe every character in every version of the events (even the in final telling, which verges on parody). This is because Kurosawa was able to extract bravura performances from everyone in the cast, and he used many of the actors in this film time and time again. One such actor is Takashi Shimura, who stars as the woodcutter. Troubled by it all and seemingly in shock, with a sheepish undertone, the woodcutter appears to carry a hint of guilt or remorse, and Shimura effortlessly layers all these qualities into a genuinely human character. An actor who appeared in over 300 films (and a handful of TV shows), he is one of Japan's finest actors and a face known to those familiar with Japanese cinema.
A descendant of the samurai warrior class, Japanese-born Takashi Shimura began acting in the theater, starting his own amateur theater company, then joining a professional company. He began appearing in Japanese films with 1934's "Ren'ai gai itchôme", and had a breakthrough in 1936 with the film "Akanishi Kakita". In 1943, he appeared in Kurosawa's directorial debut, "Sanshiro Sugata", and would become the actor used most often by Kurosawa, appearing in twenty-one of his films, including "Yojimbo", "High And Low", "The Idiot", "Ikiru", "Throne Of Blood", "The Lower Depths", "The Hidden Fortress", and perhaps most famously as the lead samurai in "Seven Samurai". He is also known to the world for his role as "Professor Kyohei Yamane" in the original 1954 classic Japanese monster movie "Godzilla" (a role he briefly reprised the following year in "Godzilla Raids Again"). He was nominated for two BAFTA Best Foreign Actor awards (for Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and "Seven Samurai”), and Japan honored him with its national Medal with Purple Ribbon for his outstanding contribution to the arts and the national decoration of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette. He was married once, until his death. Takashi Shimura died in 1982 at the age of 76.
Minoru Chiaki plays the priest. Though an optimist, the events in the woods have challenged the priest to his core. As he exclaims to the commoner and woodcutter at one point, "War, earthquakes, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year it's been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I've seen so many men getting killed like insects but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this... This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul”. Chiaki portrays the priest with such calm and sorrow-filled compassion that one can’t help but watch him and be moved.
Japanese-born Minoru Chiaki began his acting career in the theater, eventually becoming a director in addition to actor. Kurosawa saw him on stage, and offered him his first film role, a small part in 1949's "Stray Dog". His second film was "Rashomon", and he quickly became one of Kurosawa's favorite actors, appearing in ten of his films (including "Seven Samurai", "Throne Of Blood", "The Lower Depths", "The Hidden Fortress", and "High and Low"). In a film career spanning nearly forty years, Chiaki appeared in just over 100 films (and a couple TV shows). He won a Japanese Academy Best Actor Award for the 1985 film "Hana ichimonme", which was his next to last film (his final was "Don Matsugorô no daibôken" in 1987). He was married once, until his death. Minoru Chiaki died in 1999 at the age of 82.
Undoubtedly the best known actor to international audiences in “Rashomon” is Toshirô Mifune who burst onto the screen as the womanizing bandit. Mifune offers extreme emotions ranging from that of a cocky macho bandit (by the bandit’s own recounting of events) to a larger-than-life buffoon (in the woodcutter's final recollection). Even with such a wide range, Mifune is always emotionally truthful and infuses his character with oodles of personality. Kurosawa described the bandit to him as being lion-like, so Mifune studied lions for the part and is very animal-like in how he uses his body (such when sprawled on the rocks drinking from a creek or how he continually picks insects off his bare skin). Even when showing somewhat exaggerated expressions, Mifune commits to his character 100% physically and emotionally, bringing a charm and honesty in all his craziness. “Rashomon” made him internationally famous and the most famous Japanese actor of his time, and he would soon appear in films around the world.
Born and raised in China to Japanese parents, Toshirô Mifune grew up assisting his father who was a commercial photographer. After serving in the Japanese Army's Aerial Photography unit in World War II and the Japanese Armed Forces, he found work at a film company as an assistant cameraman. His friends secretly submitted his photo to a contest for new actors, which earned him a screen-test with esteemed film director Kajirō Yamamoto. Though he had no aspirations of becoming an actor, his screen-test was so successful it led to film roles, beginning with 1947's "Ginrei no hate" (co-written by Kurosawa). In the meantime, Kurosawa was struck by Mifune when he saw him audition at a talent search, and cast Mifune in his 1949 film "Drunken Angel", which landed them both critical acclaim. This was the first of the collaborations between the two, and with "Rashomon", Mifune became a superstar. He appeared in sixteen films directed by Kurosawa, most of which are classics (including "Seven Samurai", "Throne of Blood", "The Lower Depths", "The Hidden Fortress", "Yojimbo", and “Sanjuro"). Their final collaboration was "Red Beard” in 1965, after which they had a falling-out. They reconciled in 1993, but never worked together again. Because their collaboration was so powerful, they are often associated with one another. I found a beautiful 8 1/2 minute video compilation of Mifune's work in Kurosawa’s films on YouTube, which you can watch by clicking HERE if interested.
In his nearly fifty-year acting career, Mifune appeared in 185 films and TV shows, including the Japanese films "The Samurai Trilogy", "Samurai Rebellion", "The Sword of Doom", "The Life of Oharu", Mexican films such as "The Important Man" and "Ánimas Trujano", British films that include "Paper Tiger", the European film "Red Sun", and American films that include "Grand Prix", "1941", "Hell in the Pacific", and "Winter Kills”. His television work includes starring roles in the Japanese TV series "Edo no Taka: Goyôbeya Hankachô", and the US-Japanese coproduction "Shogun", which earned Mifune an Emmy Award nomination. His many other worldwide awards and nominations include a Best Foreign Actor BAFTA Award nomination, three Venice Film Festival Best Actor wins, the Japanese Government's Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon and their Order of the Sacred Treasure. He was also awarded a Kawakita Award, presented to those who have contributed significantly to Japanese cinema. Mifune was a unique actor who had a flamboyant, explosive energy while managing to retain depth and vulnerability. Though versatile, he is best remembered for playing complex, unpredictable, outsider samurai or warrior types. In his memoir “Something Like an Autobiography”, Kurosawa had this to say about him: “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities”. He was married once for approximately 45 years, until his wife’s death. Toshirô Mifune died in 1997 at the age of 77.
Machiko Kyō portrays the Samurai's wife in a truly outstanding performance. A very emotional role of a woman whose honor and virtue are lost due to a rape (don’t forget this film takes place in ancient times). Led to desperation, Kyō manages to infuse this woman with vulnerability and strength in every variation of her we are shown. Watch the way she looks at her husband’s face in the wife’s version of the events – changing emotions glide across Kyō's face, building as her feelings grow and shift. And as a madwoman with big eyes and a laughing vengeance in the final recounting, Kyō never loses the feeling that this is a wounded and desperate woman. For her stirring portrayal in "Rashomon", Kyō won Japan's Mainichi Film Concours Best Actress Award.
Japanese-born Machiko Kyō trained as a dancer and was discovered for the movies by a talent scout. Her film debut came with a major role in 1949's "Hana kurabe tanuki-goten", and nine films later came "Rashomon", whose global success made her a star and a major actress in Japan during the 1950s. In a career lasting just over fifty years, Kyō appeared in about ninety films and a handful of TV shows, others of which include "Gate of Hell”, "Ugetsu", "Monogatari", "Floating Weeds”, and "Odd Obsession". She made one Hollywood film, "The Teahouse of the August Moon" opposite Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford in 1956, for which she earned a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination. Among her other awards and nominations is a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 from the Japan Academy Film Prize. She never married but had a well-known relationship with film studio head Masaichi Nagata. Machiko Kyō died in 2019 at the age of 95.
Masayuki Mori plays the samurai husband. A beautiful aspect of this film is how every actor brings so many layers to their characters, and Mori is no exception. Though the samurai’s exterior is tough and intense, Mori brings hints of vulnerability, showing a man hurting inside from being trapped in a hopeless situation.
The son of novelist Takeo Arishima, Japanese-born Masayuki Mori was the best known actor in "Rashomon" to Japanese audiences at the time. He had a very successful theater career which began in 1929, and was a member of several theater companies, including the Toho Company (which Kurosawa also worked for). Mori made his film debut in 1942's "Haha no chizu", and appeared in his first two films directed by Kurosawa in 1945, "Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two" ("Zoku Sugata Sanshirô") and "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" ("Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi"). He would appear in a total of six Kurosawa films, which also include "The Idiot" and "The Bad Sleep Well". He amassed just over ninety film credits along with a handful of television appearances, and starred in several films by other prominent Japanese directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi (including "Ugetsu" and "Princess Yang Kwei-Fei”), Mikio Naruse (such as "Floating Clouds" and "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs"), and Tadashi Imai (in "Night Drum" and "Bushido, Samurai Saga"). In his career, Mori won Japan's Kinema Junpo Best Actor Award, and two Mainichi Film Concours Awards (one for Best Actor and the other Best Supporting Actor). He married once, and was the father of actress Aoi Nakajima. Masayuki Mori died in 1973 at the age of 62.
This week’s classic is a must-see, made by one of cinema’s greats. It launched many careers, became one of the most famous Japanese films of all-time, and continues to influence and enthrall moviegoers and moviemakers alike. Visually stunning and emotionally evocative, it entices its viewer into trying to discern truth from lies through sterlingly hypnotizing entertainment. It is a film I love by one of my favorite directors. Enjoy “Rashomon”!
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