Review Of Rashomon

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/10/06


  Akira Kurosawa had been a filmmaker for almost a decade, since his 1943 debut film Sugata Sanshiro, and had some renown in his native Japan, when, in 1950, his film Rashomon rocketed him to international acclaim, including the Academy Award For Best Foreign Film, after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival brought the film and its director, and Japanese cinema, a Western audience. He deserved every plaudit he received for it, as well as every ticket sold, because it is an excellent film. Yes, there are some flaws- minor, such as the all too sunny (literally) ending, and some of the over the top hammy acting of Toshiro Mifune as the bandit Tajomaru, but given what was coming out of Hollywood at the time- mind-numbing musicals and grade B comedies- Kurosawa brought filmmaking style back to an earlier, simpler place, even as he many times over increased the bar for narrative complexity. Given that the film is not even an hour and a half long, the many interpretations of the multifarious actions of the characters are all the more impressive.

  The story is as familiar as it is simple. The central ostensible narrative concerns the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of her Samurai husband (Masayuki Mori), both unnamed, in the 11th or 12th Century, in a wooded glen. The main suspect is the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune), yet, the viewer cannot be certain, for never do we get a single unbiased version of the events that transpire. All three of the main characters tell self-serving versions of the story of how the lady was raped and the Samurai murdered. After he has been captured, the bandit tells a Romantic version of the tale, where he subdued the husband, took his wife, who reciprocated his affections, then freed the husband and nobly killed him in a gallant duel of swords when the Samurai fell into a thatch and was rendered immobile. We learn of his, and the other two main characters’ versions, only through flashbacks told by the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura, who was so superb in Kurosawa’s next film, Ikiru) who found the dead man, and a priest (Minoru Chiaki), who briefly met the couple, and were called to testify before a magistrate. We never see nor hear the judge, as the viewer is put in that position, as Kurosawa wants to implicate us in the narrative, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock later did in Rear Window, making the viewers of his film voyeurs. These sorts of ploys double and triple the effect of the three different versions of the crime scene.

  When the woman is called to testify, her version portrays her as a victim- first of the bandit/rapist, then her unfeeling husband. He cannot look at his wife, says nothing, and she- in the way of so many frail ladies of classical literature, passes out, only to awaken and find her knife in his chest. She claims there was no swordfight, and hints that perhaps she did kill her husband, literally. Then, a medium (Fumiko Honma) is called to testify and summon the spirit of the samurai from beyond death. The Samurai, of course, has yet a still different tale, one the woodcutter calls lies, for it turns out he, too, claims to have witnessed the crime scene, not merely have come upon the body, which then negates the seemingly omnipotent point of view that opens his recounting of finding the body that he first tells the priest and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) who gather in Rashomon Temple, with him, at Kyoto’s crumbling Rashomon Gate, during a fierce downpour. Rashomon literally means Gate Of The Dragon, which holds truck with the Western concept of dragon as serpent as deceiver, causer of the Fall of Man from Eden for duplicity, although a willful duplicity- unlike the events told here. In the Samurai’s version, his wife sides with the bandit, then orders him to kill her abusive husband. The bandit, in male bonding chivalry, offers to kill her for the Samurai. She escapes, and when he is set free, later, he sits, weeps, and commits hari-kiri. The woodcutter, however, disagrees, and seems to back the bandit’s version, except that the duel between the Samurai and bandit is not Romantically fierce, but miserably and comically inept.

  Yet, the commoner senses that the reason the woodcutter did not tell his version to the tribunal was not because, as he claimed, he did not want to get involved, but that the woodcutter must have stolen the lady’s expensive knife, which leads one to believe that perhaps the woodcutter killed the husband, or at least took the knife from his body, and backs the bandit’s tale of bravado simply to remove any suspicions of theft from himself. After all the versions of the tale have been told, and we’ve been subjected to the subjectivity of what Kurosawa’s camera shows us, the viewer is left with, including their own point of view, four distinct layers of regurgitated facts to sort through, not to mention the differences within the domains within each layer, such as the four differing versions of the central violet events, the interpretations of those four points of view by the priest; the policeman (Daisuke Katô) who captured the bandit, after he stole the couple’s horse, and got ill from drinking foul water; the woodcutter; and the medium; plus the points of view of the commoner, and then Kurosawa, the unseen magistrate, and the viewer, as apart from the magistrate’s point of view.

  The screenplay, by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, based on the short stories Rashomon and In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is wonderful. Much of the film’s power comes not from what is said, but that unsaid, implied by the great cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa, such as the use of the shadows of leaves to suggest duplicity and worry on characters’ faces, and the overt expressions of the lead actors, which harkens back to silent screen acting. The scoring by Fumio Hayasaka is also very good, being majestic when needed, yet also having long periods of silence. This lack of reliance on words and dialogue, but on full body acting, shading, and silence, helped the film do so well worldwide, for even without understanding what is being said, a goof 75% or so of the tale remains, and it’s a powerful tale, which strikes deeply at the fondest of beliefs humans have; that seeing is believing.

  The film does stretch real reality, a bit, in that while it is well known that minor differences crop up in people’s versions of singular events, such glaring inconsistencies as whether or not the Samurai died of a knife or sword wound are implausible, even given the film’s setting. But, we allow for this dramatic license because the resonance of the tale’s moral is so profound, as well the fact that Kurosawa does not cop out by giving us a ‘real’ authoritative version. That said, the end of the film, after the differing tales of the crime have been discussed thoroughly by the woodcutter, priest, and commoner, Kurosawa seems to stumble, as if he did not have a really good way to end the film. The commoner hears a baby, who’s been abandoned at the temple. He steals its blanket, and the priest and woodcutter try to stop him, claiming him evil. He responds by implying that the abandoning parents were evil, and that the woodcutter is a liar, and possible killer. Off into the rain he goes, with his booty. The priest and woodcutter stand with the child until the rain breaks and the sun emerges. The woodcutter offers to take the babe as his own, that he has six children already, and another mouth will hardly matter. The priest feels that his optimism about life and mankind, so tested by the events he has seen, is reaffirmed by the woodcutter’s generous offer, and the sun shines through the clouds. That such a terrifically subtle and ambiguous film ends so tritely (the emergent sun and abandoned and rescued baby are a simply awful and heavy-handed use of symbolism), and preachily, reminded me of the greatly disappointing ending that Fyodor Dostoevsky tacked on to Crime And Punishment, in his two terrible epilogues that hammer the book’s themes into a reader’s head, for he distrusted his own book’s ability to convey those themes. The visual and musical aspects of the film’s ends do much to mitigate the narrative drop to the floor Crime And Punishment bears, and Rashomon is still a great film, partly because its ending is not as bad as Crime And Punishment’s, and partly because it reaches greater artistic heights, and dares more conventions, than Dostoevsky’s novel. Still, there’s no excuse for its veer from even greater heights, even if the last few minutes are not the heart of the film.

  While all the actors are wonderful, too much attention has been given to Toshiro Mifune’s loony overacting (sometimes a necessity for the comic and divergent elements to emerge) as the bandit. Yes, this film made him a star, but the best performance in the film is by Masayuki Mori, already a major film and stage star in Japan. His is a far less showy role than Mifune’s, but he conveys the slight differences all the versions the others tell with none of the easy visual pyrotechnics Mifune’s almost boobish bandit is allowed. The raising of an eyebrow can mean the difference between truth and lie, and Mori is expert at walking the line between those ends. Machiko Kyo, as the wife, is the least notable performer. In a sense, hers is a throwaway role that could have been filled by any actress, for nothing she brings to the role is as defining as Mifune’s antic frenzies, Mori’s many subtleties, nor Shimura’s grand equivocations. Even Kichijiro Ueda, as the Doubting Thomas commoner, brings far more to his far less visible role, such as uttering the film’s motto ‘People forget the unpleasant things. They only remember what they want to remember.’ In a real sense, he is the character the average viewer can most identify with. He cares not for truth, but entertainment. Ah, Hollywood smiles!

  This motto of the film is not only true, but so powerfully true that the term Rashomon Effect was coined to signify the differing perceptions of individuals over singular events, and has been used in both psychological and jurisprudential venues. While none of the characters seems to be consciously lying, and they legitimately seem to believe what they saw, that, however, does not mean that what they saw was what really was. It is this lack of a final truth, unlike that provided in deus ex machina fashion in so many Western courtroom film melodramas, which proves Rashomon is no mere melodrama, but art, and a drama of the highest order, not to mention a sometimes very funny comedy. Ultimately, the film is about even more than the difficulties of interpreting reality and truth, but about how and why they swerve under the force of mere human egoism. Of course, the beauty of the film really lies in the fact that all of its viewers think it’s about something other than what it may ultimately be about, which only recapitulates the internal characters’ dilemmas, further binding us emotionally in their angst, making us feel what they live. In this empathy Kurosawa cinches and twists that bind, and we are turned from mere percipients into purveyors of an art and reality for our own selves that we, unfortunately, too rarely experience.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]

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