Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a good contender for one of the most important films ever made. It was one of the first films that presented events from different and conflicting perspectives. It was so successful in doing this that the title has become its own term, The Rashomon Effect, where an event is seen differently by the individuals present. Strangely, or maybe even fittingly, when the film was first released in Japan it didn’t receive the acclaim it has in the years since. When the film was chosen to be shown at Venice Film Festival, the Japanese government at the time were opposed to the idea. Western audiences were incredibly impressed with Rashomon upon its worldwide release, and it has since gained a status as one of the best films in the world.
Rashomon tells the story of a murdered samurai, and the rape of his wife. The story is told from four different perspectives, a local bandit who claims to have committed the murder, the samurai’s wife, the samurai himself (through a medium), and a woodcutter who was passing through the woods. All four versions of the events conflict with each other completely, and by the end of the film none of the versions are pinpointed as the actual truth, instead it’s left up to us as the audience to make our minds up. Kurosawa use of unreliable narrators, flashbacks, and embedded narratives, recreates how little we can trust our memories and how people do see the same event completely differently. You can never truly trust what someone else said happened, and even if you were there you can’t completely trust your own mind. All of the characters have their own reasons for twisting the truth, even if they don’t realise, they are doing it. The first line of dialogue from the woodcutter at the start of the film is ‘I don’t understand’, which is repeated over and over in the opening scene. It pretty much sums up the film.
Adding to the layer of unreliability is the way the story is framed. The woodcutter and a priest are sitting at Rashomon gate, discussing the trial they had just witnessed trying to get to the bottom of the murder. A man who is walking, shelters from the rain, and they tell him the story, so you witness the murder, not through the witnesses, by from third-hand information. It’s used to great effect and really makes you think about the middle-ground where the truth must lay, but at the same time the story isn’t really about what is true, it’s about human nature and how we embellish our memories and present ourselves in different ways.
There’s also something very striking about the way Kurosawa directed the film. The flashback to the woods were shot outside making it feel incredibly authentic, contrasting with the almost stage-like set up of Rashomon gate and the courtyard where the trial takes place. Those are the only 3 settings of the film, and the later two feel like something from a play, while the woods are more alive and real. It blends reality and fabrication in the same way the conflicting stories does.
There are also some really long and distinctive shots that are mesmerising to watch. The first flashback, with the woodcutter discovering the body starts with him wandering through the woods with his axe, it feels almost magical, like something out of a fairy tale, especially since it’s combined with a score that would almost feel at home in an early Disney film. Also, in one version of the events, the samurai and the bandit fight each other, which is one of the greatest moments in the film. It’s incredibly tense and really captures the fear both men have. You can hear every pant of breath, the shakiness of the bandit’s arm and the desperation in the samurai’s face as he realises there’s no escape. The acting is extraordinary, and it really hits you in the gut, even though you know exactly what is going to happen, even if you don’t want it to.
There are a lot of films that people claim to be one of the best ever made, and they are almost always disappointing when you get around to them. Rashomon lives up to its reputation. It’s a film that will stay with you for a long time after the credits role and a film that’s inspiration is still seen today. It would be hard to imagine that the very recent, The Last Duel, would exist if Kurosawa’s masterpiece didn’t come first.
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