Rashomon (Japan, 1950)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It wouldn't be a stretch to name legendary Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa as one of the ten greatest motion picture directors of all time. Kurosawa's brilliant work speaks for itself, and, with over five decades of movie making to his credit, he has more than earned his place alongside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, and anyone else who belongs in such lofty company. And, like all of the best directors, Kurosawa did not produce his movies with an elite audience in mind. Though always intelligent, his body of work plays as well to the "average" movie-goer as it does to the true cineaste. That's the reason why Hollywood has plundered Kurosawa's pictures on a regular basis. His The Seven Samurai was remade into one of the greatest Westerns ever -- The Magnificent Seven. Yojimbo has received two American treatments -- A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. The Hidden Fortress was one of the inspirations behind George Lucas' Star Wars. And Rashomon's unique approach to divergent narratives became a linchpin for Courage Under Fire.

Kurosawa began his career in 1943 with a movie called Sugata Sanshiro, about a boy learning the meaning of life through judo. Over the next several years, Kurosawa became one of his country most prolific and respected film makers. In 1948, with the film Drunken Angel, he first collaborated with actor Toshiro Mifune, beginning a director/actor partnership that would span decades and prove highly rewarding for both men. Rashomon, made in 1950, was the pair's fifth movie together, and the film that first garnered Kurosawa widespread international attention (it won the 1952 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar).

The story told by Rashomon is both surprisingly simple and deceptively complex. The central tale, which tells of the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of a man (Masayuki Mori), possibly by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), is presented entirely in flashbacks from the perspectives of four narrators. The framing portions of the movie transpire at Kyoto's crumbling Rashomon gate, where several people seek shelter from a pelting rain storm and discuss the recent crime, which has shocked the region. One of the men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), was a witness to the events, and, with the help of a priest (Minoru Chiaki), he puzzles over what really happened, and what such a horrible occurrence says about human nature.

In each of the four versions of the story, the characters are the same, as are many of the details. But much is different, as well. In the first account, that of the bandit, the criminal accepts culpability for the murder but refutes the charge of rape, saying that it was an act of mutual consent. The woman's story affirms that the bandit attacked her, but indicates that she may have been the murderess. The dead man's tale (told through a medium) claims rape and suicide. The only "impartial" witness, the woodcutter, weaves a story that intertwines elements of the other three, leaving the viewer wondering if he truly saw anything at all.

Many people watch Rashomon with the intent of piecing together a picture of what really occurred. However, the accounts are so divergent that such an approach seems doomed to futility. Rashomon isn't about determining a chronology of what happened in the woods. It's not about culpability or innocence. Instead, it focuses on something far more profound and thought-provoking: the inability of any one man to know the truth, no matter how clearly he thinks he sees things. Perspective distorts reality and makes the absolute truth unknowable.

All of the narrators in Rashomon tell compelling and believable stories, but, for a variety of reasons, each of them must be deemed unreliable. It's impossible to determine to what degree their versions are fabrications, and how many discrepancies are the result of legitimate differences in points-of-view. It's said that four witnesses to an accident will all offer different accounts of the same event, but there are things in Rashomon (namely, that each of the three participants names himself or herself as the murderer) that cannot be explained away on this basis. And the impressions of the "impartial" observer further muddy the waters, because, despite his protestations that he doesn't lie, we trust his tale the least.

In the end, we are left recognizing only one thing: that there is no such thing as an objective truth. It is a grail to be sought after, but which will never be found, only approximated. Kurosawa's most brilliant move in Rashomon is never to reveal what really happened. We are left to make our own deductions. Every time I watch the film, I come away with a slightly different opinion of what transpired in the woods. But not knowing remains a source of fascination, not one of frustration, and therein lies Kurosawa's greatest achievement.

It's worth saying something about the style employed by the director. The tone and approach of Rashomon are radically different from anything Western viewers are likely to be familiar with. The film is presented almost as visual poetry, paying a great deal of attention to sights and images while sound and dialogue have lesser importance. The cinematography is singularly evocative. It would be possible to watch Rashomon without subtitles and still capture more than a small fraction of its essence. Likewise, this film could have probably been equally successful during the silent era. Nowhere is this more evident than in one standout, 3 1/2 minute sequence: a kaleidoscope of black-and-white images accompanied only by Fumio Hayasaka's evocative score as the woodcutter makes his way into the woods and discovers the dead body.

As has been true throughout his entire career, Kurosawa draws the best performances out of his actors. As the brash rogue at the center of the controversy, Toshiro Mifune is wonderfully robust. He shades his character differently in each of the four versions, presenting an individual who is unmistakably the same man, yet subtly different. We see the bandit not only as he sees himself, but through the eyes of three others, as well. That's the brilliance of Kurosawa's vision and Mifune's performance. Equally good is Masayuki Mori as the doomed noble. Depending on who is telling the story, he can appear good and noble or cowardly. Once again, the differences serve to emphasize that this is the same person seen from different perspectives.

The most striking portrayal, however, belongs to the radiant Machiko Kyo, whose mesmerizing, seductive character varies the most from narrative to narrative. She can be wholesome, treacherous, sexy, sympathetic, or vicious. Depending on who's painting her portrait, she is a victim, a manipulator, an innocent, or a vixen. At times, she's "like a child trying to be serious"; at others, she's "fierce." As good as Mifune and Mori are, they are constantly upstaged by Kyo. In casting her, an unknown at the time, Kurosawa knew what he was doing.

Today, nearly fifty years after it was made, Rashomon has lost none of its fascination or power. It's still a marvelous piece of cinema that asks unanswerable questions of great import. Films like Courage Under Fire may capture some of the spirit of Rashomon, but no movie before or since has presented these issues in quite the same unique and intense fashion. In every sense of the word, this is a true classic. It's hard to find a more rewarding way to spend ninety minutes.

Rashomon (Japan, 1950)

Ranked #35 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1