Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)


Toshirô Mifune (Tajômaru), Machiko Kyô (Masako Kanazawa), Masayuki Mori (Takehiro Kanazawa), Takashi Shimura (Woodcutter), Minoru Chiaki (Priest), Kichijirô Ueda (Commoner). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa. Rating: 12. Running time: 88 minutes.

The opening line of Rashômon is ‘I don’t understand.’ Nor do I, completely. It feels like the type of film so rich in its complexity that it will take multiple shocking viewings to fully grasp and appreciate everything that happens and to understand just how well it’s made. But even then, everything we are told about Rashômon’s key events comes from witnesses plagued by subjectivity, that all seem to have an incentive to cover up the complete truth. Thus, it is possible that there is no true version of events that we can discover. All we know is what each person involved claims, and why the other stories imply they tweak certain aspects of reality to hide their own wrongdoings, and to preserve their very, very odd, but no doubt 11th century Japanese, versions of dignity and pride.

Only one thing is for certain: a bandit captured and tied up a husband in the forest, made love to his wife, either through rape or seduction, and the husband ended up dead and his dagger missing. Whether they voluntarily dueled in search of the woman’s heart, whether embarrassment obliged them into trying to kill each other, or whether the husband nobly killed himself, is made no clearer to the Samurai tribunal and inquirers than it is to us.

The story is told in flashback, by the Woodcutter and Priest who share what evidence they discovered and together begin to fear humanity and what people seem capable of. The publishing of Lord of the Flies four years after the film’s production is no doubt coincidental, but this theme dominates both works: whether egoism, as a psychological explanation of human action, is true, and as such whether we become savages when hidden from society and are thus protected from the possibility of widespread moral condemnation. Rashômon tries to give us hope for optimism towards the end, but it knows it is too late. The motive of self-interest and preservation runs fast through the film’s veins, and its power stems from its revelation of this truth, in the midst of so much falsity and deception.

The raw emotion of the acting only deepens this cut. The setting, sounds and expressions combine to make everything feel so utterly and powerfully animalistic. Sometimes it’s hard to connect to characters and appreciate their nature, when the language they speak is so alien to your ears that clinging to the subtitles and imagining their dialogue repeated in your mother tongue is all you can do. It took me a long time to do much more than this with French and Spanish cinema, but with Rashômon, my first Japanese film has felt scarily authentic. This really is a worryingly good work of genius.

One Response to “Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)”

  1. 1 High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) « jacob williamson | thoughts on film

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